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ESPN's Red Wings/Avalanche Documentary "Unrivaled" Is One Of The Best Hockey Docs Ever

When Buccigross dropped the trailer for "Unrivaled" awhile back on Twitter, I immediately had to share it because it looked so goddamn awesome. 

And now that I watched, for the third time this week, ESPN's two-hour documentary about the blood feud between the Detroit Red Wings and Colorado Avalance back in the late '90s, I can tell you that "Unrivaled" more than lived up to the hype. In fact, it's one of the best hockey docs I've ever seen. The filmmakers were able to round up a who's who of NHL cognoscenti that had some connection to hockey's last true Hatfields vs. McCoys, ranging from play-by-play guy Gary Thorne to the perfect villian who gets blamed for starting the entire thing and nobody holds back in their candor. 

After a clip of principal participants Darren McCarty and Claude Lemieux hosting a hot-stove/Q&A about the rivalry, the doc begins a magnificent soup-to-nuts deep dive that starts with the 1995 Stanley Cup Final. The heavily-favored Wings finally made their long-awaited return to the Final but were summarily bitch-slapped in four games by a bigger and meaner New Jersey Devils squad. Claude Lemieux won the Conn Smythe Trophy with a postseason-leading 13 goals in 20 games (Jaromir Jagr was second with 10). And the Wings knew they weren't there yet.

The doc then shifts to the other team, still known as the Quebec Nordiques. The roster was the best in franchise history after loading up on HHOF talent at the draft for years but because of financial reasons, the budding powerhouse left Canada for Colorado as Denver got a second shot at an NHL team. The Mile High City literally had no idea who or what they were getting as Mike Ricci hilariously recalled. A bunch of Avs went to a local The Cheesecake Factory, waited for almost two hours, and even Joe Sakic couln't get them the hook-up. Just a couple of days before the season started, Pierre Lacroix made his first masterstroke when he turned Wendel Clark into Claude Lemieux via three-way trade.

After noting that Colorado's first-ever game was a run-of-the-mill win over Detroit, Patrick Roy's dramatic departure from Montreal is covered in great detail and it's crazy to think how much Mario Tremblay's series of bad decisions would affect hockey history. Mike Vernon chatted with an unhappy Roy earlier in the day of their game vs. each other and Roy threw out the word "quit". His positional peer on the Red Wings told Roy that he was too good to hang 'em up and that he should get traded like he (Vernon) did. Roy said in his interview for the doc that he never wanted to leave Montreal and planned on breaking records as a Canadien.

That night, the Wings lit Roy up and had a 5-1 lead after the first period. "I couldn't stop a beach ball," he said. During intermission Tremblay asked him if he was fine to stay in. "I will never say to my coach 'yeah, pull me out' but you go in the second (period) and you're still not stopping a beach ball, c'mon." Tremblay left Roy in for another four goals and several Bronx cheers before finally pulling his humiliated and pissed off goalie. "I was waiting for a reaction of Mario and when I see him giving me that look...I'm like 'ok, this is it'...I went back and I said...'Mr. Corey, it's over'...I guess it was my way to ask for a trade." It's wild to think that Tremblay flashing his smug mug in Roy's face was the straw that broke the camel's back. Four days later, Lacroix made his second masterstroke and Roy was on his way to Denver.

After Stevie Y's OT bomb from downtown beat Blues goalie Jon Casey in Game 7 of the conference semis, the stage was set: the Colorado Avalanche vs. the Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference Final. Even though I watched this entire saga between the Wings and Avs as it unfolded in real time, there were still a handful of things I lost to the sands of time as my age doubled in the ensuing years. Like this scumbag potty kiss Slava Kozlov gave to Adam Foote during Game 3 that left him gushing blood out of his forehead.

"It started with the Kozlov hit, it just did," the tough-as-nails Colorado defenseman said, correctly pointing out that it wasn't Lemieux who introduced vile hits to the series. Ricci said, "We were out for blood after that." A stone-faced Brian Burke, the NHL's chief disciplinarian at the time, said “I didn’t think it was that bad” before noting that "anything 10 stitches or less was viewed as a shaving cut". Foote had 20-something stitches as a result of a dirty play so I'm not sure what Burkie was trying to say there. 

As Foote's gash continued to leak, Lemieux told him, "I'm gonna get him". And that he did.

