DENVER — As the Colorado Avalanche continues its quest for a third Stanley Cup win, much has been said about its championship pedigree.
Most notably, the fact that the team hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup in its first year in Denver.
But the evolution of hockey fandom in the Mile High City is a much longer story than the relocation of Quebec’s Nordiques to Colorado.
“We were pretty much derided internationally for having to endure the hardships of months of waiting to win the Stanley Cup,” said Terry Frei, whose tenure in Denver sports media dates back to the late 1970s. “And I say, ‘no way. You have to understand the context here.’”
We spoke with Frei to get that context, which entails an extensive history of both successes and failures on the ice, and Denver-based hockey teams starting and folding.
‘It was a myth to say that Denver was a new hockey market’
The University of Denver hockey team has a prolific history on the ice, a Frozen Four staple that shares the lead for most NCAA championships all-time with nine.
But even pro hockey here dates back decades.
“It was such a myth to say that Denver was a new hockey market,” Frei said. “We had hockey going back through DU and minor league teams and the [World Hockey Association].”
“There were hockey roots, there were hockey fanatics.”
Denver’s first professional sports championship came in 1972 via the Denver Spurs hockey team, which at the time was a member of the Western Hockey League. That team would later move to the World Hockey Association before making a bid to join the NHL as an expansion team.
Those negotiations would fall apart, though, and the Spurs would disband.
In 1976, the Kansas City Scouts – a “woefully underfinanced” expansion team, as Frei put it – moved to Denver to become the city’s first NHL team, called the Colorado Rockies.
A 22-year-old Frei was the Denver Post beat writer assigned to the Rockies – “a real carnival act I really enjoyed covering,” as he put it. “There was always something going on with that team, whether it was crazy things happening on the hockey rink or crazy things happening in the ownership area.”
The Rockies would see three different owners in their six-year tenure in Denver, failing to log a winning season all while spooking fans with a $14 price tag for tickets.
“I've always felt that when Jack Vickers bought the team and moved it to Denver, he was told all you have to do is open the doors and turn on the beer taps and Denver will sell out to the NHL,” Frei said. But “he quickly found out he was being led down a primrose path, so to speak.”
“They would have been better off, in my opinion, starting from scratch with an expansion team rather than dealing with the Kansas City Scouts’ mistakes. [The Scouts] dug a hole for the franchise that I don't think the Rockies ever were able to dig out of.”
The experiment didn’t work, and the Rockies were sold to investors in New Jersey, where they became the Devils, eventually winning three Stanley Cups in the late 90s and early 2000s.
The Denver Grizzlies were also part of the hockey scene in Colorado, playing one season in Denver before moving to Utah with the Avs’ arrival in town.
A ready-made contender
For 23 years, the Quebec Nordiques were the Canadian city’s only professional sports team.
They won four division championships, including one in a lockout-shortened 1994-95 season – one that would prove to be the franchise’s last before financial struggles forced a move to Colorado where they would become the Avalanche.
That team, Frei said, had a much different feeling to it than the failed experiments before it.
“Somehow, in 13 years, the veneer of incompetence had been kind of stripped away and we knew that we were getting a ready-made, NHL championship-contending product,” he said. “We were ready for something big and, in accompaniment to the Nuggets.”
The Avs would sell out almost every game that first season, averaging 16,017 fans per game in McNichols Sports Arena, a venue that housed only 16,091 fans.
Colorado was instantly a bona fide contender, winning the Cup in that first season.
The likes of Sakic, Forsberg and Roy would become household names, and a second Stanley Cup in 2001 cemented the Avs’ status as the hometown heroes.
Another difference with the Avalanche, though, was a steady front office. Then-GM Pierre LaCroix, Frei said, kept the ship afloat even as the team went through a drawn-out ownership change rife with indecision and legal action.
“The one thing that's been underestimated is the job Pierre LaCroix did as the general manager, the architect, and he's been honored for that,” he said. “For keeping the franchise together through ownership changes that were so bizarre, it almost seemed like I was covering the Rockies.”
Another shot at hockey supremacy
Fast-forward to 2022, and the Avalanche are again in the Stanley Cup Final, and Frei said it marks a clear third chapter of hockey fanhood in Denver.
“Each championship, if there's a third one, has its own separate narrative. In 1995, it was, ‘Hey, it's a new team.’ We were driving the casual sports fan into the realm of the hockey fan.”
“By 2001, we were becoming a hotbed for hockey participation for youth hockey, and rinks were going up [...] And then now, 21 years later, I think we've seen a complete kind of turnover and the new fan base. It's been a generation since the Avalanche won the Cup.”