Rivalry Renewed: The (old) Avs and Red Wings can’t wait to square off at Coors Field

This story originally appeared in Mile High Sports Magazine. View the full digital edition.

When Marc Crawford had to dress in disguise for his daily runs in the city of Detroit during the 1997 Western Conference finals? That was when he knew this was a serious rivalry between his Colorado Avalanche and Detroit Red Wings.

“I had to wear a hat and sunglasses whenever I went out for my run, but people still recognized me,” Crawford said. “I mean, it was pretty ugly, some of the stuff people were yelling and screaming at me. The ‘F’ word might have been used once or twice at me.”

Oh, there were a lot of f-bombs in the great Avalanche-Red Wings rivalry all right. Like the time Claude Lemieux was walking out of McNichols Sports Arena following Game 3 of the 1996 Western Conference Finals with his wife Debbie and infant son Brendan, all three walking past the Red Wings team bus that was mostly full and about to take off.

A voice from the bus thundered toward the happy family. “Lemieux, you gutless son of a bitch, nice sucker punch. I hope the league suspends your ass.”

The voice belonged to 61-year-old Scotty Bowman, whose team had cut the Avs’ series lead to 2-1 in a game in which Lemieux punched (and indeed would be suspended for) Detroit’s Slava Kozlov from behind. Lemieux took a step onto the Detroit bus.

“I would expect better out of you. I’m with my family here, have some class,” Lemieux told Bowman.

“F*ck off, c*cksucker,” came the reply from several Red Wings players sitting toward the back.

So, does everyone have their tickets yet for the Feb. 26 outdoor game at Coors Field between the old Avs and the old Wings? Good, because, frankly, that might be the better of the two games slated for that weekend. The current Avs and Wings will play Feb. 27 in a regular-season NHL game as part of its 2016 Coors Light Stadium Series, but with the Wings now in a different conference and, well, the Avs having come up short against Detroit for quite a while now, the rivalry just ain’t quite what it used to be. For one night, though, we will all get to go back in time and see the names of Sakic, Forsberg, Foote and Roy on the ice against guys named Yzerman, Osgood, Draper and McCarty.

And, as confirmed to Mile High Sports Magazine, Lemieux too.

“Yeah, I’m going to play. I’m looking forward to it,” said Lemieux from the Manhattan Beach, Calif., office of 4sports North America, a player agency in which he serves as president. “I hear Peter (Forsberg) is coming too. That’s real good, because I’m going to need someone to feed me the puck.”

The bodies will move a little slower (“We’ll definitely be a ‘heavier’ line to play against,” Lemieux said), but make no mistake: This will be a hotly contested game, one that will give lasting bragging rights forever as the capper to what was the best and nastiest rivalry in pro sports for its time, from 1996-2002.

To review just how great: The teams met in the Western Conference Finals three times (1996, 1997 and 2002) and two other times in the playoffs (1998 and 1999). Colorado won two Stanley Cups in that time, Detroit three. The Avs won three of the five playoff series against Detroit in those years, and made it to the conference finals six times in their first seven years in Denver.

As longtime Avs fans are painfully aware, they narrowly missed beating Detroit for a fourth time in five playoff meetings in the 2002 Western Conference Finals, blowing a 3-2 series lead that culminated in the “Meltdown in Motown,” a 7-0 loss in Game 7 at Joe Louis Arena.

Forsberg, playing with a broken finger from a dirty slash by Detroit’s Kirk Maltby, nearly scored on the first shift of that game, skating on a line with Joe Sakic. Forsberg’s athletic activity since retirement has only consisted of a little floor hockey with some buddies in Stockholm, Sweden. But if anyone is capable of having an “I ain’t as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was” Toby Keith-style last hurrah, it’s the mysteriously enigmatic Avs’ former Jedi of hockey cool.

Keep in mind: Forsberg led all NHL players in scoring in the 2002 playoffs, despite missing all of the regular season.

“Guaranteed, he will do something with the puck that night that nobody’s ever seen before,” Lemieux said. “He was the most talented guy I ever played with, and I played with some other good ones. I doubt Peter would have come back for any other game like this, if Detroit wasn’t involved. I think any of us who played in the heat of that rivalry for the Avs feels an obligation to try to beat them one more time. It was quite the rivalry in its time.”

How intense was this rivalry? It extended right into the press box.

