Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect PlayMichigan’s position.
As Detroit sports fans, we currently get excited about two things: 1. Drafts; 2. Documentaries that tell us how great our teams used to be.
We will get a chance to relive the past this Sunday when ESPN airs its highly-anticipated “Unrivaled” documentary, which chronicles the fiercely competitive rivalry between the Detroit Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche.
I can say, without hesitation, that I’ve never been so excited to watch a television program.
How to watch ESPN’s Unrivaled documentary
The documentary will air at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday, June 26, on ESPN. It will feature interviews with players from both teams, including Darren McCarty, Kris Draper, Claude Lemieux, Patrick Roy, Steve Yzerman and Vladimir Konstantinov.
It’s going to be amazing.
Red Wings vs. Avalanche was the fiercest rivalry in hockey history
The trailer, which was released on Twitter about a month ago, gave me chills.
I think this was the peak of my sports fandom. When I first had that thought, it felt sad, considering I was 13 years old when the rivalry got kick started, and 20 when it essentially ended. That’s not a good timeframe to peak in anything outside of, maybe, academics or acne.
But if I’m right, what a peak it was. Not only were the Red Wings competing for and winning championships, they were part of the biggest rivalry of that time. Every game with the Avalanche was appointment viewing, because not only was it important, but you never knew what could happen.
In the trailer, it’s referred to as the fiercest rivalry in hockey history. ESPN will get no argument from me there.
They met in the playoffs five times between 1996 and 2002, with the Avalanche winning three. The two teams combined to win five of the seven Stanley Cups in that timeframe, with the Red Wings winning three.
Not only did they hate each other, but they were the dominant teams of that era.
Lemieux has been quoted as saying a rivalry starts on the ice, but doesn’t really take off if it stays there. He’s right. But I would argue that what took the Red Wings and Avalanche rivalry to the next level wasn’t his hit on Draper, but the fact that a game between the Red Wings and Avalanche was between the two best teams in the NHL.
It mattered to people outside of Michigan and Colorado, because if they were meeting in the playoffs, the team that won was very likely going to be hoisting the Cup not long after.
Pure hate for Claude Lemieux
Now, don’t get me wrong, the hit in 1996 lit the flame, and the brawl at Joe Louis Arena 10 months later poured gasoline onto it.
The hate was real, and what made things so intense for fans of both teams.
Lemieux was at the top of the list, though, for obvious reasons. And while he and McCarty have since made amends, and the hate has subsided, I’d be lying if I said something didn’t swell up inside of me when I saw his face in the first shot of the trailer.
That name was such a curse word in Detroit, that I’m sure Mario Lemieux caught strays.
Being able to rally around that hate, and the release when he turtled as McCarty pummeled him is perhaps as unified as the state of Michigan has ever been.
The perfect ending
McCarty punching Lemieux in the head is burned in our memories, but the fondness we look back on this rivalry with is probably linked to how it all ended.
Game 7 in the 2002 Western Conference Final was essentially the end. That’s not to say the two teams or sets of players started liking each other the next season, but the heat of the rivalry was never the same.
Thankfully, as Detroit fans, it was a glorious end. Destroying the Avalanche 7-0 and sending Patrick Roy to the bench put a perfect bow on things. We had the emphatic last laugh.
There’s a decent chance this rivalry is never replicated. Not just between these two teams, but in general.
But for two hours on Sunday, we get to relive it. We get to go back in time, escape the current desert that is Detroit professional sports, and pretend we’re back in the peak of our sports fandom.
I’m getting chills just thinking about it.