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WITH BRILLIANT TRADES AND BLENDED TALENT, THE AVALANCHE CAPTURED THE STANLEY CUP, GIVING COLORADO ITS FIRST MAJOR PRO CHAMPIONSHIP

June 17, 1996
June 17, 1996

Table of Contents
June 17, 1996

WITH BRILLIANT TRADES AND BLENDED TALENT, THE AVALANCHE CAPTURED THE STANLEY CUP, GIVING COLORADO ITS FIRST MAJOR PRO CHAMPIONSHIP

The story of the Colorado Avalanche Stanley Cup victory starts
1,600 miles from Denver, in a different country, in a different
language.

This is an article from the June 17, 1996 issue

On Dec. 2, 1995, Patrick Roy, the Montreal Canadiens' star
goaltender, was being tormented for nine goals by the Detroit
Red Wings. Icons usually receive gentler treatment from opposing
teams and their own coaches--especially in the sacristy of the
Forum in a city, Montreal, that treats hockey with a zealot's
passion--but after one save Roy, a wise guy, had raised his arms
in response to the mock cheers of the fans. The Canadiens'
rookie coach, Mario Tremblay, wasn't amused. Even before that
gesture, Tremblay had let Roy stew in the crease long beyond the
dictates of common courtesy in the NHL, had embarrassed Roy
beyond reason, and when Roy reached the bench after finally
having been yanked seven minutes later, he was spitting mad. Roy
and Tremblay exchanged glares before Roy, a two-time playoff
MVP, stomped over to Montreal president Ronald Corey, sitting in
his customary seat a row behind the bench, and said, That's it,
this is my last game with the Canadiens. The rest--Roy's
screaming match with Tremblay in the dressing room after the
second period, his fruitless meeting the next day with general
manager Rejean Houle--was all a coda. Roy's public snit had
ended the piece.

He was going to be traded. The only question was, Where? Within
24 hours all eyes in the hockey world had shifted to Denver. The
scenario made too much sense for it not to come true. The
Avalanche didn't necessarily need a goalie--Stephane Fiset had
played well the first two months of the season--but it needed a
tested playoff goalie, one able to endure in the crucible of the
Stanley Cup tournament, and there have been few as good as Roy.
Colorado general manager Pierre Lacroix had an especially acute
sense of Roy's worth, having been Roy's agent until he was hired
in 1994 to run the Quebec Nordiques, who would move to Denver a
year later. Lacroix also had a prized young goaltender in
Jocelyn Thibault and some extra forwards who might appeal to
Montreal, which had to deal quickly to get a lame-duck hero off
its hands.

Before the Avalanche's game against the Dallas Stars on Dec. 3,
Colorado defenseman Sylvain Lefebvre, who had played with Roy in
Montreal, sidled up to Colorado team kinesiologist Matt
Sokolowski and said, "I'll bet you Patrick's coming here."

"You think?" Sokolowski said.

On Dec. 6, Lefebvre's hunch came true. Lacroix traded Thibault
and forwards Martin Rucinsky and Andrei Kovalenko for Roy and
Canadiens captain Mike Keane. In Toronto, then-Maple Leafs coach
Pat Burns called Colorado coach Marc Crawford and asked, "Have
you ordered your Stanley Cup rings yet?"

Avalanche right wing Scott Young was driving with his wife,
Mary, when the news of the deal came over Denver radio station
103.5, The Fox. Young could think of only one word--wow. "We
thought we had a chance at the Cup all along," Young says. "But
I hear this news, and the first thing I get is a feeling of
disbelief. Then it really hits me. I told my wife, 'We have a
serious shot at winning this thing.'"

Most fans in Colorado probably had difficulty comprehending the
deal. After all, Denver's previous NHL entry, the Rockies
(1976-77 to 1981-82)--a club so egregiously awful that it gave
an entire mountain range a bad name--had as its goalie the
sievelike Hardy Astrom. Even some of the Colorado players needed
time to ponder Roy in the burgundy-and-blue pajamas of the
Avalanche. They had been Quebec Nordiques until last July, when
COMSAT Entertainment Group, which is now called Ascent
Entertainment Group, purchased the team and moved it to Denver,
and Roy had been the personification of the hated Canadiens just
2 1/2 hours down the Trans-Canada Highway. "When Patrick showed
up in our room, it just didn't seem right," Colorado defenseman
Curtis Leschyshyn says. "And Keane was captain of the Montreal
Canadiens, and he wasn't supposed to be in there, either. It
seemed weird that first day, but this turned out to be the big
trade for us."

Still, Roy and the industrious Keane were just the final two
ingredients of what Lacroix saw as an elaborate stew, a
simmering pot that needed the right blend of talent, size,
speed, subtlety and toughness. In a three-way deal for Wendel
Clark on the eve of the season, Lacroix had acquired hockey's
ultimate pot-stirrer, Claude Lemieux, who had won the Conn
Smythe Trophy as the 1995 playoff MVP with the New Jersey
Devils. "I hated to play against Lemieux," Leschyshyn says, "but
so do about 100 other guys in this league. He's always in your
face, relentless, and once in a while you just want to tell him
to shut up and sit down."

