|Thursday, January 16
Updated: January 17, 12:52 PM ET
Avs vs. Wings: From bad blood to good hockey
By Terry Frei
Special to ESPN.com
Perhaps you want to give the NHL's schedule maker credit or blame for compressing all four games of one of the league's premier rivalries into the final three months of the regular season.
Whatever the reason, Thursday night's 4-2 Detroit victory at Colorado was the first game of the season between the two rivals.
On the eve of the renewal, Colorado coach Tony Granato lit up when asked about it.
It had nothing to do with a "lack of respect" for the Red Wings, or even necessarily getting caught up in his franchise's enmity for the defending Stanley Cup champions.
It was a compliment.
This was the case of a long-time NHL player, a man who retired as a San Jose Shark in 2001 and has a half-season of coaching experience, period, relishing his first taste of a rivalry that gets everyone's attention in and around the league.
"I was tuned into it, for sure," Granato said with a smile. "If I wasn't playing or busy, I made sure I watched the Colorado-Detroit games. It's exciting to be part of it. Any sports fan, any sports player, loves to be part of some sort of rivalry like this.
"The respect we have for them, the atmosphere in the building, the whole thing that surrounds it will make it that much more exciting."
The rivalry has evolved, and the truth is that this is one time when grousing about media distortion isn't far off the mark. We keep reprising the highlights of the "bad-blood" rivalry, in written-word journalism graphics and stories, and in television features, and most of the most notorious examples are pertinent only as historical context and not particularly pertinent to the moment.
Avalanche winger Claude Lemieux, whom Detroit fans believe was Dr. Seuss' model for "Yertle the Turtle"? Gone.
Colorado coaches Marc Crawford and Bob Hartley? Gone, to Vancouver and Atlanta. (Aside: Hmmm. Hartley could have sat as long as THROUGH next season and collected the Avalanche's money. Instead, he sat out a month and took the Thrashers' job. This is a man with a serious Hockey Jones. Maybe the rivalry knocked a screw loose.)
Scotty Bowman, the master of the mind games who especially got under Crawford's skin and ever-so-briefly turned perhaps the game's brightest coaches into a raving lunatic? Gone into retirement in Buffalo (to some, an oxymoron).
Mike Vernon and Chris Osgood, Patrick Roy's fighting opponents? Gone.
Martin Lapointe, another of the rivalry's kindling? Gone.
Kris Draper, whose severe facial injuries in the 1996 playoffs were caused by Lemieux's hit? Still around, but avenged.
Of course, every time we write this, the chances increase that the next Colorado-Detroit meeting has more fights than a Gillette Blue Blades televised card at Madison Square Garden, or something revered by those who believe the game was greatly diminished by the third-man-in rule.
But what we have now, and have had even in the past couple of seasons, is more of a conventional, something-to-brag-about hockey rivalry. The game's the thing, and that's because the game is played with a gritty, emotional, sharp edge that goes beyond the commonplace of the sport.
Of the major-league sports involving 80 or more games -- the NHL, the NBA and MLB -- the NHL by far delivers the most high-wire emotion, even in "insignificant" matchups and games. The league's fans, whether in Montreal or Nashville, understand that. The NHL has plenty of nights with "mailed-in" efforts, but there are far fewer of them than in the other leagues. You probably believe that, too, and that's one of the reasons you're reading this.
This rivalry, which admittedly was nudged to another level by some garbage (most notably, Lemieux's lack of public contrition), is truly extraordinary -- especially given its limited eight-season run. It benefited from the fact that in the first seven years, the teams actually met more times in the postseason (30) than in the regular season (29). Heightened stakes, higher emotion.
The Avalanche's Stanley Cup victory in their first year in Denver was the primary catalyst for the popularity of the NHL in the city, but the rivalry also served as a secondary galvanization. It was as if hockey fans in the transient market that is Denver, through blood and enmity, instantly had the equivalent of the football Raiders. Some of that was expressed in bush-league and brainless fashion (as in the ubiquitous "Red Wings suck!" cheers and T-shirts), yet it no doubt was an issue in the sudden embrace of the NHL in Denver -- an embrace that now has produced the NHL's longest sellout streak.
Denver is no different than any NHL market, excepting perhaps Toronto: If the Avalanche have a significant run of mediocrity or ineptitude, that streak would end and unsold seats would be commonplace and Denver suddenly would be a rotten hockey market. (If that happens in Canada, though, we are told it it's because those fans are "savvy consumers.")
