Adrian Dater’s “Blood Feud” chronicles what was one of the greatest rivalries in all of professional sports, that between the Detroit Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche from the mid-90’s through the early 2000’s.
As someone who grew up a Red Wings fan, following their trevails from the “Dead Wings” era of the early 80’s through the salad days of Steve Yzerman and the development of a real contender under Bryan Murray in the early 90’s, the era covered in this book represents the pinnacle of my hockey fandom. Taking a walk down Memory Lane led by a beat writer for the dreaded Colorado Avalanche was a provocative way to take in a fresh perspective and revisit some of the assumptions I had long held.
In my early days as a hockey blogger I was fortunate enough to score media access to one of the climactic moments in this rivalry, the March 26, 1997 game at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, the night that featured a massive on-ice brawl in which Claude Lemieux was pummeled by Darren McCarty and Patrick Roy began his series of fights with Red Wing goaltenders by squaring off with Mike Vernon. You can read my game report from that night thanks to the Internet Archive, since the website I wrote for back then went dark long ago.
Simply put, it was the most exciting sporting event I have ever witnessed live, and that includes seeing the Red Wings win the Stanley Cup on home ice in 1997.Where will hockey's next great rivalry come from? Revisiting Red Wings vs Avs Click To Tweet
It’s hard to put into words these days just how much anticipation had built up in Detroit ahead of that game, and even harder to express the manner in which that night fulfilled the wishes of most every Red Wings fan; Lemieux had received his dose of bare-knuckle justice, the team had rallied to pull off a dramatic, come-from-behind victory on McCarty’s overtime winner, and Vernon had notched his 300th career win. Earlier that day, Brendan Shanahan (who had arrived earlier that season via trade) inked a long-term contract extension, cementing his place in the lineup as the tough, ultra-talented winger that could push the Red Wings all the way to the top.
The local sports channel showed nightly re-runs of that game for almost a week, and I’m sure VCR tape sales surged in the Detroit area as fans relived that brawl over and over again (jump to 1:33 of the following video for when the real fun starts)…
Dater does a fine job of stringing together a multitude of events over several years into a coherent drama featuring two warring camps. However, besides detailing the twists and turns of critical games, widely-watched playoff series, and (of course) a series of goalie vs goalie fights, Dater also takes the time to flesh out the characters involved to show that they are much more than just cartoonish heroes and villains.
There’s Lemieux, generally liked and admired off the ice for his engagement in charitable efforts, but utterly unapologetic and at times dismissive over the injuries he caused Draper. There’s Darren McCarty, a pivotal figure in this rivalry as much for his goal-scoring as for his fighting, or Colorado GM Pierre LaCroix, a bombastic competitor who courted locker room dissension by bringing his son to Colorado to play for the Avs. We learn quite a bit about each of these individuals and many more, and even if you were a diehard fan of one of these teams like me, you’ll find much in here that you didn’t know (my favorite being the transcript of the famous Marc Crawford/Scotty Bowman shouting match).
Perhaps what is so remarkable about that Red Wings/Avs rivalry is that it came out of nowhere yet raged intensely for several years, and as we approach the beginning of a new NHL season, that only makes me wonder where the next great hockey rivalry will come from.
In the meantime, consider giving Blood Feud a read, and remind yourself of when you could accurately say that two of the NHL’s greatest teams really did hate each others’ guts. And while you’re at it, check out this recent article at Grantland which picks the top rivalry in each era of NHL history. Naturally, Wings/Avs held the belt for a long time.
SUPER BONUS RANDOM OBSERVATION
For any newspaper columnists who still look down at bloggers as being unprofessional hacks who don’t deserve a platform, Dater’s multiple excerpts from columnists on both sides of this rivalry are worth reviewing. Back before we had blogs, Twitter and Facebook which offer a soapbox to anybody with an opinion and a keyboard, the local sports columnist filled the role of chief barstool lout for his audience, wading into the muck of juvenile name-calling and hyperbole to stoke conversation. Check out this example from the Denver Post’s Woody Paige, written after that March 26 1997 bloodbath:
“The Red Wings are Dead Things again. Let them enjoy their one trifling victory over the Avalanche.
“That collection of thugs, lugs, mugs and slugs (reflecting the city they represent) won’t be around in the playoffs to inconvenience the Avalanche. Too bad. The Avalanche would love to face and face off against the Detroit Teamsters. But the Gooners are goners. Scotty Bogeyman attempted to reshape his club so he could beat the Avalanche, but all he has is a team that could beat up on the fatigued Avalanche in one regular-season game.
There was plenty of this stuff penned by professional journalists on both sides of the rivalry, underscoring just how much of a reaction it can draw from an audience. What’s the old saying, the more things change, the more they stay the same?