Dino Ciccarelli was one of those NHL players with a Napoleonic Complex. He was a shrimp, so he decided that he’d be the most annoying, disturbing, pugnacious little shrimp that he could be. That, and scoring goals against the opposition, would keep him in the league for some 18 seasons. Ciccarelli scored over 600 goals, many of them while being mugged and abused within several feet of the opposing net.
But my memories of Dino boil down to this one: 1996 Western Conference Finals, moments after Game 6 – the Red Wings having just been eliminated by their new rivals, the Colorado Avalanche. Somewhere in a hospital, teammate Kris Draper lay, his face broken thanks to a nasty, illegal check from behind by Claude Lemieux in Game 4. Lemieux would quickly elevate to Public Enemy #1 in Detroit, for several years to come.
The series was now over, and one of the grandest traditions in sport – the post-series handshake at center ice – had just been completed when Ciccarelli sat at his stall in the locker room, still disgusted and sneering at the cowardice of Lemieux, who was suspended for Game 6 but nonetheless had the, ahem, gumption, to take the ice for the handshake. For a nanosecond, Lemieux and Ciccarelli grasped hands, as tradition dictates.
Kris Draper, moments after being crushed into the boards from behind by Claude Lemieux in the ’96 Western Finals
“I can’t believe,” Dino said, half-dressed, in a sound bite repeated over and over in the next few days, “that I shook hands with that bleep. I can’t bleeping believe it.”
A rivalry was born – somewhere from the ruins of Kris Draper’s face. And from the smug, smart-ass words of Avs goalie Patrick Roy.
What did Roy think, he was asked, of the Red Wings’ win in Game 5 in Detroit, which brought them to within 3 games to 2? Keep in mind that Colorado swept Games 1 and 2 in Detroit.
“Well, I suppose it’s about time that they won a home game, eh?” Roy said with a little smirk on his long, unattractive face. Red Wings fans heard it, and couldn’t bleeping believe it.
Dino Ciccarelli wouldn’t play another game for the Red Wings, but his words of disdain for Claude Lemieux got things revved up for a sports rivalry that, to this day, remains among the most dramatic that I’ve ever witnessed. I’ll repeat – sports rivalry, not just hockey.
The Avs bumped the Red Wings out of the playoffs in ’96 and won the Stanley Cup. The Red Wings returned the favor in ’97, and won the Stanley Cup. The Avs eliminated the Wings in 1999 and 2000. The Red Wings eliminated the Avs in 2002, on their way to another Cup. All the while, the teams beat up on each other during the regular season, which were truly games that you didn’t want to miss. ESPN loved to put the Avs-Red Wings on their cable waves. The rivalry was teeming with storylines. Even the goalies fought with some regularity. One night, Avs coach Marc Crawford lunged at Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman over the glass separating the two teams. Bowman knew the much younger Crawford’s dad.
“Marc,” Bowman reportedly said as the enraged Crawford was being restrained, “your father wouldn’t be so proud of you right now.”
Goalies Vernon and Roy duking it out in ’97
And Lemieux, the gutless winger, got his come-uppance, several times over. Darren McCarty took care of him one evening at Joe Louis Arena. Brendan Shanahan had his way with Lemieux on another occasion.
But like many things in today’s NHL, the Red Wings and Avalanche rivalry didn’t have long shelf life. After the salad days of 1995-2002, it was like someone pulled a plug. Many key players retired or were traded, or left via free agency. The Avs lost Roy and Lemieux shortly after the ’02 series, and that was pretty much the end of things.
I seriously doubt whether the average Red Wings fan could name more than three players off today’s Avalanche roster, when that same fan could have rattled off 12, easily, during the height of the two teams’ struggle for supremacy in the West.
And it’s not as if the teams sunk in terms of success. The Avs are still a solid playoff contender, and this morning are in first place in their division. Just like the Red Wings.
Yet things are nowhere near the same.
Looking around the NHL the other day, I couldn’t come up with a single team that elicits anything close to the hostility that the Red Wings mustered up against the Colorado Avalanche a decade ago. Thanks to the league’s ridiculous unbalanced schedule, you can forget about getting anything going with any of the teams from the Eastern Conference. The Red Wings hardly play those teams anymore. It should be noted that residing in the East are such Original Six teams as the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens, once fierce rivals with the team from Detroit. No longer, thanks to enforced separation.
There’s talk of the Chicago Blackhawks being a thorn in the Red Wings’ side, and thus becoming a rival once again. The Blackhawks have won all four games against Detroit this season. But this is after years of Red Wings’ dominance. We’ll see how it plays out. But the Blackhawks aren’t serious rivals, not yet.
The Red Wings had a good thing going with Chicago in the mid-1960s, when an offensively-challenged forward named Bryan Watson was assigned to harass Bobby Hull relentlessly. He did his job so well that Hull nicknamed Watson “Bugsy.”
The Maple Leafs provided some entertainment in the late-1980s, when the Red Wings were reborn under Jacques Demers. Then the Avs came along – and have gone.
Who do the Red Wings hate now? Who riles their fans up? Which team could go to hockey hell, for all we care? Where is the next Claude Lemieux?
Nowhere on the horizon – and that’s almost harder to stomach than Patrick Roy’s smug smirk.