One recent night when Broncomania was raging at a feverish peak in Denver, rookie Defenseman Barry Beck of the Colorado Rockies went out for a drink—a beer, of course, not some silly Orange Crush—at a local pub. Being only 20 years old in a state where the legal drinking age is 21 can be a problem, unless like Beck one stands 6'3", weighs 218 pounds, looks 28 years old and glares a lot. "Aren't you one of the Broncos?" asked the girl at the door. She never even asked for Beck's I.D.
In Denver, to look as if one might be a Bronco is better than being Barry (Bubba) Beck. Oh, sure, as of last week Beck was the leading goal-scoring defenseman in the NHL after tallying No. 16 in Colorado's stunning 6-4 triumph over the Philadelphia Flyers, and he had just played in the All-Star Game. And one of his teammates, 21-year-old Center Paul Gardner, was sixth in the NHL with 30 goals. But out there where houses are painted orange and the Denver Post has printed letters to the editor castigating the city for its failure to paint the streets orange, there has been little interest in Beck, Gardner and what has been promoted as "Rocky Hockey."
However, now that the Dallas Cowboys have temporarily stilled the Broncomaniacs, the people of Denver may well be starting a whole new craze called Rockymania. When the Rockies skated out for their Saturday night game against the Flyers in the McNichols Sports Arena, they must have thought they were across the road in Mile High Stadium. Accustomed to silent crowds of 7,500, the Rockies were cheered wildly by a madcap gathering of 13,549. The enthusiasm was so catching that the Rockies played their best game of the season.
Beck and his defense partner, John Van Boxmeer, scored the Colorado goals as the teams, miles apart in the standings—Philadelphia sharing the Patrick Division lead with the New York Islanders and Colorado holding down third place in the sickly Smythe Division—battled to a 2-2 stalemate through two periods. Philadelphia roared out in the third period and scored twice within five minutes to take a 4-2 lead. Colorado normally turns 4-2 third-period deficits into 8-2 defeats, but not this night.
February 6, 1978
Rookie Randy Pierce and Wilf Paiement scored to pull the Rockies even at 4-4 midway through the period. Then, with slightly less than six minutes to play, the already aroused Rockies became enraged when Philadelphia's Bob Dailey rammed Gardner into the boards, and the Colorado player had to be helped off the ice. Gardner suffered a fracture of his transverse process and will be sidelined for a month.
Responding to the crowd's screams, the Rockies set up light housekeeping in the Flyers' end and peppered Goaltender Wayne Stephenson with a barrage of shots. At 15:16 Pierce beat Stephenson again after taking a neat pass from rookie Joe Contini, and two minutes later Paiement added still another goal to complete the Rockies' four-goal rally. It was the first time Philadelphia had ever lost to Colorado, and the defeat knocked the Flyers out of first place.
All season long the pressure on Beck, Gardner and Paiement, the Rockies' 22-year-old captain, has been heavy. Colorado owner Jack Vickers lost some $2.5 million on the team last season, and he has told the NHL that he will not continue to underwrite a disaster. The Rockies are well acquainted with bankruptcy, too, having experienced such a fate in 1976 when they were known as the Kansas City Scouts.
"Most teams rely on their veterans to provide leadership," says General Manager Ray Miron. "We can't. So we're asking these three kids to try to do it. Especially Beck. No other rookie is being asked to shoulder what he's shouldering. He's an all-star already, and he still hasn't begun to realize how good he is."
After seeing Beck lead New Westminster, British Columbia to Canada's Memorial Cup Junior Championship last April, Miron chose him in the draft ahead of several better-known junior defensemen. Miron already has turned down a $1 million offer for Beck from the Toronto Maple Leafs. "There never was any doubt about drafting him," says Miron, "and there's no doubt now that we made the right decision."
Although his steady accumulation of goals and his run at Denis Potvin's 54-point scoring record for rookie defense-men helped Beck gain all-star status, he is not an offensive defenseman in the style of Bobby Orr. He seldom rushes the puck, choosing to stay back while Van Boxmeer tries his Orr imitations.
