Story by Michael Kelly
Well before the start of training camp, many of the Colorado Avalanche players were out on the ice at the Family Sports Center, skating and getting ready for the 2006-07 season.
No coaches and no officials, it was hockey's version of a pick-up game at the park. One theme emerged when Jose Theodore was on the ice.
"Most of the time he was in the net, his team won," said forward Milan Hejduk.
That's a good sign for Avalanche fans. Theodore, who came to Colorado in a trade with Montreal on March 8, is looking strong. More importantly, he's feeling strong and focused.
"You can't compare Jose now and a few months ago," says Avalanche defenseman Patrice Brisebois, who played with Theodore in Montreal. "He knows he had a bad season last year, and he wants to put that behind him and he wants to bounce back. He wants to show everybody he's a top five goalie in the NHL. He worked so hard this summer to do that."
The litany of issues Theodore faced would fog anyone's mind. He was platooning with Cristobal Huet in Montreal, and during the Olympic break, Theodore walked out of his house, slipped on the icy steps and fractured his right heel. A month later, he was traded to Colorado.
In the middle of all that, Theodore's girlfriend, Stephanie Cloutier, was pregnant with the couple's first child, who was born soon after he came to Colorado. Still, Theodore was able to come back from his injury in time to lead the Avalanche past the Dallas Stars in the first round of the playoffs.
The nine postseason games Theodore played, and the two months he spent in Colorado following the trade, convinced him that he was with the right team.
"Last year I didn't know what to expect when I got traded. I was hurt," Theodore says. "I was able to make it to the playoffs and we beat Dallas in five. That was good for my confidence. Against Anaheim we lost, but I just saw that this was a team I wanted to play for and it was a great bunch of guys. The city's really good. I was looking forward to the training camp; that's why I came here two weeks early."
With Theodore installed as the No. 1 goalie and Peter Budaj as the No. 2 man, the Avalanche has a formidable, experienced tandem in the net. Last year, Budaj's play gave Colorado the freedom to deal for the injured Theodore. The Avalanche was fighting for a playoff spot, and for the last month of the season, Budaj was the guy the Avs counted on to get them to the postseason.
"Every night I played last year, I was happy I had an opportunity and a chance," says Budaj, who played in 34 games, one shy of the franchise rookie record for goalies set by Mario Gosselin in 1984-85. "Every game I got more confidence, and I'm looking forward to this year. I know Theo is the starter, but I will do everything I can to push him for a job. It's not going to be easy, but that's why I'm here."
If Theodore is on his game, it will be tough to supplant him as the top netminder. The 30-year old is motivated not only to win a Stanley Cup, but to put behind him a forgettable 2005-06.
"Getting traded was good for my confidence," says Theodore, who played in 43 regular season games last year, five with the Avalanche. "I needed a new start and couldn't ask for a better place than Denver. The city, the team, the organization, the fans, everybody is great."
The best way to erase a sub-par season is to have a great one, and that's Theodore's aim. He came to Colorado early to work with his teammates and get ready for the season. His play in the informal practices in August impressed his teammates at the outset of training camp.
"I've been seeing what a healthy Theodore can do, and he looks unbelievable," Avalanche defenseman John-Michael Liles says. "Everybody knew what he was capable of. Coming in late last year after the injury, asking anybody to step into a situation like this after eight weeks off is tough. He played remarkable for us, but I see him now and he's a totally different goalie. He's unbelievable right now. I think everybody's looking forward to getting into game situations and he'll show what he can do."
Ian Laperriere echoed that sentiment.
"He looks great," Laperriere says. "It was tough for him last year. It was a tough winter for him last year with his injury, but he looks great on the ice."
A sense of stability will help Theodore. When he came to Colorado, Theodore lived with Brisebois and his family. The defenseman, who has been Theodore's friend for 10 years, opened his home to Theodore, and the goalie felt comfortable staying with Patrice, his wife Michele and their two girls, Alexandra and Patricia. But it was important for Theodore to get a home for himself, Stephanie and their baby girl, Romi.
"I'm sure he was happy to live in my house. He knows my wife and my kids," Brisebois says. "But it's not the same. It's important for an athlete to be fine with where you live. Now he's happy."
For Theodore, it has helped him feel more at home in Colorado.
"That was another thing," he says. "It was important for me and my family to be here and settled."
The summer has given Theodore a chance to get his bearings and recharge his batteries. The Theodore who came to camp is a different player than the one who came to Colorado in March.
"It's a fresh start," Avalanche head coach Joel Quenneville says. "He's almost like one of the new players coming into the team. We feel that the type of goaltender he is, the style he plays, the way he prepared himself coming into the camp, he's a different person. His attitude is refreshed and energized, and we're expecting big things from him."
A motivated, focused Theodore could mean big things for the organization that has been a model franchise since moving to Colorado from Quebec. Theodore has carried teams into the playoffs before - which won't be necessary with the talent on the Avalanche - but his play could help Colorado go deep into the playoffs.
Brisebois has played with Theodore when he's at his best, as he was when he won the Vezina and Hart trophies in 2002, and he said Theodore on top of his game is something to behold.
"The year he won the two trophies, he was outstanding," Brisebois says. "The last few years in Montreal, the reason we made the playoffs is because of him. He can handle the pressure, he's good at it. It's not only him; it's a team effort. He knows how to face the pressure.
"His technique is right there. All that together, you're going to see a new Jose, and that's only a big plus for our team."
Michael Kelly covers the Avalanche for the Longmont Times-Call and is a regular contributor to the Avalanche Game Magazine