Bad Blood in Bitter Avs-Red Wings Rivalry Is a Thing of the Past

Adrian DaterNHL National ColumnistFebruary 26, 2016

Detroit Red Wings right wing Mathieu Dandenault, left, watches as Colorado Avalanche right wing Claude Lemieux, center, congratulates left wing Valeri Kamensky after his goal in the first period of alumni hockey game at Coors Field in Denver on Friday, Feb. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
David Zalubowski/Associated Press

DENVER — An olive branch, in the form of Claude Lemieux's hand, was extended. At the other end to meet it, with fingers outstretched and not balled into a fist, was one of Kris Draper's. And with that, hockey's bloodiest feud in modern NHL history was now firmly in the past.

The sweat was there, a few sentimental tears were there, but there would be no blood. Somehow, that all made for the perfect ending to the storied rivalry between the Colorado Avalanche and Detroit Red Wings on Friday night, in the alumni-game portion of the Coors Light NHL Stadium Series before 43,319 at Coors Field.

Despite the game's sponsor, the quality of this contest was much better than beer league. Sporting a beard with more salt than pepper, Patrick Roy led the way in the alumni Avs' 5-2 victory. Roy's butterfly, it turns out, still has pretty decent wings.

But the real story might have come after the game, when the formerly sworn enemies Lemieux and Draper came together for a handshake. A real one too, not one of those phony grip-and-grin jobs like at a campaign rally. It only took 20 years, but finally Draper and Lemieux could say it: No hard feelings.

"It was nice to have that moment with him. Everything is in the past," said Lemieux, who assisted on Colorado's first goal by Valeri Kamensky. "You learn things in life with things like this. You learn that it's going to be OK. You learn that there can be a better day."

It was Lemieux's hit from behind on a vulnerable Draper in Game 6 of the 1996 Western Conference Finals that sent what had been a simmering Avs-Wings rivalry into thermonuclear mode. Draper could only eat through a straw for nearly two months afterward, all the while watching Lemieux pour champagne down his throat with a subsequent Avs Stanley Cup against the Florida Panthers.

Dino Ciccarelli, Draper's 1996 teammate, would utter one of the most famous quotes in the rivalry: "I can't believe I shook the guy's friggin' hand."

Earlier in the day, Ciccarelli wasn't so sure he would want to shake Lemieux's hand again, despite having done so just the night before. 

"He was coming out of the bathroom. I was going in. I had no choice. I just hope he washed his hands," Ciccarelli said.

But it was all good between Ciccarelli and Lemieux afterward too. The two teams even posed for a group picture together at center ice. From 1996 through 2002, in the heyday of the rivalry, the only way that would have happened is if someone had photoshopped it.

"I've said this before, but in the end I think I speak for most guys who played in the rivalry. There was no team I hated more than the Avalanche, but also no team I respected more," said Detroit's Darren McCarty, who avenged Draper with a bloody beating of Lemieux in the infamous March 26, 1997, game that also saw Roy drop the gloves with Red Wings goalie Mike Vernon. 

Earlier in the day too, though, McCarty made it perfectly clear that if Lemieux or any other Av wanted to get in the mosh pit one last time, he would be the first to engage.

"I'm certainly not going to change my game at this stage," McCarty said.

Other than a Draper cross-check to hook-nosed Avs D-man Adam Foote and a bowling-pin takeout of Ray Bourque and Craig Billington late in the game by Detroit's Tomas Holmstrom, this Avs-Wings game was more kumbaya than kamikaze.

"It was great to be back on the same side with [our] guys," Avs current general manager and former captain Joe Sakic said, "but it was also great to be back on the ice against them too. At the end of the day, it was always great hockey between us."

Roy, who practiced about a dozen times in between coaching duties of the team that will take the ice Saturday in the official game against Detroit, was vintage. He stopped 20-of-21 shots, while his teammates got just 11 in the first two periods. Other than a Steve Yzerman rebound goal, Roy looked like he could still get it done for real.

"No," Roy said with a laugh. "Definitely not."

DENVER, CO - FEBRUARY 26:  Goalie Patrick Roy #33 of the Colorado Avalanche warms up prior to facing the Detroit Red Wings during the 2016 Coors Light Stadium Series Alumni Game at Coors Field on February 26, 2016 in Denver, Colorado.  (Photo by Doug Pens
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

The four-time Stanley Cup winner, who won 262 regular-season games for Colorado between 1995-2003, gave the alumni Avs the decided edge in a game in which two of the main goalies in the rivalry—Vernon and Chris Osgood—elected not to play. Manny Legace and Ty Conklin were left to counter Roy and Billington, who played the third period and allowed a late goal.

Draper, now in the front office with the Red Wings, still bears the physical scars from the night at McNichols Sports Arena 20 years ago. But not only did he shake Lemieux's hand, he gave him a pat on the shoulder that let everyone see bygones were bygones.

"Obviously it was a heated rivalry, but in the end it was great players, and I think both sides really enjoyed this," Draper said.

So did the nearly 44,000 paid attendees, who gave the teams one last standing ovation with about five minutes left to a scoreboard that said "Thanks for doing this one more time."


Adrian Dater covers the NHL for Bleacher Report