The old saying, “No cheering in the press box” basically went right out the window in this thing. As the beat writer for the Avalanche for The Denver Post during those years, I’ll come clean: Outwardly I showed no emotion when the Avs scored a goal against the Wings in those years, but inwardly all my organs were high-fiving each other just a little. You just couldn’t help but get sucked in to the thing, or as Avs fans would more bluntly put it: “Red Wings Suck.”

One time in the ’97 series, Detroit Free Press hockey columnist Keith Gave wrote how we Denver homer writers were too scared to ask Crawford a tough question after his team was down 2-1, how we were all too busy “kissing his ring.” Incensed, I fired back in a notes column a couple days later, churlishly noting how a couple Detroit reporters were plainly seen jumping out of their seats following a Red Wings goal. The next thing you know, Gave and I were going at it, nose to nose, almost having to be separated.

It wasn’t particularly professional of us scribes maybe, but … damn, it was fun. And, everybody who was involved misses it.

“Oh yeah,” says the legendary, now 81-year-old Bowman when asked if the Avs-Wings rivalry was the best he ever was a part of. “The level of play was so great, on both sides. It swung back and forth a lot. They won the first one, we won the last one and there were some wins for both sides in-between.”

Will Bowman and Crawford coach their respective sides in the alumni game? While Crawford, coaching this year in Switzerland, said he “would definitely be there if I’m asked,” Bowman told MHSM he already is committed to scouting in Montreal that night for the team he still serves for as an executive, the Chicago Blackhawks. Let’s hope the NHL can convince Bowman to have a change in plans, because how great would it be seeing that, Crawford against Bowman again, Colorado v. Detroit?

If Crawford and Bowman were to coach against each other one last time, the language between the two would hopefully be a little more civil than it was on the night of Game 4 of the 1997 Western Conference Finals in Detroit.

As recounted in a book I wrote on the rivalry, Blood Feud, Crawford totally lost his mind against Bowman and players on the Red Wings bench toward the end of a blowout Wings win. While viewers could see Crawford leaning over the glass partition separating the teams and screaming his head off, nobody knew exactly what he said until I got my hands on an in-house TV feed years later.

One of the lines that made it out publicly following the game was Bowman telling Crawford, “I knew your father (Floyd) before you did.”

What wasn’t public was Crawford’s official response: “Yeah, yeah, and he thinks you’re a f*ckin’ asshole too.”

Crawford then called Bowman another name too dirty even for this publication to say. When Detroit’s Aaron Ward came back at him verbally, Crawford motioned some fingers and said, “Come on Ward. Any f*ckin’ time, boy, any f*ckin’ time … You’re all a bunch a pussies.”

Crawford was fined $10,000 and apologized for his actions, and he and Bowman were able to laugh about it later.

“Well, I was definitely a little bit animated at that moment,” Crawford says with a chuckle. “That series, they got to us a little bit mentally. The year before, we got to them mentally.”

That would be an understatement, as we haven’t even mentioned the incident that sent the rivalry from rough-but-honest to down-and-dirty. It was Lemieux’s hit on Draper, from behind, in Game 6 of the ’96 series that made everything go thermonuclear. Draper suffered broken bones to his right eye socket, nose and jaw, with five teeth bent inward. He would require his jaw wired shut for several weeks, sucking food through a straw while watching the Avalanche advance to win the Stanley Cup against Florida.

After the game, Detroit veteran Dino Ciccarelli uttered one of the more famous lines in the rivalry.

“I can’t believe I shook his friggin’ hand,” Ciccarelli said of the post-series handshake line that included Lemieux.

One of the first people to visit Draper at Michigan’s Henry Ford Memorial Hospital was McCarty, who told him, “I’ll get him.”

That him was Lemieux.

Still, by March 26, 1997, the Avs had sauntered into Joe Louis Arena having beaten Detroit all three times that season, and nobody from the Wings laid a glove on Lemieux the first time he played against them in Denver a few weeks earlier (Lemieux missed the other two games because of injury). Crawford thought the most exciting thing about this trip to Detroit would be First Lady Hillary Clinton staying on his same penthouse floor of the Atheneum Hotel.

That morning’s Detroit News featured Lemieux’s face in a “wanted” poster, next to a column written by Bob Wojnowski that out-and-out dared the Wings to stop being the “pretty, but not gritty” losers of two previous playoffs and start being a team that would fight back.

At the 18:22 mark of the first period, however, the fortunes of the two teams irrevocably changed course the rest of the season. In just a few minutes, the Avs went from swaggering bully to emasculated mortal. A massive, multi-fight brawl ensued after two players who might have been voted least likely to start anything – Forsberg and Detroit’s Igor Larionov – starting taking swings at each other following a scuffle near the Detroit bench.