The Avalanche have muddled through the first half of this season, and the diminution of the franchise's trumpeted and long-prized depth is showing up. General manager Pierre Lacroix, whose work in building one of the NHL's success stories can't be discredited, has such faith in the ability of his organization to regenerate talent in the wake of all his deals, fired Hartley because he couldn't face what now seems to be the reality. His team, despite its very talented core, has slipped. Patrick Roy had his best regular season a year ago, so the talk that he suddenly has gotten too old is premature and laughable. But that Game 6 Statue of Liberty gaffe and his Game 7 ignominy against the Red Wings in the Western Conference finals might have left some emotional scar tissue -- especially to the previously irrepressible Roy.
Roy lifted his glove, and it was empty.
At that point, it became inevitable that Bowman, Steve Yzerman and Co. would end up lifting the Stanley Cup.
"We're already past the halfway point of this season, though," said Colorado captain Joe Sakic. "That's over. Obviously, we'd like to have that back, but we can't do anything about it. We look forward, not back. Right now, in the position we're in, we have more important things to worry about than what happened last year."
For his part, Roy refuses to talk about the renewal of the rivalry as a chance for retribution for Games 6 and 7.
"Every game for us now is very important, but playing Detroit is always a bit more of a motivation for us," said Roy, who repeatedly has scoffed at the notion that he was emotionally affected by the end of that series.
Roy has been only ordinary through the first half. That has generated the the musing that, at 37, he is careening downhill -- as evidenced by his 2.62 goals-against average and .904 save percentage. That talk tends to ignores the fact that a year ago, his terrific play in the first half prevented Colorado's mediocre record from being embarrassing and kept the Avalanche in the hunt for what turned out to be their eighth straight division title.
"We all have to do a little more," Roy said. "From my standpoint, I have to be more consistent. I had some very good games but also some very average ones. I can't afford that. It will be important for me to regain that focus and make sure I stay consistent every game ... I know a lot of people are comparing my performance with last year, but last year was the best year of my career ever."
Roy was pulled after two periods in his last start, a 6-3 loss at Dallas on Saturday, and hasn't been playing well of late.
"I have to be honest, I didn't play as well and make the big saves for the guys," he said.
And the next chance to do that happened against the Red Wings.
The Colorado team the Red Wings saw Thursday is capable of a playoff run if Roy steps up. But that hot-goaltender theory can be advanced for virtually any playoff team. The Avalanche were supposed to be more than that. The evidence is mounting that they're not extraordinary any longer.
But what of the rivalry?
Colorado defenseman Rob Blake has been part of the matchup for two seasons.
"I think all it is is that during the season, the top teams have to challenge themselves some way, to try to bring out the best in them and see what their level of play might be in the playoffs," said Blake. "I don't think this has what it had a few years ago, because a lot of the players have changed. There are the core players on each team, but those are the guys who understand how how to play the game."
Sakic noted: "Obviously, the last few years, it hasn't gotten ugly at all. We have a lot of respect for one another. Look at the games now! The games are fun! They're fun for the fans, they're fun for the players, they're intense, and usually they're entertaining."
Defenseman Adam Foote is one of three Avs, along with Sakic and Peter Forsberg, who has been around for every Detroit-Colorado matchup. (Remember, Roy and Mike Keane joined Colorado in the middle of that first season in Denver.) Strap even the most fervent of the savvy fans to a rack, and the confession would come that the "core" players in this rivalry, those who have been involved at least since that 1996 playoff series, are respected in both cities. Nicklas Lidstrom, Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, even Darren McCarty and Kris Draper, are acknowledged as great -- in their various fashions -- in Denver. (If McCarty signed as a free agent with Colorado, he'd be one of the town's most popular athletes in about 15 minutes.) And all indications are that in Detroit, that respect for the Avalanche core -- and even for the aggravating Roy -- outstrips even the enmity of the rivalry.
But it's still Red Wings-Avalanche.
"There have been a lot of player changes, and Crawford's gone, Hartley's gone, and now Bowman's gone," said Foote. "But as far as the fans and media, I guess when each team is going into the other city, it's easy to get the ball rolling. I think you guys make bigger deal of it than the players do."
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His book, "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming," is available nationwide.