In the early years following the return of hockey to the Mile High City, one rivalry stood out above all others. The Colorado Avalanche’s feud with the Detroit Red Wings was born of talent, but baptized in blood. Much to the chagrin of fans on both sides, the heated rivalry has since cooled. Detroit has moved on to the Eastern Conference. The names on the backs of the jerseys have changed. The animosity, the passion, that existed between the two clubs has died down.
For one weekend, however, it was resurrected. This time, the once-bitter rivals would take their feud outside.
For the Red Wings’ only trip to Colorado in the 2015-2016 regular season, they would not head to “The Can” (as the Pepsi Center is affectionately known in some circles). Instead, this game would be played at Coors Field, as part of the 2016 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series. With the change in venue would come a large load of pomp and circumstance. Alumni, warriors from the bloody days of yesteryear, would be brought in, strapping on the pads and pulling on the sweater one last, nostalgic time. Bands would come to provide pregame and intermission entertainment. The weekend would be one grandiose spectacle.
As both a Colorado native and a journalist, I found myself torn. Do I sit in the press box, doing my best to report objectively? Or do I sit in the stands, taking it all in and rooting for the team I have followed since childhood?
For this occasion, after much deliberation, I chose to follow my heart. Adorned in one of my far too many Avalanche sweaters, I headed to Coors Field as a fan, determined to scream and cheer alongside my burgundy and blue-clad brethren.
As soon as I stepped off of the train at Union Station, I could tell there was something different in the air. Everywhere I turned, everywhere I looked, in every bar, in every shop, people were in hockey gear. For one weekend, a spirit that had long laid dormant had been awoken. Denver had transformed into Avalanche territory.
The vibe on the streets was electric, intoxicating even. Entering Coors Field, I headed to my seat in foul territory on the left field side. I climbed past the purple row. The nosebleeds were a befitting location. I would enjoy the games at altitude.
The alumni were up first, taking to the ice Friday night. In the past (as was the case when Minnesota took on Chicago in the other Stadium Series game this year), NHL alumni games often proved to be a little lackluster. That was not the case for the Avalanche and Red Wings, who put spirited and, at times, chippy show.
Before the contest had even started, chants of “Red Wings suck” would reverberate throughout the stadium. Time may heal all wounds, but scars are forever; and the fans have not forgotten.
The teams were filled with Hall of Famers. Players who had witnessed and contributed to the rivalry at its height. Bourque, Forsberg, Sakic, Roy, Yzerman, Shanahan, Chelios … these are names that mean something in hockey; and you could tell on the ice that this game still meant something to them.
Though he may have been the elder skatesman, Bourque still had plenty to offer on the ice. Always known for his phenomenal conditioning during his playing days, his performance may have even made people forget that he retired 15 years ago. He skated well, his passes and shot are as sharp and deadly accurate as ever and he threw his body around a little.
Other players such as Roy, Ricci and Yzerman deserve kudos for their solid play. The standout, however, had to be Joe Sakic. His wristshot is a thing of beauty. If you could major in hockey, you would undoubtedly have to study it. With the NHL trade deadline fast approaching, perhaps Sakic needs only to sign himself to a contract for the playoff run.
The Avalanche alumni would win the contest handedly, 5-2, in front of an impressive gathering of 43,316 fans, who were transported back to the late 90’s-early 2000’s. The Avs took the ice to “Scalped” by Dick Dale. “Rock and Roll Pt. 2” would play each time they scored. Heck, they even brought back “dancing guy.” It was the perfect blend of nostalgia and skill. The perfect temperature. The perfect setting. The perfect way to kick off the weekend. The teams even shook hands afterwards (yes, all the Wings alums even shook THAT guy’s friggin’ hand).
On Saturday, fans would be treated to the main event, as the Avalanche and Red Wings’ current rosters would take to the ice at Coors Field. Friday’s vibe may have been electric, but it was taken to an entirely new level on Saturday.
Prior to the game, fans were treated to a set of musical offerings from Andy Grammer. His performance was decent, yet he was still greeted with a smattering of boos. He can thank his keyboardist for those, as he was wearing a Red Wings jersey.
After player introductions and the National Anthem, the game would get underway. While perfect for the fans, the weather was a little warm for hockey. The outfield was covered in fake snow, which proved to be a hilarious mistake when a “flurry” erupted and delayed the game.
As for the game itself, the teams came out like gangbusters in the first, slowed down in the second and met somewhere in the middle during the final frame. It was back-and-forth, hotly-contested, until a Brad Richards shot went off of Semyon Varlamov and into the net to give the Red Wings a 4-3 lead with one minute left (they would win 5-3).
“I’d be lying if I told you I tried to put it in,” said Richards, via Avalanche.com. “I just kind of chipped it toward the net, he was kind out of position, and I don’t know if it hit his back or something, but we’ll take those.”
It was not the ending that the Avalanche wanted, but for the team, the result may eventually become secondary (likely after the season, they could have used the two points). For the fans, it already has. This weekend was special, and may have been exactly what Denver needed to reinvigorate their passion for the sport. For me, it will go down as one of my most memorable experiences at a sporting event (and I have been to my share) in my life. There’s a difference between watching hockey and experiencing it. This was an experience. Many of the 50,095 in attendance likely feel something similar.
“I’ve been here for a long, long time,” said Avalanche forward Alex Tanguay. “I started playing here in ’99 when the Pepsi Center opened … this is a night that will definitely stand out in the back of my mind.”