While referee Paul Devorski and the linesmen started toward Forsberg and Larionov, McCarty saw his chance to get his shots in at Lemieux. With the help of teammate Brendan Shanahan, McCarty broke free from the grip of the Avs’ Adam Foote, skated over to Lemieux and cold-cocked him square to the face. Lemieux went down to his knees, barely conscious, his arms over his head in protective fashion. It not only felt bad for Lemieux, it was bad optics for him and the Avs as the bloodthirsty calls of “Turtle!” rang out through the Joe Louis stands.

Patrick Roy, skating out from his crease to center ice, tried to rescue Lemieux just in time, but was knocked off his skates by a Shanahan forearm shiver. Roy hurt his shoulder in that incident and said it was never the same again.

Still, Roy knew he couldn’t let the Wings get away with such a humiliating rout on the fight scorecard. So, he called out Wings goalie Mike Vernon to join him in battle. While Roy got more of the punches in on the fight, he lost the ceremonial wrestle to the ice by the smaller Vernon, which drew another huge roar from the crowd.

When it was over, Lemieux lay in a heap by the Detroit bench, his own blood on the ice, barely able to stagger to his feat with the aid of Avs trainers. Lemieux would actually return to the game and helped Colorado gain a 5-3 third-period lead. Even with all the pounding on the ice they’d taken, the Avs might well have never lost their confidence over Detroit if they could have just closed out that win.

But to put one last humiliating topper onto the night, McCarty would score the overtime goal that gave Detroit a 6-5 win.

In my book, Devorski admitted he blew it in not kicking McCarty out of the game with a five-minute major for instigating. Instead, he only got a double-minor for roughing.

“He did mess that one up,” Crawford said. “We also lost Forsberg the rest of that game for a cut to the face, and that cost us. We still won the Presidents’ Trophy and had home-ice against them in the conference finals, and we won the first game I remember. But after they won game two in our building, I remember Scotty slapping the boards in excitement. He didn’t do things like that. I knew right there he was feeling good about his group.”

Said Larionov, who will play on Feb. 26: “We finally became a team that fought back. But we had many great series and games against them in later years. We always knew the games against Colorado were going to be much different than all the others.”

In 1999, the two-time defending Cup champion Red Wings left McNichols with a 2-0 Western Conference Semifinals lead, including a Game 2 win that saw Wings players openly laughing at some of Bob Hartley’s goon coaching tactics toward the end. When the Avs landed their charter jet at the Northwest terminal at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, the workers there raised their brooms in mock salute to their visitors.

Four straight lopsided losses later, the Wings were the ones swept out of the playoffs and the smug, front-running stories of the local Detroit writers suddenly went stone somber. The Avs followed that up with a five-game series victory over the Wings in the following year’s semifinals. What the Avs couldn’t do the rest of the summer was shine any rings in Detroit’s face, as they lost two heartbreaking Game 7s of the Western Conference Finals to Dallas.

But the Avs won the Cup in 2001, setting the stage for a 2002 conference final in which the winner would practically be guaranteed of their third Cup ring since 1996.

After Forsberg slipped a puck past Dominik Hasek in overtime of Game 5, the Avs had a 3-2 lead and Game 6 back at the Pepsi Center. Many Wings fans, I recall, were literally crying in their seats after the loss.

And then? And then, well, Detroit reached deep down and struck back. They won Game 6, 2-0, a game made memorable by Roy’s phantom “Statue of Liberty” save that led to one goal, and Hartley’s failed gamble at catching Hasek with an illegal stick.

By Game 7, the Avs were just out of gas in the city of automobiles. It was over before it even started it seemed. The 7-0 final was actually closer than the game really was. The Avs have had to wear the scars from that night since – and endured more humiliation with a four-game sweep at the hands of Detroit in the 2008 playoffs.

An old-timers’ game victory 14 years later wouldn’t heal all the scars. But, hey, getting that one last laugh in the rivalry? No, that wouldn’t suck at all.

“I don’t know who’s playing in goal for them, but I like the fact that we’ll have Patrick in a one-game showdown,” Lemieux said. “I’m sure it will be great for the fans, great for Denver, great for the league. Will anybody drop the gloves again, like the old days? We’ll just have to see.”

There was a wicked tone to Lemieux’s final words, a sentiment that just screamed, “Get your tickets now!”

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