The Story Behind The Colorado Avalanche And Detroit Red Wings' Fierce Rivalry

In sports, there are several ways a rivalry can develop between two teams (via Bleacher Report). One is geography, as is the case with lots of college football rivalries between schools like Auburn and the University of Alabama, or USC and UCLA. The competitions go back a long time and are centered on the hunger to be the best team in a city or state. Others are steeped in history, like the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry in Major League Baseball, or the Packers-Bears rivalry in the NFL. In these cases, the rivalries have built up over years and years of playing each other, and bad blood has developed over the decades.

Yet another is rivalries between two teams that are simply at the top of their world in the respective sports and found themselves at odds on numerous occasions in the post-season. A perfect example of this is the rivalry between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers, which started simmering in the 1960s but came to a boil in the '80s. The short-lived, but fiery NHL rivalry between the Colorado Avalanche and the Detroit Red Wings would most likely fall into this category.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the two teams met in the playoffs five times, and over that stretch, they combined for five Stanley Cups and four President's Trophies, which are awarded to the team with the best regular-season record. Their battle for supremacy became one of the nastiest — and bloodiest — rivalries in NHL history.

The early histories of the Red Wings and the Avalanche

According to Bleacher Report, the typical time frame for the Avalanche-Red WIngs rivalry is usually 1996-2002. The Avalanche only started playing as the Colorado Avalanche in 1995, while the Red Wings are part of the National Hockey League's Original Six — the six teams that made up the most stable era of the early NHL, from 1942 to 1967. The team started as the Detroit Cougars in 1928 and adopted the Red Wings name in the early '30s (via Detroit Historical Society).

While the Colorado Avalanche name entered the NHL in 1995, the team had been around significantly longer. They started as the Quebec Nordiques, a team who started playing, not in the NHL, but the World Hockey Association. They were part of the league's original slate of teams in 1972. When the WHA folded, the Nordiques were one of four WHA teams — the others being the Hartford Whalers, Winnipeg Jets, and Edmonton Oilers — that merged into the NHL.

The Nordiques had moderate success, making the playoffs in 9 out of 16 seasons, but the franchise was purchased in 1995 and the new owners announced their plan to move the team out of Quebec — and out of Canada — and across the continent to Denver, Colorado.

The first run-ins between the Avalanche and Red Wings

Rather fittingly, the Colorado Avalanche's first regular-season game was against the Detroit Red Wings. The Avalanche won that game 3-2. They met three more times during the 1995-96 season, per Hockey Reference, all of which were won by the Red Wings. Both teams had stellar seasons, with the Red Wings putting up an incredible 131 points to win the President's Trophy, thanks to a loaded roster with headliners like Steve Yzerman, Paul Coffey, Nicklas Lidstrom, Igor Larionov, and a goaltending tandem of Chris Osgood and Mike Vernon. Meanwhile, the Avalance managed to win their division with a strong 104-point showing and had an equally eye-catching roster with players like Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Claude Lemieux, and goalie Patrick Roy.

A post-season matchup between the two was practically inevitable, and sure enough, it happened. According to the NHL, the first salvo in this heated rivalry occurred on May 23, 1996, during Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals. Detroit's Slava Kozlov (above) dodged a check from Colorado defenseman Adam Foote but slammed Foote's face into the glass in the process. A bloodied Foote threw off his helmet in frustration as a trainer mopped up the blood coming from a cut above his right eye.

There was no penalty on the play, so later in the game, the Avalanche's Claude Lemieux tried to get retribution by punching Kozlov in the mouth. Kozlov wound up with a bloody mouth and Lemieux received a minor penalty for roughing and a one-game suspension.

The rivalry ramps up

According to the NHL, between Games 3 and 4, Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman and Avalanche bench boss Marc Crawford exchanged words through the media, yet another sign that things between the two teams were heating up. In fact, they had heated up even after Game 3, when players started chirping at each other by the team buses, per ESPN. Game 6 of the series took place on May 29, with the Avalanche leading 3-2. That night, one of the rivalry's most infamous moments took place.

