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Avalanche's first Cup celebrates 15 years of memories

by Rick Sadowski
DENVER -- Many of them are a little grayer and carrying a bit more weight, but it is just like old times for members of the Colorado Avalanche's 1996 Stanley Cup championship team.

With the exception of Sandis Ozolinsh and Chris Simon, who are playing in Russia, and Craig Wolanin and Scott Young (both family reasons), every coach and player who brought the first major professional sports championship to the state of Colorado are back in Denver to take part in the Avalanche's 15-year reunion.

They met for a team dinner Wednesday at the Denver Chop House and Brewery -- dining along with this season's team -- after entering the restaurant on a red carpet surrounded by eager picture-taking and autograph-seeking fans.

The '96 team also will be honored in a ceremony Thursday at the Pepsi Center before the Avalanche takes on the Chicago Blackhawks (10 p.m. ET, VERSUS) in the regular-season opener.

"There are not a lot of guys who look fit, to be honest with you," former captain Joe Sakic said, laughing.

Current captain Adam Foote is in fine physical condition, but he should be. The lone remaining active player from the '96 team, the 39-year-old defenseman will begin his 19th NHL season Thursday.

"It's a weird feeling," Foote said of visiting with so many former teammates. "It goes so fast. You wish you could turn it back. I'm sure everyone has felt that in their life. I think we were too young to realize how special that team was."

After finishing first in the Northeast Division while still based in Quebec during the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season -- and getting bounced by the New York Rangers in the opening round of the playoffs -- the Nordiques were sold in June 1995, moved to Denver and renamed the Avalanche.

Coached by Marc Crawford, the Avalanche were considered a Stanley Cup contender upon arrival in the Mile High City, with Sakic, Foote, Peter Forsberg, Valeri Kamensky, Adam Deadmarsh and Sylvain Lefebvre leading the way.

Then-general manager and current team president Pierre Lacroix proceeded to turn the team into a powerhouse by swinging trades for Patrick Roy, Claude Lemieux and Sandis Ozolinsh.

"I remember the trade like it was yesterday," Roy said of his December 1995 acquisition from the Montreal Canadiens. The Avalanche received Roy and Mike Keane in exchange for Andrei Kovalenko, Martin Rucinsky and Jocelyn Thibault.

"I knew this team a lot because they were in Quebec," said Roy, who won two Stanley Cups in Montreal and two in Colorado, most recently in 2001. "I was confident that coming here we had a good chance. Detroit was a very good team, but I felt that these guys had it. There were a lot of leaders and a lot of talent. It was the perfect fit for me. I knew Pierre Lacroix very well because he was my agent before. I think it really gave a second wind to my career."

Playing in since-razed McNichols Sports Arena, the Avalanche finished first in the Pacific Division with a 47-25-10 record. Colorado then defeated Vancouver, Chicago, Detroit and Florida to capture the Cup.

The Avalanche swept the Panthers in the Stanley Cup Final, but needed 63 saves from Roy and a triple-overtime goal from Uwe Krupp for a 1-0 victory in the clincher, June 10, 1996, at Miami Arena.

"I remember Sly jumping with me," Krupp, who now coaches in Germany, said of Lefebvre. "He was my defensive partner, so he was the closest to me. I just remember mayhem. Everybody was just being ecstatic and happy. You're just grateful that you had the opportunity to play on a team like this, and our coaching staff was incredible, with Marc Crawford and (assistants) Joel Quenneville, Jacques Martin and Jacques Cloutier. It was sort of an all-star cast. I can't say enough how Pierre Lacroix put that team together.

"If you look at how we were welcomed in Denver after moving from Quebec and how the people embraced us and all the support we got, it was very special. There was a real positive energy surrounding the team."

Sakic won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason's most valuable player after he amassed 18 goals and 16 assists in 22 games.

"It's fun to get together again and to reminisce, all us retired guys," said Sakic, whose No. 19 was retired last year. "It was just an unbelievable ride for the players, for the organization, the city, seeing the parade. Everything about that year was special. To me, it was the best year we've had here. It's hard to put it into words what that really meant.

"It goes so fast. You wish you could turn it back. I'm sure everyone has felt that in their life. I think we were too young to realize how special that team was." -- Adam Foote

"After getting the call about the reunion, you start thinking about all the guys that you haven't seen for a long time and you're looking forward to getting together again. You remember those moments that you had at that time."

It wasn't all rosy for the Avalanche, which played in an antiquated arena. Players had to dress for practices in the building and carpool to older practice sites.

"It was pretty rough," Lemieux said. "I remember Keaner got pulled over on the I-25 freeway. He was dressed in his gear and he was wearing his hockey helmet. The policeman pulled him over and asked him for his ID. Keener looked at him and he said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ We really sucked it up for a few years.

"Our facility at McNichols was just the bare minimum. The locker room and everything was as small as it could get and we didn't have a practice facility. I probably complained the most, but most of the guys didn't complain too much. We knew we had a great shot at winning and we overlooked all the small problems that we might have faced."

Forsberg, who remains a Denver icon, said Lemieux's decision to show the championship ring he won the year before with New Jersey to him and Deadmarsh before the playoffs proved to be a motivational tool.

"I think it was at a pregame meal before the first round," Forsberg said. "When Claude brought his ring in, we said, 'We want one of those. It'd be pretty cool getting one of these.' It was a really nice ring. It was unbelievable. You're 22 and you get to win it. It was unreal, something you'll never forget."

Foot and ankle problems in recent seasons have hampered Forsberg, 37, who has yet to decide whether to try another comeback or retire.

"I miss playing hockey," he said. "Well, I miss playing good hockey. I don't miss going out there and falling everywhere. I don't miss that. I know my foot doesn't work as good as I want it to, and so I can't play. Of course I miss playing. It's sad not playing."

Roy, whose No. 33 was retired by the Avalanche in 2003, remains heavily involved in hockey as coach of the Quebec Remparts in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

"I feel that I'm very lucky to have a chance to stay in the business of hockey, where my passion is," he said. "I think it did help me to turn the page and move on. But I'm very excited to be here. It's a great opportunity to meet the guys again and to come back to Denver. I have only good memories of Denver and it's nice to be back."

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