REVIEW: ‘Unrivaled’ Is A Love Letter To Old Time Hockey
The Colorado Avalanche and the Detroit Red Wings had an intense rivalry in the mid-90s, so much so it culminated in a brawl the likes of which may never happen again.
The Documentary Made Me Ask: Is Old School Physical Hockey Gone For Good?
The ESPN E:60 Documentary 'Unrivaled', about the Avs and Red Wings physical rivalry debuted Sunday, and it reminded me of the old Persuasions song "There's A Thin Line Between Love And Hate", because no matter how much the players from both teams declared their hate for their rivals, the love and respect also showed through.
But it also made me wonder about the way hockey has kind of ushered out the era of fighting for a new era of smoother play and less head injuries.
The 2019 season resulted in an all time low for fighting penalties in the NHL, and it appears efforts to curb on ice violence is working. The game is more nuanced now, and has more flow. The old, fighting style is now just nostalgia.
"I loved the era that I played in and miss the rivalries that were formed," One time "goon" Matthew Barnaby told ESPN. "There were a lot of afternoon naps that were filled with sweaty palms, but the game has never been better and safer. Some fans are always going to miss the way it was, but I'll take watching unreal skill over the fights."
But, Man That Red Wing-Avalanche Rivalry Was Intense
The NHL was trying to move away from fighting by the mid-1990s, but the Red Wings and Avalanche weren't having it. The rivalry began when the Avalanche, formerly the Quebec Nordiques, moved to Denver and into the Western Conference with the Red Wings, who had been slowly building into a title contender.
The Avalanche upset the Wings in the Western Conference Finals in 1996, and had done so by bullying the Wings with their punishing defense. The thought was that the Wings had adapted to a more "European" style of play, and that the Wings' Russian players avoided contact at all cost.
In game six of that Western Final, the Avs Claude Lemieux laid a cheap shot on the Red Wings Kris Draper, a fan favorite, driving his face into the dasher at the top of the boards, knocking him unconscious.
"I knew I was hit from behind," Draper said in the documentary. "I had no idea the extent of what my injuries were. I was down on my hands and knees and tried to get up but my legs wouldn't move the way I wanted them to. The one thing that really stands out after all this time was the look on our trainer John Wharton's face when he saw my face."
The cheap shot was overlooked by the officials, but the Red Wing players would not soon forget. Especially after being eliminated that night.
Unwritten Rule: If You Deliver A Cheap Shot, You Will Receive Retaliation
Lemieux knew the rule, and next season effectively dodged the Red Wings in the first three regular season games, avoiding pay back. But in the fourth game, scheduled late in the season at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena, there was no avoiding it.
Both the media and the Red Wings began the chatter in the week leading up to the showdown, and it was clear there would be fisticuffs that night.
"It was the sounds that I'll never forget," Draper told E60. "You could hear the fans from our dressing room. By the time warm-ups started, there was close to 20,000 fans already in the building. But inside our locker room was an eerie silence. There wasn't much being said. You just knew this was going to be a night."
Following a brief scuffle between the Wings Igor Larianov and the Avs Peter Forsberg, the restless fans knew what was coming next. They had no idea how massive the brawl would be.
McCarty chased down a reluctant Lemieux and looked him dead in the eye before issuing payback.
When I pulled that fist back, I had the power of the whole city of Detroit and the power of a million Red Wings fans in that fist. I didn't even feel it. When you hit somebody perfectly on the button like that it feels like butter. I hit him, he goes down, then I get his helmet off and I pick him up off the ice and I f---ing wailed on him with a left uppercut or two, and that's the punch that cut him. I got really good connection on that one. Oh, it felt so good.
From that moment, a giant brawl involving almost every player ensued, which left a streak of crimson blood on the ice and 18 players penalized for 148 minutes. Strangely, no one was ejected from the game, not even McCarty.
Even the referee, Paul Devorski understood the unwritten law of old time hockey:
I kept thinking in my head, Lemieux had it coming. Did he deserve it? Yeah, he probably did. I still remember seeing Kris Draper's head all smacked up [in 1996] and he just looked terrible, and I think that's what this was all about. It was payback time, and it happened that night.
It was like something out of the '70s classic hockey movie 'Slap Shot'. A brawl the likes of which really hasn't been seen since, and probably never will, but to those involved and those of us fans who watched, half in horror, half in joy that the Wings hadn't backed down, it will live on in infamy.
The footnote to the story is the Red Wings rallied from two goals down in that game to win and by not backing down from the Avs, the Wings became dominant, defeating the defending Cup champions in the 1997 playoffs, winning their first Stanley Cup in 42 years and beginning a dynasty that would last for nearly 20 years.
"Unrivaled" airs again tonight at 8pm on ESPN2, Wednesday, June 29 at 2:00am on ESPN2 and Thursday, June 30 at 9:00pm on ESPN. You can also stream it anytime on the ESPN+ app.
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