A version of the following story appeared in the 2015-16 first edition of AVALANCHE, the official game magazine of the Colorado Avalanche Hockey Club. For more feature stories, purchase a copy of the magazine during Avs home games at Pepsi Center. All proceeds from game-magazine sales support youth hockey associations in Colorado.
When Uwe Krupp’s shot from the point beat Florida Panthers goalie John Vanbiesbrouk 44 minutes, 31 seconds into overtime late on June 10, 1996, it set off a celebration Colorado had never experienced.
Euphoria swept Denver and the state after the defenseman’s goal clinched the Stanley Cup for the Colorado Avalanche. It was the city’s first professional championship, courtesy of a team that wasn’t even a year old.
The Avalanche was in its first year of existence after 23 years as the Quebec Nordiques, and the team made a splash by capturing the title. It began a love affair with the fans that is still going strong.
“No question winning the Cup was the highlight; it was the icing on the cake,” says Joe Sakic, who was the captain of the '96 Stanley Cup championship team. “It was a tremendous year right from the start—on and off the ice.”
Sakic, now the Avalanche executive vice president/general manager/alternate governor, spoke at the start of the 2015-16 season, which also happens to be the 20th anniversary of the franchise moving to Denver. Like that first team, this squad is loaded with good, young talent and great goaltending. It is led by two Hockey Hall of Famers—Sakic and former goalie Patrick Roy, who is now the head coach/vice president of hockey operations.
The pair has spearheaded the resurgence of an Avalanche franchise that became one of the elite NHL clubs after relocating. The Avs won nine straight division titles—an NHL record—advanced to the Western Conference Final six times in seven years and added another Stanley Cup championship in 2001.
That’s a lot to celebrate in the first 20 years for any franchise.
“It’s gone by pretty quick,” Sakic says.
To think, the Colorado Avalanche didn’t exist 12 months before winning it all. In 1995, the Nordiques had lost in six games to the New York Rangers in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. With a core of great, young talent that included Sakic, defenseman Adam Foote and Rookie of the Year Peter Forsberg, the future was bright.
The future just wasn’t going to be in Quebec. In May 1995, Nordiques owner Marcel Aubut agreed in principle to sell the team to COMSAT Entertainment, owners of the Denver Nuggets at the time.
The deal was finalized on July 1, and the team moved to Denver two months before the start of the 1995-96 season. Any doubts about how the team would be received were dispelled when 12,000 season tickets were sold in the first 37 days of the relocation.
“We all knew it was a Broncos town, and it was the first year in Coors Field and the Blake Street Bombers,” Sakic says. “Add to that the Nuggets. You’re trying to build off that product and get the fan base to really know the players and the team.”
Fans came in droves and tickets were in high demand. On Nov. 9, 1995, the Avalanche began an NHL-record sellout streak of 487 straight games, a mark that still stands.
The Avs became beloved right away for two reasons—winning and community involvement. From the start, the team was giving back, a commitment that only increased after E. Stanley Kroenke bought the franchise in July 2000. Charity brunches, the annual visit to the Children’s Hospital and Joe and Debbie Sakic’s work with the Food Bank of the Rockies are just three of the many endeavors in which Kroenke Sports Enterprises has devoted time and money.
For the 10th anniversary in 2005, for example, KSE donated $100,000 each to 10 separate nonprofit organizations, cementing its philanthropic legacy.
The Avalanche’s arrival also generated interest in hockey at all levels. Since 1995, there has been a 97-percent increase in youth hockey associations in the state and participation from young girls to adults has gone up.
Moreover, there were hardly any high school hockey teams in Colorado in 1995. In 2015, there were 85. The arrival of the Avalanche has a lot to do with that.
“I think this is how it starts,” Roy says. “When you see the NHL team having success, young kids want to play the game of hockey, and I think we all benefit from it.”
The Avalanche’s first game was a 3-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings at McNichols Arena on Oct. 6, 1995. Detroit finished the regular season with 62 wins but Colorado was putting together a great campaign, too. The Avs finished with 47 victories and 104 points to capture the Pacific Division behind a talented core that became more formidable when they acquired Roy from the Montreal Canadiens on Dec. 6, 1995.
“We had a great start before the trade,” Sakic says. “Then we add a goalie [that], for us in the dressing room, was the best goalie of all time.”
Colorado won two tough series against the Vancouver Canucks and the Chicago Blackhawks before facing the Red Wings in the Western Conference Final.
“We had a great year, not as good as Detroit, but we knew if we wanted to win the Stanley Cup we were going to go through them,” Roy says. “We used that motivation to play our best hockey of the year in the playoffs.”
It was there that Colorado put itself on the NHL map with a 4-2 series upset of Detroit before sweeping Florida in the Stanley Cup Final. It also started a fierce rivalry with Detroit, the signature rivalry in the NHL over the past 20 years. Even though it has softened with the Red Wings moving to the Eastern Conference, the passion is there, as is the passionate support for the team.
“Denver’s a different market than Montreal, but it’s a great place to play hockey and it’s a great town,” Roy says.
Thanks to the Colorado Avalanche, in 20 short years it has become a hockey hotbed.