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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 Crawford was trying to storm the Detroit
Red Wings' bench or while Detroit's Brendan Shanahan was
slugging the sense out of Rene 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

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 at 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

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."

But there was one game Bowman wanted badly to win: that March 26
contest at Joe Louis Arena. Colorado had beaten Detroit in its
three previous regular-season meetings, but nobody could
question the Red Wings' courage following their brutal 6-5
overtime victory, except Keane, who labeled them "heartless" and
"gutless." Said Bowman, "I don't think all that stuff that went
on in the game"--148 penalty minutes, McCarty pummeling Lemieux,
the Vernon-Roy fight--"would have mattered if we hadn't won that

"That game helped make us a team," Shanahan says. "We felt we
were growing as a group, but that game gave us--and everyone
else--a visual picture. We knew how we felt about sticking up
for each other, but that was the opportunity we had to show it."
The teams' records following what is routinely called the March
26 Bloodbath are testimony to that game's significance:
Including Monday night's result, the Red Wings were 15-7-3,
while the Avalanche was 13-11.

There were more than passing similarities between that match and
Game 4 last Thursday in Detroit, including six Detroit goals, an
exorbitant number of penalty minutes and the presence of referee
Paul Devorski, who had been the target of a postgame tirade by
Crawford on March 26. Devorski, working his first Conference
finals, was assigned the pivotal Game 4. However, after he lost
control of Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals between the
Philadelphia Flyers and the New York Rangers, the NHL should
have reconsidered the assignment. Devorski was the wrong
ringmaster for a circus that actually commenced a day earlier
when Roy practically taunted the Wings with his declaration, "I
really want to see how much Detroit is ready to play. That's
what I want to see."

The moral of the story is: Be careful what you wish for, because
it might come true. The Avalanche players, more puerile than
virile, strutted like schoolyard bullies spoiling for a fight,
but when the Red Wings stood up to the bravado, Colorado began
falling apart. Devorski called five straight minor penalties (at
least four of them justified) in the first period against
Colorado--a string of five minors against one team in the
playoffs had occurred just once in the past 10 years--and when
Roy complained about the last of them, a high-sticking foul
against Lemieux with 4.8 seconds left in the period, he was
assessed a 10-minute misconduct. Between periods Crawford
implored the Avalanche, which was down 2-0, to "get together,
get together," and before the second period began, the players
dutifully gathered around Roy in his crease. These huddles are
routine in junior hockey and in Europe, but no Avalanche player
could remember an NHL group hug. It didn't help matters. Roy
gave up three more goals in the second period and was yanked
with Colorado trailing 5-0, so he had a ringside seat as the
game deteriorated into hockey as cliche, the worst the sport has
to offer.

There were 204 penalty minutes in a third period that included
eight fighting majors, 14 misconducts, two instigators, four
roughings, two slashings and more examples of cowardice than
courage. "We're up 6-0, so we're not looking for anything," says
Shanahan, who is 6'3" and 215 pounds. "But at some point it's
like, O.K., that's enough." He battered Corbet, whom Shanahan
outweighs by 30 pounds, but that fight was not as shameful as
the 6'1", 215-pound Lemieux's picking on 5'10", 185-pound Red
Wing Slava Kozlov during a scrum and then skating away whenever
the Wings' 6'1", 210-pound defenseman Bob Rouse moved in to keep
Lemieux at bay.

With 2:18 left, Crawford had to be restrained from going after
Bowman on the Wings' bench. This was a bizarre tableau: the
immaculately dressed Crawford, eyes bulging, looking as if he
were one expletive from a rabies shot, and the preternaturally
rumpled Bowman, one hand in his pocket, a bemused grin on his
lips. Crawford screamed that the Red Wings had nailed one of his
guys--Draper had given Peter Forsberg a charley horse with a
check in the third period--and now the Avalanche had evened the
score, presumably a reference to Keane's nasty slash to
Larionov's calf.

The next day the NHL fined Crawford $10,000 for conduct that was
"dishonorable, prejudicial to or against the welfare of the
league." A contrite Crawford apologized, but then it was Detroit
that played excuse-me hockey in a 6-0 loss in Game 5 at
McNichols Sports Arena. The Wings were meek in front of both
nets, exhibiting neither the poise nor the confidence they had
shown while dominating the first four games. Vernon was chased
after allowing four goals on 10 shots, but on Monday he was back
at work in Joe Louis Arena, making 15 saves as Detroit finished
the job.

Vernon is going to see more traffic against the Flyers, who
average 6'2", 210 pounds. "Not that Philly runs goalies,"
Rangers scout Kevin McDonald says, sarcastically, "but they find
where the goalie is going to be about eight times a game." If
the Red Wings are going to win their first Stanley Cup since
1955, Bowman must reunite star defensemen Vladimir Konstantinov
and Niklas Lidstrom and hope they can keep Eric Lindros, John
LeClair and their big teammates away from Vernon, a monumental
task. Size counts, but Detroit has enough talent to win the Cup
in seven games.


COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO In Game 4 Vernon laid it on the line, stopping Eric Messier (29) in a 6-0 win. [Mike Vernon blocking shot by Eric Messier in game]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO McCarty scored on a breakaway in Game 4, but he was stoned by Roy on a similar play here in Game 5. [Darren McCarty and Patrick Roy in game]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO The Red Wings upended the Avalanche in Game 3, a 2-1 win that swung the series Detroit's way. [Detroit Red Wings player and Colorado Avalanche player colliding in game]

COLOR PHOTO: TIM DEFRISCO Antagonists Konstantinov (16) and Lemieux made their presence felt in the rough-and-tumble series. [Vladimir Konstantinov and Claude Lemieux in game]