They were, essentially, strangers in a strange land. Or, perhaps more accurately, a talented, rising NHL team in a new town.
|Center Peter Forsberg |
The story of the Colorado Avalanche began in earnest during the summer of 1995, when the NHL franchise formerly known as the Quebec Nordiques moved to Denver and reestablished itself as the Avalanche within a 60-day span.
It was a process that would quickly lead to the Avs standing on top of the hockey world.
The history of NHL hockey in the Rocky Mountain Region actually began in 1976, when the NHL announced that the Kansas City Scouts were moving to Denver to play as the Colorado Rockies. The team stayed in the Mile High City until the summer of 1982, when the Rockies were sold and subsequently moved to East Rutherford to become the New Jersey Devils.
And despite the presence of several other hockey teams in Denver over the years – including clubs from the United States Hockey League, International Hockey League, Western Hockey League and Central Hockey League – the state of Colorado was never considered a “traditional hockey hotbed.”
That notion quickly changed after the arrival of the Avalanche.
The Quebec Nordiques were coming off a very successful lockout-shortened 1994-95 campaign, finishing the regular season with a 30-13-5 record (65 points) and the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
However, the Nordiques’ season came to a disappointing end when the club was upset by the New York Rangers in the first round of the 1995 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Even so, the players and staff alike knew that they had a solid core in place, and that the move to Denver following the season would re-energize the team and shake off the bitter taste of their early playoff exit.
“I think everybody was excited for the year, especially coming to Denver, a new city, and seeing the excitement in the town with a new team coming in,” said Peter Forsberg. “All we could think about was winning in that city, winning a Stanley Cup.”Making Moves
Already arriving in a new city with championship aspirations, Avalanche General Manager Pierre Lacroix made a handful of key moves during the campaign that would eventually help push the team over the top.
The first major acquisition came just three days before opening night, as Lacroix brought in reigning Conn Smythe winner Claude Lemieux in a three-team deal. Just three weeks later, Lacroix solidified his blue line by trading forward Owen Nolan for defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh.
Those two deals went a long way toward further establishing Colorado as a Stanley Cup contender, but it was Lacroix’s masterful deal in December that was undoubtedly the biggest. It was on Dec. 6, 1995 that the Avalanche acquired goaltender Patrick Roy and forward Mike Keane from the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for Andrei Kovalenko, Jocelyn Thibault and Martin Rucinsky.
“I think we went on a roll and started winning and we had a lot of character on that team,” said Forsberg, then a second-year forward. “After those trades, when we got (Ozolinsh), Patrick, Claude and Mike Keane, I think they taught us a lot about winning. When we started winning in the middle of the year I think everyone felt we had a chance of going a long way.”
And those moves – especially the trade for Roy and Keane - spoke to the players as well. The message was clear and well-received within the locker room: The time to win is now.
“When Pierre made the trade for Patrick and Keaner, it was his was to say, ‘You know what, this is your chance.’ And we really believed at that moment that we had a really good chance,” said former Avalanche captain Joe Sakic.
Lemieux, who had drank from Lord Stanley’s Cup the season before with the New Jersey Devils (and who had also previously won a cup with the Montreal Canadiens in 1986) knew a thing or two about what makes a winning team.
The veteran forward, who had gained a reputation for his playoff heroics, knew immediately that the 1995-96 Avalanche squad had what it took.
“I knew right away when I got traded there that team was a great team. The year before they had an exceptional season and I knew the talent was there,” said Lemieux. “We all realized that we had everything that it took to win. We had a great run and history will tell that, for me, it was the most talented hockey team I’ve ever played with.”
|Defenseman Adam Foote |
The excitement surrounding the new Avalanche team – and the winning mentality the club brought to the ice each night – quickly endeared the team to its fans in Colorado. What sprung from that love affair was a 487-game streak of consecutive sellouts, which still stands as the longest recorded streak in NHL history.
According to current Avalanche captain Adam Foote, another thing that made the 1995-96 Avalanche great was having so many stars who were willing to check their egos at the door and come together for a common purpose.
“You have to come together to get something accomplished. Everyone’s got to be on the same page,” said Foote. “That’s what the Mike Keanes, the (Dave) Hannans, the (Troy) Murrays - the unsung heroes that I think on most teams no one talks about – that’s what they did. They were able to leave their egos at the door and get the stars to also.”On Top Of The World
After opening the 1995-96 regular season with a 2-3-1 record, the Avalanche pulled things together and went on a 13-2-3 run through the remainder of October and November. By the time the playoffs rolled around, Colorado had posted a 47-25-10 record (104 points) to claim the Pacific Division title and the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference.
As is often the case in the postseason, each playoff round had a unique feel.
First came a tough six-game series with the Vancouver Canucks. Next was a physical six-game bout with the Chicago Blackhawks that featured four overtime contests. In the Western Conference Finals, Colorado had to get past a Detroit Red Wings team that had accumulated 131 points while steamrolling through the regular season. After dispatching the Wings in six games, the Avalanche swept the Florida Panthers in the Stanley Cup Finals, a feat that was sealed after Uwe Krupp’s now famous blast from the point that beat Florida netminder John Vanbiesbrouck in the third overtime of Game 4.
“It was a special run. We started out and really didn’t know what to expect,” said Forsberg. “Every round was a tough series. Obviously we won 4-0 in the finals so that was the easiest one, but playing Vancouver was really hard and I remember it was physical against Chicago. Playing Detroit in the semis was probably the toughest one.”
The Stanley Cup title put the Avalanche on top of the hockey world and brought Colorado its first major professional sports championship while also fulfilling a lifelong dream for the players themselves.
“Really, there’s nothing like it, because that’s what you dream of as a kid,” said Sakic. “To win, you reach the pinnacle. That’s all we ever wanted to do. To lift the Stanley Cup over your head, that’s a lifelong dream coming true. It’s hard to put into words, because there’s nothing like it.”
|Forward Adam Deadmarsh |
The 1996 Stanley Cup Playoffs ended with the Avalanche reaching the goal they had set forth before the season started. And now, 26 of the players and staff members from that squad will return to Denver from Oct. 6-7 to celebrate what they accomplished.
The 15-year reunion will culminate with a pre-game ceremony prior to the Avalanche’s Opening Night matchup against the Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday, Oct. 7 at Pepsi Center.
“We’re probably all going to want to put our gear back on and see what we can do. Maybe we’ll start an old-timers tournament or something,” joked Adam Deadmarsh, a forward on the 1996 Stanley Cup Champions and the Avalanche’s current Video/Development Coach. “You’ve done something really special and that feeling never goes away.”
Foote, the only member of both the 1996 Stanley Cup championship team and the current edition of the Avalanche, best sums up the spirit of the reunion, which will see the majority of the team congregate as a group for the first time since hoisting the Cup.
“We can come and share a good night together and no one can take this away from us,” said Foote. “We’re champions, and I think that’s the emotion that will be there that night.”