If you thought about it during the Western Conference finals, if you took a quiet moment for reflection in Game 4 while Colorado Avalanche coach Marc Crawlord was trying to storm the Detroit Red Wings' bench or while Detroit's Brendan Shanahan was slugging the sense out of Ren� Corbet or while Colorado's Mike Keane was using his stick to carve his initials into the back of Igor Larionov's calf, you probably came to the conclusion that the most intense rivalry in pro sports makes little sense.
Traditionally, rivalries have been based on two things: history and proximity. Colorado- Detroit fails on both counts.
History: Just two years ago the Avalanche was known as the Nordiques, and the team was based in Quebec. For 16 years the Red Wings and the Nordiques played in different conferences, never meeting more than four times in the regular season.
Geography: The teams are separated by 1,156 miles and a two-hour time difference. However, Denver and Detroit do appear next to each other in the gaily colored destination boxes on USA Today's weather page.
Nevertheless, there is no better, more bitter pro sports rivalry in North America. The Chicago Bears- Green Bay Packers isn't the same anymore, mainly because whenever one team is on the upswing, the other is in the dumps. The only thing the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers battle over are Ping-Pong balls in the draft lottery. The New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox remains venerable but also is usually one-sided, and the Los Angeles Dodgers-San Francisco Giants is just a shade too laid-back.
What the Red Wings and the Avalanche really share is mutual loathing. The rivalry came to life in the conference finals last year when Colorado's Claude Lemieux rearranged Kris Draper's face with a cheap shot in Game 6. What had been mere tasteless sniping between the teams up to that point—remember Detroit coach Scotty Bowman having the club's bus driver open the door so he could curse Lemieux in the parking lot following Game 4?—coalesced into something more profound. The antipathy escalated on Dec. 17 after two Avalanche players were taken off the ice on stretchers following questionable Red Wings hits; Colorado general manager Pierre Lacroix screamed al a Detroit player and an assistant coach near the dressing room after the game. Then, on March 26, in the final regular-season game between the teams, a full-scale brawl broke out that included a slugfest at center ice between goalies Patrick Roy of the Avalanche and Mike Vernon of the Red Wings.
On Monday night in Detroit the warring sides fought their last battle of this season when the Red Wings eliminated the defending champions in six games with a dominating 3-1 victory. But Detroit had only four days to rest before taking on the mammoth Eastern Conference-champion Philadelphia Flyers in the Stanley Cup finals, beginning on Saturday at the CoreStates Center.
The Red Wings certainly are not as physically impressive as the Flyers, but they are no longer the dandy perimeter team that squandered its chances to win the chalice the past four seasons. After winning a record 62 regular-season games in 1995-96, Detroit brought in five new players—forwards Shanahan, Tomas Sandstrom and Joe Kocur, and defensemen Larry Murphy and Aaron Ward—mostly to make the team bigger and more combative. Holdover physical wingers, especially Darren McCarty and Martin Lapointe, were given expanded roles.
"The chemistry that wasn't there two or three years ago is there now," Vernon says. "You look at the size on this club and the fact that we're grittier, more disciplined and more focused—well, throw all that together, and it's obvious why we're playing the best we have all year."
In finishing 38-26-18, the Red Wings seemingly blew off the regular season as Bowman mixed and matched lines and even used forward Sergei Fedorov, three seasons removed from his Most Valuable Player award, on defense. "You know, Scotty could pull them out of the tailspin any time he wants to," Dallas Stars coach Ken Hitchcock observed in mid-March. "I don't think he wants to."