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Avalanche having great start under new GM Sherman

by Rick Sadowski /

"We felt early into camp that we had the makings of some pretty unique things. Our expectations were we were going to be a hard-working team, building around our youth with a good balance of veterans. The coaching staff has instilled a hardworking work ethic in the team."
-- Greg Sherman

Greg Sherman is the first to admit that his rise to the general manager's seat with the Colorado Avalanche has been, well, rather unorthodox.

After all, he's never played a second of hockey and graduated from the University of San Diego with a degree in accounting. Still, the former bean counter has rebuilt an Avalanche team that finished last in the Western Conference a season ago. This season, Colorado has taken the NHL by storm, rolling up a 12-4-2 record even without longtime captain Joe Sakic, who retired in July.

"We've certainly gotten off to a good start and the momentum is continuing to build," said Sherman, 39, who is in Toronto for meetings with his colleagues Tuesday and Wednesday. "The guys have confidence in the room and they're showing it on the ice. We've played a strong team game out of the gate and we're fortunate that we've played some consistent, hard-working hockey.

"There are those that had their predictions. After finishing last year where we did, we knew that we had to address some key areas. We felt early into camp that we had the makings of some pretty unique things. Our expectations were we were going to be a hard-working team, building around our youth with a good balance of veterans. The coaching staff has instilled a hardworking work ethic in the team.

"Predictions are always a slippery slope to get into, but certainly we are happy with where we are at right now, knowing thata we have many challenges ahead," Sherman said.

Baseball was Sherman's favorite sport when he was growing up in Scranton, Pa., and he starred on the diamond for Cherry Creek High School in a Denver suburb after his father, Jerry, moved the family across the country for business reasons.

As for getting his foot in the door with the Avalanche 14 years ago, Sherman simply says: "Right time, right place."

He met Pierre Lacroix, then-general manager and now team president, shortly after the Quebec Nordiques moved to Denver in 1995 and were renamed the Avalanche. Sherman was employed at the time by Arthur Andersen LLP, the accounting firm that hooked up with COMSAT Entertainment, the group that owned the Avalanche and the NBA Denver Nuggets.

Sherman made the Avalanche aware that he was interested in working full-time for a sports team, and he eventually was hired as an assistant controller in the finance department. In 1999, when the Pepsi Center opened, he was put in charge of consumer products.

Lacroix promoted Sherman to assistant GM in 2002, a position he held for seven years, the last three under GM Francois Giguere after Lacroix stepped down from the day-to-day operations of the team. Last June, two months after Giguere was fired when the Avalanche tumbled into the Western Conference cellar, Sherman was moved up to the GM's chair.
"I had the opportunity to learn the business from Pierre, one of the best GMs in the game, while I was pretty much behind the scenes," said Sherman, who makes no apologies for his business background. "I don't think there's a sense of having anything to prove. I've always approached every job as a challenge. I set my goals very high; I have high expectations of myself.  So I don't look at it as having anything to prove to anybody.

"My job is my responsibility to this franchise, to this marketplace. I take a lot of pride in the community, to Denver and the state of Colorado and the Rocky Mountain region as a whole. I know the expectations of this market and I fully recognize we have to earn the trust back.

"The biggest thing right now is to get this franchise back to where it rightfully belongs."

The Avalanche won eight consecutive division titles from 1995-2003, along with two Presidents' Trophies, two Western Conference championships and two Stanley Cups while setting a League record with 487 sellout crowds in a row.

But the bottom fell out last season, the second time in three years that the Avalanche missed the playoffs, resulting in a massive management and coaching overhaul.   Gone were Giguere, assistant to the GM Michel Goulet, head coach Tony Granato, and all of his assistants.

Sherman, who had been the liaison between the Avalanche and its top minor-league affiliate, the AHL Lake Erie Monsters, brought in Lake Erie's Joe Sacco as head coach. Former Avalanche players Adam Deadmarsh, Steve Konowalchuk and Sylvain Lefebvre were named to Sacco's staff.

"There have been quite a few challenges since June, no question, but we've got a lot of great people working here," Sherman said. "I was fortunate enough to work with Joe for the last four years. He certainly was deserving of this opportunity. Bringing in the assistant coaches, they've all worn our sweater, and that was important.

"Certainly the start helps calm some of the pressures that exist in this job," Sherman said. "But it is a challenge and there are pressures that go along with running a professional franchise, so (the start) certainly helps in that regard. Having said that, we know what we are trying to do. We want to bring this franchise back to where it belongs. Knowing what that takes, I know there is quite a bit of work ahead of us."

Sherman also made significant player moves while leaning on new assistant GM Craig Billington, player personnel director Brad Smith, director of hockey operations Eric Lacroix and chief amateur scout Rick Pracey for advice.

"You have to surround yourself with good people," Sherman said.

The Avalanche selected 18-year-old centers Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly with the Avalanche's first two selections in the 2009 Entry Draft, and both have played integral roles in the team's surprising start.

Sherman acquired defenseman Kyle Quincey from Los Angeles as part of a trade involving left wing Ryan Smyth, and Quincey is logging a team-high 25 minutes per game.

Looking to fill a major hole in net, Sherman signed goalie Craig Anderson to a two-year, $3.625 million contract shortly after the July 1 free agency period began, and Anderson tied a League record for wins in October with 11.

"Craig certainly has stepped up," Sherman said. "It's kind of the timing and the opportunity all coming into play in a guy's career. I think overall were fortunate where we're at, but we know there are challenges ahead. We're in a business that at the end of the day is about wins. We know there's a long season ahead, but we feel if we continue on this path, we feel pretty positive about things in the future."

One disappointing area has been home attendance. Despite the Avalanche's improved play, the team has one sellout in seven home games – opening night against San Jose when longtime captain Joe Sakic's No. 19 jersey was retired.

The Avalanche are averaging 14,505 in the 18,007-seat Pepsi Center and drew 11,012 for a Nov. 4 game against Phoenix, the smallest crowd since the team has been in Denver.

"We're working to make sure that we get the fans back in this building," Sherman said. "I believe that we will get the fans back. If we continue on this pace, people are going to want to come out to see us. We're an exciting, enthusiastic, energetic team.

"At the end of the day, we need to win and we know that. If the fans start to pay attention and look at the way this team is built, look at the way this team plays, I believe people will come back.

"Look, the season is still young, we're less than 20 games. With a young team, the rigors of the season are there and we know it. So the key is keeping these guys focused and competing on a nightly basis, which I think our coaching staff has done."

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