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In their inaugural 1995–96 NHL season in Denver, the fresh-faced Colorado Avalanche quickly took the league by storm. A miracle trade netted future Hall of Fame goaltender (and current Avs coach) Patrick Roy, and by the season’s end, the team had delivered the state’s first major professional championship.
In the process, however, the team made a powerful enemy in the Detroit Red Wings, who they played in the fiercely competitive 1996 Western Conference Finals (the Avs won the series 4–2). This weekend, many of the players who took the ice 20 years ago at the now-leveled McNichols Sports Arena will roll into Denver for the much-anticipated Avalanche-Red Wings Alumni Game at Coors Field.
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It’s a rivalry that’s passionate, at times bloody, but always entertaining. And it started right here in Denver.
In Game 6 of the 1996 conference finals, former Avalanche right wing Claude Lemieux unleashed an illegal backside check that pulverized the face of Detroit’s Kris Draper.
“I kind of went in and pulled the puck out of a scrum that was going on,” recalls Draper, who was 25 at the time (he’s now 44), “and then obviously next thing I ended up getting hit. I went down on all fours. I’d been hit plenty of times in my career and I knew something wasn’t right.”
Draper’s injuries were extensive even by hockey standards: The face-first impact on the lip of his own team’s bench required 30 stitches to repair cuts, left him concussed, and broke his nose, jaw and cheekbone. He had to undergo facial reconstructive surgery, and his jaw was wired shut for several weeks. Lemieux received a two-game penalty for the hit, but was back on the ice in time for the team’s eventual Stanley Cup win. Draper says that Lemieux has never reached out to him to discuss the play.
“I wish we could’ve had the rivalry without the initial incident happening,” says Kirk Maltby, Draper’s longtime Red Wings teammate. “But at the end of the day, you know what? It happened. We dealt with it. The quote-unquote ‘payback’ happened.”
On March 26, 1997, in a game later dubbed “Bloody Wednesday,” the Avalanche met the Red Wings’ on their home ice at Joe Louis Arena. Together, the teams amassed a combined 148 penalty minutes and 18 fighting majors, including one apiece for goaltenders Patrick Roy and Mike Vernon for their legendary fisticuffs at center ice amid other fights in progress.
Roy was attempting to come to the aid of Lemieux—who had been pummeled by Detroit’s Darren McCarty—but became entangled in the first of two epic Motor City “goalie fights” that solidified the teams’ rivalry. For his part, Lemieux had been ambushed, sacked, and battered by McCarty to a roar of cheers from the Detroit faithful.
“I just remember walking through the door at Joe Louis Arena, and you could sense that something was going to happen,” Draper says. “[McCarty] and I were obviously best buddies then, and it just kinda seemed like he was gonna take it upon himself for retribution and payback. You didn’t know how it was gonna happen, or when it was gonna happen, but you just kinda felt that it was going to happen.”
Detroit’s 6–5 overtime victory propelled their surge toward the organization’s first Stanley Cup championship in 42 years. Colorado, meanwhile, played shell-shocked down the stretch and eventually fell to the Red Wings in the Western Conference Finals, 4–2.
On April 1, 1998, Roy again duked it out before Red Wings fans—only this time with then 25-year-old Chris Osgood. While Vernon had left Roy’s face streaked with blood a year earlier, “Saint Patrick” atoned by planting numerous hard right hooks to the side of the new Detroit goaltenders’s face. Roy skated off the ice with a defiant arm in the air, claiming victory.
“I’ve always been a very passionate player,” says Roy, now 50. “Do I regret those [fights]? No. Would I do the same thing if I had a mulligan? Probably not. But at the same time, it is what it is, and it’s part of the game. There was a lot behind those games, and as a team we were very excited about playing those games.”
To the casual fan, perhaps lost in the volatile circus of those early years is the elite caliber of hockey showcased annually by the two sides. Between 1995 and Roy’s retirement after the 2003 season, a combined 19 current Hall of Famers played in those Avalanche-Red Wings grudge matches. Accordingly, the league’s two most bitter rivals were also its most talented teams. Colorado captured two Stanley Cup championships (1996, 2001) to Detroit’s three (1997, 1998, 2002).
Sure, Detroit ultimately won more Stanley Cups during this era, but Avs fans can reflexively cite that the team edged out the Red Wings in three of five playoff series. Draper and Maltby can only say “wow” and laugh a little upon learning of their team’s 32-30-1 record against Colorado during that stormy eight-year period.
“I think it was just, I don’t know, a match made in heaven with a little bump in there where a guy kinda got his face smashed in,” says Maltby. “But in the end, I don’t think anyone—other than Kris—got too injured, too hurt, and it made for great hockey, great entertainment.”
On February 26, on a makeshift ice rink atop the Coors Field baseball diamond, Darren McCarty, Kris Draper, Claude Lemieux and many other hockey heroes will face-off for one last savage ballet. Hopefully this time, the guys will go home with their faces intact.
According to Draper, the lone conversation he’s had with Lemieux occurred at the 2015 NHL Draft in June, but it was strictly business, as Lemieux is now a player agent and Draper is a special assistant to Detroit’s general manager. “We drafted one of his clients,” Draper says. “Nothing was mentioned of the hit—two-three minute conversation, that was it.”