In the 12 years that we’ve run this site, the most common response we’ve received to the question “What would you like in a 30 for 30 or Sports Documentary?” was consistently “A documentary about the rivalry between the Colorado Avalanche and the Detroit Red Wings”.
The wait and anticipation ends on Sunday at E:60 unrivalled Broadcast possibly hours before a Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals featuring the Avalanche. Credit to ESPN for conveniently giving such an obvious crowd pleaser the green light in the first year of regaining NHL television rights.
Did the film (I watched the extended version which will debut on ESPN+) live up to expectations?
Most of the time yes.
If you know my reviews, I really have two main criteria: How good is the story? And how well did you tell it?
The good news here is that the Avalanche-Red Wings rivalry storyline is a home run of a story and is very well told in the documentary. A lot of stylish storytelling, a lot of good access to those involved and a lot of great footage that really fills the more than two hours. It’s quite an immersive film, and I should probably mention here that the version I saw wasn’t 100% complete.
My sophistry is on a few fronts, I care if others cave in — or if I’m just a snobbish jerk. Cards on the table, I’m not a huge hockey fan these days, but during the rivalry I was a fairly dedicated hockey fan and was fairly invested as a front-running Avalanche fan at the time.
– The film focuses almost exclusively on the 1995-98 seasons. In the four seasons following the documentary’s conclusion, the Avalanche and Red Wings met three more times in the playoffs, and both teams won another Stanley Cup. While those years had less drama and fights, the high stakes in those years and the ongoing suspense warranted enough of it to be included in the film. I think most people would agree that the general interest in the rivalry lasted a full seven years and not just the three portrayed in the film. In a way, I wonder if maybe this leaves the door open for a sequel, much like ESPN did The Uafter its success chronicling Miami in the 80’s but leaving a good amount of history.
– For better or for worse, unrivalled really focused on Kris Draper, Claude Lemieux and Darren McCarty, with all three giving in-depth interviews and Lemieux and McCarty actually sharing the stage together for the infamous revenge brawl game’s 25th anniversary. This is really the core and driving force behind the Avalanche and Red Wings rivalry, but I think some fans will feel that the film really didn’t want to stray far from those characters and storylines.
A good chunk of the movie talks about Vladimir Konstantinov’s accident, but the back half of the rivalry, as well as some of the other more notable skirmishes, beefs, stars, squad moves, classic matches, and memorable moments that made this a good rivalry outside of combat gets what it takes here either a very distant second reckoning or no mention at all. If you’re looking for an annual tale of how these teams struggled, how these teams stacked up against each other, and how they set out to improve each other, you really aren’t getting this full serving. This documentary is pretty much a heavy steak entree from Draper, Lemieux and McCarty with a few sparse sides.
– This is my last nitpick unrivalled appears to cater primarily to fans of the two teams from the rivalry, and to a lesser extent ice hockey fans. In particular, the documentary definitely leans more towards portraying the Red Wings as protagonists in the rivalry. While I don’t mind, I think the more casual sports fans who are watching will be looking for a little more context. There’s not a lot of debate about what was going on in the league during that time, and you really don’t get a good sense of how great these teams have historically been in terms of star power.
Additionally, unrivalled really doesn’t add much context on how the rivalry has increased interest in the sport in terms of fan interest and ratings. As I watched, I thought about how much bigger the NHL seemed during this time due to the rivalry, but also, ESPN held the rights to the NHL and didn’t have NBA rights yet. There were big chunks of the esports calendar when Avalanche and Red Wings were the biggest stories in esports and ESPN gave it top billing. For fans who have lived through this, it is easy to remember and feel when watching. But for younger fans or non-NHL fans, you don’t really get the perspective that this was truly a pinnacle for the NHL before the strike year and the sport left ESPN and ABC for OLN/Versus/NBC.
All in all, the directors here chose to go very deep with a narrow focus. I can’t say the result was bad; it just might not have scratched the itch everyone here has been looking for. unrivalled Drops in intensity and build up. There are some great quotes and great insightful stories from the players and coaches involved. It’s an engaging and compelling watch from start to finish, and it’s supremely stylish in presentation and storytelling. The execution of what they’ve focused on is done to a very high standard, although I’d say they could have used more raw footage from ESPN clips of the infamous brawls, rather than the Bush’s Machinehead montage of fights as the soundtrack. You just can’t go wrong with more Gary Thorne in my opinion.
If this one 30 for 30, which I regularly review and rate, this would be somewhere in the top 25-30% of rates. It’s a solid B or B+. I’m curious if Avalanche fans will feel their side of the story was adequately portrayed, and I’m certainly interested to see if others feel the film doesn’t delve far enough into the rivalry. Ultimately, this is what fans have been asking for for quite some time, and ESPN delivered a very entertaining and in-depth documentary that’s pretty well done. Maybe – a la The U – can we get a second helping down the road?