Once again, Claude Lemieux (above) was in the middle of everything. He landed a check on Red Wings center Kris Draper. The hit sent Draper into the boards, face-first, and drew players from both sides together while the bloodied Draper was helped off the ice. The Avalanche went on to win that game and moved on to the Stanley Cup finals, where they defeated the Florida Panthers for their first championship.

The next season, the two met several times during the 1996-97 regular season. The December 17 matchup in Denver ended with two Avalanche players — Rene Corbet and Alexei Gusarov — both knocked out by hits. The teams met yet again on March 26, and that game went on to become one of the most infamous games in the history of the Red WIngs-Avalanche rivalry.

A bloody night at the Joe

According to ESPN, ever since he leveled Kris Draper during the 1996 playoffs, Claude Lemieux had become public enemy No. 1 in Detroit. It had gotten so bad that Avalanche forward Mike Ricci later talked about getting nasty looks from staff at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena. "In Detroit, when you walked in you got dirty looks from the security guys, the Zamboni guy, everybody," he said

On March 26, 1997, nearly 20,000 fans were packed into the arena, most of them wearing red. The Red Wings won the game 6-5 in overtime, but that's not what people remember about it. Most people's memories start with Colorado's Peter Forsberg getting into a fight with Red Wing Igor Larionov, but it escalated when Detroit's Darren McCarty jumped Lemieux and threw him to the ice, following it up with a barrage of punches. The crowd roared in approval while every available Avalanche player on the ice rushed to Lemieux's aid. That includes goalie Patrick Roy, who rushed out of his net to grab McCarty. His counterpart, Mike Vernon, did the same, and soon both netminders found each other (above) and started trading punches.

The Avalanche condemned the entire incident and felt it was premeditated due to quotes in a Detroit newspaper from McCarty in which he seemed to indicate that he wanted to seek revenge. According to the NHL, Avalanche player Mike Keane called McCarty's actions "gutless" since he chose to retaliate in Detroit instead of a few weeks earlier at a game between the two teams in Colorado.

Lemieux seeks revenge

The two met in the 1996-97 playoffs, only this time, the Red Wings came out on top en route to a Stanley Cup victory over the Philadelphia Flyers (via Hockey Reference). But the rivalry was far from over. When the two teams met for the first time the following season, it was evident that there was still lots of bad blood. On November 11, 1997, Lemiuex was looking for revenge against McCarty.

Lemieux and McCarty (above) lined up next to each other for the opening faceoff, and before the puck even dropped, they could be seen exchanging words. The second the puck dropped, gloves and sticks went tumbling to the ice, and fists began to fly. McCarty managed to pry off Lemiuex's helmet before pummeling him with a series of lefts. Lemieux returned the favor and landed a jaw-crunching uppercut that knocked McCarty's helmet loose like a Rock 'em Sock 'em Robot.

It was a lengthy, heavyweight bout that ended with McCarty managing to knock Lemiuex off balance and sent them both tumbling to the ice, where they were broken apart by linesmen. The two exhausted pugilists hopped up and skated to the penalty boxes where they both served 5-minute majors for fighting and 10-minute misconducts, per Hockey Reference. Later that season, an April 1 tilt between the two teams ended with over 228 combined penalty minutes.

The most heated rivalry of the era comes to an end

The Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in 1998. By the early 2000s, the rivalry was still intense but had cooled off from its peak between 1996 and 1998. The Avalanche took home the Stanley Cup at the end of the 2000-01 season by beating the New Jersey Devils in Game 7. The Avalanche didn't run into the Devils during that playoff run, but they did the following season in the Western Conference Finals. The Avalanche were poised to repeat as Cup champions, but the Red Wings had other plans. The hard-fought series went to Game 7 but was won by the Red Wings in a lopsided 7-0 affair. The Red Wings went on to take home the Stanley Cup over the Carolina Hurricanes (via Hockey Reference)

After that, the rivalry has mostly gone away — at least on the ice — thought the two teams did meet one last time with players who had been part of the rivalry in the 1990s. It happened during the 2007-08 playoffs when the Red Wings swept the Avalanche in the second route, en route to another Stanley Cup. After the game, Avalanche captain Joe Sakic praised his team's long-time adversary.

"It's a great hockey team over there," Sakic said. "They're deep throughout the lineup and every player was going. They exposed us out there. They were great. They were firing on all cylinders."