The Case Against Hockey Rivalries

The Colorado Avalanche and Detroit Red Wings, circa 1996.

The Colorado Avalanche and Vancouver Canucks, circa 2004.

The Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames, circa 2020.

What do these three things have in common? All three are notable rivalries, two of which are long since finished, one looking like it’s heating up.

They’re also rivalries borne of a dirty hit or otherwise ugly exchange that sparked the ongoing animosity.

Let’s review. The Avalanche and Red Wings faced off in the 1996 Western Conference Final, which the Avalanche won, culminated in Game six when Claude Lemieux laid a late hit from behind on an unsuspecting Kris Draper, resulting a very serious injury that in Draper’s own words, left the entire right side of his face caved in.

Let’s all admit it, this hit was dirty as hell.

The ensuing animosity lasted for roughly a decade. Nowadays it seems like a distant memory but, at the time, this was definitely one of the premier rivalries of the NHL during that time.

The infamous Steve Moore/Todd Bertuzzi incident is well-known to any Avalanche fan. Following a dirty hit by Moore on Canucks captain Markus Naslund in a February 16th tilt between the Avs and Canucks, Todd Bertuzzi enacted “revenge” on Moore with a sucker punch and ensuing tackle that resulted in a broken neck and the end of Moore’s career. It also resulted in a massive suspension for Bertuzzi from which his own career never really recovered.

I’m not going to post the video of the incident…it’s still a sore spot for me even all these years later. I’m also not going to delve into Brad May’s recent asinine comments about the whole fiasco either. You can easily find both with a quick internet search.

The ensuing rivalry here didn’t last nearly as long as the Red Wings and Avalanche. Most of the prinicpal players would be gone not long after, and just four years after this fateful incident, the Avalanche would have their window of contention slammed shut and enter what would be a very prolonged rebuild.

Which brings us to this season. After taking a couple dirty hits from the NHL’s second-favorite antagonist, Matthew Tkachuk (pretty sure Brad Marchand remains the league’s top wrestling heel) Zack Kassian finally has enough and makes his displeasure known.

Who am I supposed to be rooting for here?

Thankfully no serious injury resulted here, but it did result in some rather ignominious results for Kassian and his team. Not only did Kassian get called for a penalty that resulted in the Flames’ game-winning goal, but the winner of this contest also earned the top spot in the Pacific Division that night.

Kassian also earned himself a hearing with the ever-effective Department of Player Safety and was suspended. Ironically, the suspension lasts long enough for his first game to be against…the Flames.

Of course, this has also led to a pretty drama-filled exchange between both Tkachuk and Kassian over the media airwaves, which has seemingly escalated matters to the point where the head of Player Safety himself, George Parros, will reportedly attend the upcoming Battle of Alberta to ensure that we don’t have another Bertuzzi/Moore moment.

All the while I’m reading how all this drama is getting people excited for the next matchup, which is understandable to a point, but it also begs the question: Is blood really necessary for a blood feud? Can’t a hockey rivalry just exist on hockey grounds? Why does it almost feel necessary for one team or the other to make things personal with an act that crosses the line?

Look…I get it. We love rivalries in sports, and in the age of free agency where players switch teams quicker than ever and windows of contention are increasingly narrow, they are few are far between. I’m also a football fan in addition to watching hockey, and even the longstanding rivalry between the Denver Broncos and the Oak…uh..sorry…Las Vegas Raiders just doesn’t seem to have the same level of excitement as it used to. A good ol’ fashioned feud between teams and their respective fans raises the stakes a considerable degree.

But it feels unique to hockey that a cheap shot is what sparks these sorts of grudge matches. I could be wrong, but I just don’t see this happening much in the world of football, and certainly not basketball. In baseball, I do recall the silliness between Roger Clemens and Mike Piazza in the Subway Series nearly 20 years ago, but that really just felt like a blip. Rivalries in most other sports, especially at the collegiate level, just seem more traditional and don’t rely on something like a check from behind to spark them.

Some may argue that the departure of John Tavares has ignited a rivalry between the New York Islanders and Toronto Maple Leafs, but I don’t think that’s true. There doesn’t seem to be much animosity between the two clubs, and the ire of Isles fans appears to be solely focused on the player rather than the organization that signed him.

So then, my next question, which I’ve asked online before, is this: Are rivalries really necessary? Certainly there are rivalries within each respective division, but beyond that I don’t believe there are any rivalries which, ahem, rival those of the Avs/Red Wings or some of those old Senators/Maple Leafs tilts back in the day.

But I’ll also say that I don’t recall an era in the NHL where there was so much talent to enjoy. The game has never been faster, and apparently scoring is on the rise at a considerable rate. To me that’s way more important than watching two teams engage in a bench-clearing brawl.

Of course, there’s another side to this. If you read that Players’ Tribune piece on Kris Draper I linked to earlier (and really, you should, it’s fantastic) Draper argues it wasn’t the Lemieux hit on him that sparked the Avs/Wings feud.

Most people think that the feud started when I broke my face in Game 6. But it started way before that. From the first drop of the puck of Game 1, guys were taking runs, slashing, grabbing, sucker punching, you name it. There’s no point in even going over every incident. We did stuff. They did stuff. If you played in the NHL playoffs back then, you were not coming out unscathed. I’m not glorifying it, but that was the way it was.

Kris Draper

I certainly don’t think rivalries are dead, but they’re not what they used to be, and really, I’m okay with that. Some would like the stakes to be higher, and I totally understand that, but, speaking as an Avalanche fan, watching my favorite team win a hotly-contested match against the Minnesota Wild doesn’t matter quite as much to me as them beating a team like the Washington Capitals. Because the Capitals are, arguably, the cream of the NHL crop. I’d rather just see quality hockey no matter who the opponent happens to be, rather than something decidedly less entertaining, but rife with mutual animosity.

Don’t get me wrong, I really, really, don’t like watching the Avs lose to the Wild. Ever. And I’ll never, ever, get tired of seeing the Avalanche render Devan Dubnyk into a gesticulating fool. But I take far more pleasure in seeing them knock off a top team in the league.

Because the end goal isn’t to just beat a rival, is it? It’s to beat everyone…to win a championship. The Avalanche beat the Red Wings in 1999 and 2000 only to fall to the Dallas Stars both years. The Avalanche didn’t even face off against either of those teams in the 2001 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and most probably remember that was the year they won their second championship in franchise history.

One could argue since they didn’t have to waste any energy beating a bitter rival, they could focus on hockey. And they did. No Avalanche fans really remember those playoff triumphs against the Wings, because in the end, they didn’t matter.

Anyway, food for thought.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be in the backyard burning a Raiders jersey.