Red Wings vs. Avalanche rivalry, explained: How Detroit and Colorado became hockey's most heated feud

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There's feuds, there's rivalries, and then there's the Avalanche and the Red Wings from 30 years ago. 

ESPN released its E60 documentary, "Unrivaled" on Sunday, where the rivalry between the Red Wings and the Avalanche from the 1990s and early 2000s is featured. The bad blood between the players on those teams is still relevant today in some cases, as shown in the doc. 

The two then-Western Conference squads were powerhouse organizations, constantly competing for the Cup year after year. The Avalanche had stars like Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, and Patrick Roy while the Red Wings had Brendan Shanahan, Steve Yzerman, and Sergei Fedorov. 

But it wasn't just the competitive drive that grew the hatred between the teams. You don't grow to despise a team the way Detroit and Colorado did by simply seeing each other every year in the playoffs. No, it was one hit that resulted in years of punches, yelling matches, and resentment. 

Here is a look at how the rivalry between the Avalanche and Red Wings came to be. 

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How did the Red Wings-Avalanche rivalry start?

The Red Wings and Avalanche were powerhouse Western Conference foes for a number of years, but the clubs became forever connected with one hit during the 1996 playoffs. 

During Game 6 of the Western Conference Final, Avalanche forward Claude Lemieux hit Red Wings Kris Draper from the back, smashing his face into the dasher. 

The Avs won the game and clinched the series, but that hit started the bad blood between the two. Lemieux was suspended two games by the NHL and Draper was diagnosed with a concussion, broken jaw, broken nose, and broken cheekbone. It led to surgery on Draper's face, and he had his jaw wired shut for weeks.

Fight Night at the Joe

Because the Avalanche clinched the series in the same game that Lemieux laid his hit on Draper, the two teams did not meet again until months later. While the first three contests of the following 1996-97 season were civil, the fourth had one of the biggest brawls in history

The matchup between the Avs and the Red Wings on March 26, 1997, at Joe Louis Arena is one that will forever be remembered. It started testy, with two fights occurring in the first period, but a collision between Detroit's Igor Larionov and Colorado's Peter Forsberg started what turned out to be an all-out melee. 

With Larionov on the ground after the hit from Forsberg, Red Wings enforcer Darren McCarty took the opportunity to sucker-punch Lemieux, getting revenge for the hit on Draper. He landed multiple blows as Lemieux turtled to the ground. 

Avs goalie Patrick Roy went out to defend his teammate, but he got clotheslined by Red Wings forward Brendan Shanahan. Red Wings goalie Mike Vernon skated out to help get Adam Foote off Shanahan. Roy saw Vernon, and the two went toe-to-toe.

After play was settled and penalties handed out, it took just 15 seconds before another fight broke out, as Avalanche winger Adam Deadmarsh and Ride Wings defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov dropped the mitts for the final fight of the period. 

The two teams would see five more fights throughout the contest that eventually went to overtime, where McCarty scored the game-winning goal for the Red Wings. 

Other brawls between the Red Wings and Avalanche

Fight Night at the Joe did not mark the final time the two teams got into it. Just two months later in the Western Conference final, Avalanche coach Marc Crawford and Wings coach Scotty Bowman got into a screaming match after a scrum had ensued. The contest had been filled with penalties and Crawford was seen yelling obscenities at Bowman. He was fined $10,000 for his actions. 

On April 1, 1998, the Joe Louis Arena was home to another goalie fight involving Roy, as he and Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood went at it after another skirmish between the two clubs had broken out. 

Over the next few seasons, players began to leave each team and the rivalry started to wind down. However, it was kicked back up again in 2002. 

In a game on March 23, Red Wings forward Kirk Maltby was shoved into the Avalanche crease in the third period. Roy took exception, proceeding to throw punches at Maltby and another brawl broke out. Red Wings goalie Dominik Hasek came flying down from the other end of the rink with the intention of confronting Roy, but he slipped on a loose stick and fell into Roy. 

If not for that errant piece of equipment, it's likely we would have seen Roy fight a third different Detroit goalie, but the two were restrained and never ended up getting to throw down. 

Red Wings vs. Avalanche playoff history

The clubs have met six times in the playoffs, with five of those meetings coming between 1996 and 2002. 

The all-time series is even, with both teams winning three times. Colorado went on to win the Stanley Cup in 1996 after beating the Red Wings in the conference finals, but the Aves lost in the next round in '99 and 2000 after defeating Detroit. All three times that the Red Wings have won against the Avalanche, they have gone on to win the Cup. 

With the Red Wings now competing in the Eastern Conference, the only way the two clubs could face off in the postseason is if both teams makes it to the Stanley Cup Final. 

SEASON ROUND RESULT WINNING TEAM PLAYOFF RESULT
1996 Western Conference Final Avalanche 4, Red Wings 2 Avalanche win Stanley Cup
1997 Western Conference Final Red Wings 4, Avalanche 2 Red Wings win Stanley Cup
1999 Western Conference Semifinals Avalanche 4, Red Wings 2 Avalanche lost in Western Conference Final
2000 Western Conference Semifinals Avalanche 4, Red Wings 1 Avalanche lost in Western Conference Final
2002 Western Conference Final Red Wings 4, Avalanche 3 Red Wings win Stanley Cup
2008 Western Conference Semifinals Red Wings 4, Avalanche 0 Red Wings win Stanley Cup

How to watch, live stream "Unrivaled" on ESPN

  • TV Channel: ESPN2
  • Live stream: ESPN+

ESPN will continue to be airing the special throughout the week on ESPN. The documentary also will be available for viewers on ESPN+ to view, in addition to other ESPN documentary series. 

E60: 'Unrivaled' re-airs on ESPN
Date Time Channel
Sunday, June 26 4 p.m.  ESPN2, ESPN+
Monday, June 27 8 p.m. ESPN2
Wednesday, June 29 2 a.m. ESPN2
Thursday, June 30 9 p.m. ESPN

*All times ET

Author(s)
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Bryan Murphy is an NHL content producer at The Sporting News.