Lemieux got his money's worth as well as the attention of Detroit coach Scotty Bowman. While Lemieux was leaving the building with his family after the game, Bowman chirped him from the Wings bus which incensed him. So Lemieux walked over, put a foot on the bus stairs and said, "You got a problem?" leading to a brief chaotic scene before cooler heads prevailed.

Lemieux had his hearing at the arena the next day and found himself in a small hallway and who comes walking by but Bowman. "I looked at him and said, 'do you have anything else to say?'. And he was quiet." Love him or hate him, that was a pretty ballsy thing to do. Lemieux was suspended for Game 4. 

About 42 minutes in, we get to Game 6 and one of the most infamous hits in NHL history. With 5:53 left in the first, this happens.

Detroit's trainer told Kris Draper that he would need to backboard him (i.e. take him off on a stretcher). "Like fuck you are," Draper said then skated off with assistance despite his broken face. At the present day event the doc circles back to, Lemieux expresses regret. "It wasn't something that was targeted...It happened quickly and if I could've taken it back, I would've taken it back as soon as it happened. I just knew it was not good."

After the Avs won the game and the series, there were a lot of wary eyes and guys on edge during handshake line. While nothing happened then, things had already changed drastically between the two combatants. Lemieux continued to play the perfect villain straight out of the "Rowdy" Roddy Piper mold, telling the media, "I think the Wings should be furious at the way they've played the last two years in the playoffs, that's what they should be furious at not at this hit." Oof. He did not apologize for the hit and many felt that the lack of an apology kept the beef alive. Lemieux was suspended for Games 1 & 2 of the Stanley Cup and fined $1000.

There's a quick Cup recap of the Avs sweeping Florida which includes Roy's hilarious rat tale before moving onto the next season. The Wings beefed up by adding Brendan Shanahan, who informs viewers that his deep, dark secret is that he's actually good friends with his former Devils teammate---Claude Lemieux (he named his son after after Shanny). At least until Lemieux skates over to him and says, "You're a loser, you haven't won anything."

Eventually, we get to March 26, 1997 when all hell breaks loose.

Viewers get a fantastic play-by-play perspective from multiple participants about how the melee went down for them. Two months later, the teams had their WCF rematch then the Wings swept the Flyers to win the Cup. 

The doc then takes a sad but necessary turn with about 20 minutes left to focus on one of hockey’s most heartbreaking incidents. Just a few days after the Cup jubilation, the Red Wings and the hockey world were rocked by the limo crash that left defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov with a severe brain injury and a cruelly abrupt end to what had been a stellar career. Vlad and his daughter Anastasia sit down for questions in the doc's most moving moments and the scenes of Vlad coming out for the ‘98 Cup celly are still incredibly emotional to watch. 

These two weren't done yet. Lemieux knew he needed to redeem himself.

Then on April 1, 1998 we got this.

Though the teams would face each other three more times in the playoffs, the animosity slowly dissipated and in 2000 the teams actually played the first penalty-free game in 20 years. Shanahan referred to it as an "embarrassment". The doc closes with some final words from McCarty and Lemieux before one last clip of Draper's thoughts on the hit. After you watch this stellar doc, you'll go back for seconds because it's that good.

A few more buds for your bowl...

*Before Game 1 of the '96 WCF, the Wings took a page out of Red Auerbach's book and painted the Avs locker room, leaving their opponents to deal with the fumes, headaches, and nausea.

*I was never much of a fan of the Avs logo or colors. The crest looks like a water slide and you can't even make out the 'C' because it's cut off at the top. Color combo is meh. But those early years with the black helmets and pants? U-G-L-Y, you ain't got no alibi. 

*One of the biggest reveals of the doc was Joe Sakic showing more personality and humor than I think we've ever seen before.

*One of the funnier clips was Shanny flat-out laughing when he sees the genteel Mike Vernon chuckin' knucks with Patty Roy.

*Ref Paul Devorksi, the lone referee, had a real APOCALYPSE NOW "Maaaaaaannnnnn, I seen some SHIT" vibe about him during his interviews.

*The Red Wings yelling at Darren McCarty to "dump it" before his highlight-reel goal vs. the Flyers was hilarious.

*Fans who watch this and think the doc 'took a side' are fucking delusional. This thing was as down the middle as it could get.