“With almost a minute to go it’s going to be a power play opportunity for Colorado and the only question is whether or not they can score here in the last minute of the game to wipe out that shutout. Scotty Bowman from behind the bench is looking at another W with that great total – he’s just five and three in game 7… the countdown continues, home stretch of goals: Robitaille one and two, Olausson and Haula were one, one in game. Datsyuk had three assists. Yzerman, Lidstrom two assists each. Federov, Datsuyk a goal. This game is over Stanley cup The final goes to Detroit!”
Those were the last words a Colorado Avalanche fan heard from a broadcaster (the great Gary Thorne) in a Western Conference finals ahead of this year’s Edmonton Oilers victory. It was one of the most anticipated seventh games in NHL history, capping perhaps the most intense rivalry the league has ever seen. The Hall of Famer-laden Detroit Red Wings put virtually every Hall of Famer on the scoresheet against the Hall of Famer-laden Avalanche in a 7-0 win.
At the time, many thought it was Patrick Roy’s last game. The good news is that wasn’t the case, the bad news is that his career ended in overtime in a Game 7 the following year against newly minted rivals Minnesota. The point here is that in Avalanche history we talk a lot about 1996 and 2001 because 2002 is almost as painful as those years are joyful.
The rivalry ended this season practically on Detroit’s terms when they engraved their names on the Stanley Cup. With all the luck that had fallen into our laps, Avs fans, thanks to a city across the continent choosing not to spend public money on a stadium and a hockey team bailout, that lucky streak ended pretty much like this sour as a note as possible… and then the Avs wandered aimlessly through the wilderness for two decades.
Peter Forsberg departed for Sweden a year after Roy’s retirement, and Sakic ended his career trying to manage flawed rosters that flared up in either the first or second round of the playoffs — while Detroit embarked on their Hall-of-Famers’ careers with one ended more titles and a symbolic passing of the torch to the next historically dominant force in the league, Sidney Crosby. Maybe that’s just the price a new fanbase has to pay to instantly get everything they could want, but that doesn’t make the past 20 years any less daunting for a once-proud franchise.
That brings me to Monday evening. Drink it up, Avs fans.
For the first time in 20 years, the Colorado Avalanche returns to the Stanley Cup Finals. That’s a sentence that feels surreal and is expected to be written. The Avalanche fandom is an odd headspace because we’ve seen both ends of the extreme in a relatively short amount of time. Few fanbases are better equipped than ours to identify with both the current dynasty in Tampa Bay and eternal doormats like Arizona.
We’ve been handed a dynasty and a white-hot Godzilla vs. King Kong-level rivalry to bring us all to die-hard hockey fandom. Then it slowly trickled down into a decade and a half of relative insignificance, punctuated in 2017 by the worst season for a team in the salary cap era (until 2020, when the Avalanche’s perennial dance partners, the Detroit Red Wings, usurped that title also.) Now the Avalanche are being ushered into a new era that we can all feel in our bones, has echoes of the old ones. Exciting, high skill, attacking, persistent hockey is back on the menu at the ̶M̶c̶N̶i̶c̶h̶o̶l̶s̶ ̶A̶r̶e̶n̶a̶ ̶P̶e̶p̶s̶i̶ ̶C̶e̶n̶t̶e̶r̶ Ball Arena.
However, unlike the 1990s, we have actually developed a more personal relationship with this team. We saw Nathan Mackinnon win the Calder Trophy at the age of 18 and then struggled for three years to regain the form he was as a teenager before blossoming into the super-duper star of which the Avalanche always believed he could be him. Gabriel Landeskog was made captain at the age of 19 and then put even more pressure on his shoulders by also lifting the league’s rookie trophy. Mikko Rantanen was a relatively old man who made his season debut for the Avs when he was 20. Stepping out of the NCAA championship game into the NHL playoffs at the ripe age of 21, Cale Makar made just a handful of substitutions in his already historic NHL career.
Joe Sakic was a six-year veteran before coming to Denver. Patrick Roy won two Conn Smythe Trophies before donning a Colorado uniform (the trigger for donning that Avalanche sweater? You guessed it, Detroit again. The Avs and Red Wings seem to have fused together on a subatomic level and have which obeys laws of quantum entanglement since the avalanche arrived in Denver.)
The only core player from that era who went through anything similar to the current generation of Avs is Peter Forsberg, who at 22 had his first full season in the NHL as an Avs player. It’s different not only watching a team crawl through the dirt and struggle to learn how to win, but also watching them grow from kid to man right before your eyes. Given the divine reverence we Colorado fans have for teams of the 1990s, it feels blasphemous to say so, but this team feels more important in large part because so many of us grew up with them.
The pompoms. Joe Sakic. A bunch of players born between 1992 and 1998. All the little things Turn off all the little things so the crowd can sing “work sucks!” by itself. This is a franchise steeped in 1990’s Colorado culture and backed by a millennial audience with an innate ability to bring the intensity of days gone by to today’s hockey.
It’s fun to have a great hockey team. Having a great hockey team radiating connections to your childhood (or the childhoods of your children or grandchildren) is cathartic, and you can feel that energy connecting past and present flowing through the ball arena during every playoff game .
For those too young to experience the joy of the 1990s, take note now: FiveThirtyEight’s ELO metric currently ranks this team as the most dominant in Avalanche history.
Colorado has grown a lot as a state, both literally and figuratively, since its glory days, and that growth has brought many new fans into the Avalanche family, making Ball Arena one of the most intimidating places to visit in the NHL. You don’t have to be there when the Avs fell into our laps to understand how much this team means to this city. But for those of us who were indoctrinated into hockey fandom by Joe Sakic, it’s surreal to see the author of so many great moments from our childhood building a powerful team in the same vein as his own, centered around the protégé of the superstar turns to which Sakic’s 1990’s rivals passed the torch. Sport sure is random sometimes, isn’t it?
Enjoy this feeling Avs fans, we deserve it.