"I've always preferred to be a defensive defenseman," says Beck. "My job is to prevent goals, not score them. The good teams always have the lowest goals-against averages. When I have to, I carry the puck, and when I see an opening in the offensive zone, I take it. But I'm not someone who likes to rush the puck all the time."
The problem is that not many of Beck's teammates, especially Van Boxmeer, realize there is a defensive end of the ice. "It's ridiculous what Bubba has to do," says Goalie Doug Favell. "We have too many young forwards who don't know too much about playing in our own end and too many young defensemen who only want to rush the puck. Not only is Beck our best defenseman, he often has to do it all by himself. No one can do that, although he certainly tries."
Beck averaged more than 200 penalty minutes a year in the juniors, but he has had just two fights in the NHL. Coach Pat Kelly doesn't want him in the box and, anyway, he doesn't have to fight. From the waist up, he may be the biggest man in the league. One frown from Beck tends to discourage most rivals from crowding Colorado's goaltender.
Aside from a glare, Beck rarely shows any emotion on the ice, even when he is crushing someone with a check. "I guess it's because I had to grow up early," he says. "I came from a fairly tough neighborhood in Vancouver and got in some trouble as a teen-ager. Nothing serious, but enough so that I knew what I didn't want to happen with my life."
While Beck was growing up in a roughneck area, Gardner was enjoying the benefits of a hockey pedigree in Toronto. His father Cal was an outstanding center for New York, Toronto and Boston in the '40s and '50s; today he works on the Hockey Night in Canada telecasts. Paul's older brother Dave was a star center for the junior Toronto Marlboros from 1969 through 1972 and now plays for the Cleveland Barons. "I learned at an early age that I'd have to work hard to make it," says Gardner. "Every once in a while Dad would come out in the streets and play, and it would remind me how good NHL players were. And Dave was always ahead of me. For years all I ever heard was, 'You'll never be as good as your brother.' "
So Gardner worked and worked until he became better than his brother. At 6', 175 pounds he looks—and plays—like a skinny Phil Esposito. In his NHL debut last season, against Montreal in the Forum, Gardner scored one goal. The next night in Boston he scored two goals. When the season ended he had 30 goals and 59 points in just 60 games. In his first 46 games this year he has 22 assists to go with his 30 goals. "There was only one season between the ages of 14 and 20 when I didn't score 50 goals," Gardner says. "I don't know why, but the puck's always gone in for me."
The why may be a mystery, but the how is another matter. Gardner is a master of tip-ins, skate deflections and shots off various parts of his anatomy. In one recent game Gardner was being shoved out of the crease, but he managed to reach his stick around the defenseman's back and tip in a Van Boxmeer shot. When Gardner scored his 10th goal this season, it came on a slap shot from 30 feet. Van Boxmeer retrieved the puck and handed it to him at center ice. "It's a milestone," said Van Boxmeer. "Your first legitimate NHL goal."
Unfortunately, like many of his Colorado teammates, Gardner is still learning to play defense. "As a kid, you score and score and no one cares if you ever check," says Gardner. "Now that I have to learn it, it's very difficult."
Such are the growing pains on a team without veterans on hand to cover up for the miscues of youth. "Kids make mistakes, and when they do the road to the top of the league seems impossibly steep," says Montreal Coach Scotty Bowman. "But the secret to success is using your top draft picks for talent and filling in around them. Like the Islanders did. With No. 1 draft picks like Beck, Gardner and Paiement, Colorado's almost halfway there."
But will there be a Colorado Rockies when they do get there? After crawling from Kansas City to Denver last season, the Rockies tried every type of promotion to boost attendance. One hype consisted of giving away $5,000 a night for 15 games. Still, half the announced attendance often was on freebies.
Now there are no more free tickets. Instead, the Rockies have launched a big community-relations push, and season-ticket sales reportedly have doubled from 1,600 to 3,200. The actual gate is said to be up 35%, gate receipts 50%. All in all, though, what Denver needs is some Rockymania—or next season Beck, Gardner and Paiement may not be around to cheer on the Broncos.