The trade was a no-brainer--Lemieux and Clark were both
embroiled in contract disputes--but another deal three weeks
later sent aftershocks through hockey that only the megatrade
for Roy would top. The Avalanche was humming along on Oct. 23,
winner of three straight games in a streak that would extend to
eight, when Lacroix stunned his own players by trading
23-year-old forward Owen Nolan to the San Jose Sharks for
23-year-old rushing defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh. Nolan, who had
been the first pick in the 1990 draft, was exactly the kind of
player teams coveted--a powerful rightwinger who could score and
hit--but Lacroix figured he had a younger version of Nolan in
20-year-old Adam Deadmarsh. The Avalanche was strapped for a
power-play quarterback who could relieve the pressure on center
Joe Sakic, especially now that the man filling that role,
defenseman Uwe Krupp, had shredded the anterior cruciate
ligament in his left knee in the first game of the season.
Ozolinsh might have been on the wild side--"He used to play
forward in Latvia, and I'm sure he gave the coach who switched
him to defense gray hair," says Crawford--but he injected energy
into a stuttering power play.

Within two months Lacroix had filled every hole--playoff
goaltending, experience, special teams--as he changed on the fly
as adroitly as any general manager in recent memory. "I misread
the collective bargaining agreement," Lacroix says with a wink.
"I thought the trading deadline was December 20th and not March
20th. The moves were made early. This team needed the rest of
the time to come together."

There was remarkably little pressure on the Avalanche during the
regular season. The Red Wings had begun their merry, meaningless
race to an NHL-record 62 wins, and no one in the Western
Conference was going to catch them. Also, the conference was so
soft from top to bottom--only three teams finished above
.500--it seemed unlikely that another team would pass Colorado
for the West's second-best record. Colorado settled in for the
long haul and tested itself, individually and as a team.

Sakic earned the highest marks. He scored a career-best 51 goals
and 120 points, third-highest total in the league. Detroit
goalie Chris Osgood calls Sakic the best player in hockey other
than Mario Lemieux of the Pittsburgh Penguins. "He's got the
hardest shot of anybody right now," Osgood says of Sakic. "I
know because I've seen it whizzing by me."

The move from Quebec to Colorado seemed to suit Sakic better
than any of the other former Nordiques, and while he didn't
exactly emerge from his shell off the ice at altitude, at least
he stuck his head out occasionally. Sakic has worn the captain's
C since 1992-93, but not until this season did he become the
fulcrum of his team. "He's been exposed to a wide range of
personalities--Keane, Roy, Lemieux," Crawford says. "We
struggled because of that factor for a while. But as Joe has
grown as a leader, the team has bonded."

Peter Forsberg was hardly more forthcoming than Sakic, but he
developed at an even faster rate. When Forsberg joined Quebec in
1995, he needed other players to create space for him. This
season in Colorado, he flew solo, evolving into a premier
two-way center who was tough, mindful of his checking and
unselfish with the puck. He had 116 points to chase Sakic for
the team lead, but 86 of those points were assists. The
Avalanche coaches often hectored him about firing away more.
"He's one of those people who think shooting is like cheating,"
Crawford says. Forsberg scored his first NHL hat trick in a 5-3
win against the Philadelphia Flyers on Feb. 11, the first match
of a three-game road trip that would begin to refine the
Avalanche's sense of purpose.

After the victory over Philly, Colorado played one of its
poorest games of the season, a 4-2 loss to the Tampa Bay
Lightning. The Avalanche players dragged themselves into Miami
the next night to meet the Panthers and fell behind 4-1 in the
first period. During the intermission Lemieux went ballistic,
lambasting teammates for their half-hearted play. Colorado's
free pass was yanked right there, and it fought back. Deadmarsh
scored in the second period before Sakic and Ozolinsh forced
overtime by scoring in the final four minutes of regulation.
Fifty-five seconds into the extra session, Keane nailed the
game-winner. The 5-4 victory was the Avalanche's first big
comeback road victory. "After that win," center Mike Ricci says,
"I can remember guys saying, 'Don't forget the character we
showed.'" They used it as a springboard three nights later at
home in a spotty 7-5 victory against the Edmonton Oilers, during
which Roy became the 12th NHL goalie to attain 300 wins.

Denver cheered for its favorite import that night but resumed
its whispering the next day. This is Patrick Roy, the greatest
goalie of his generation? He looks so ordinary. Are we sure
about this guy? Indeed, by his lofty standards Roy had been
mediocre for the Avalanche. The change in teams had been
wrenching for him--"We knew from Quebec that he was cocky, and
it was almost like we were trying to figure out how good he
really was by watching him and letting him make the saves by
himself," Young says--but no more than the change in environment
had been. Roy needed almost two months to begin to feel at ease,
but eventually the move to Colorado brought him, his wife,
Michele, and their three children closer together. In Montreal,
Patrick and Michele had been satellites, each in a separate
orbit. In Denver they had to turn to each other. Avalanche fans
couldn't appreciate the turmoil, but they were savvy enough to
temper the whispers with the disclaimer but wait until the
playoffs.

Unofficially, the playoffs began March 8 at McNichols Arena,
when Detroit made its first visit since opening night. This
might have been the best of the 1,066 NHL regular-season games
of 1995-96, a sublimely fast and intense match that the Red
Wings iced 4-2 on a Dino Ciccarelli empty-net goal. The game
gave the Avalanche a helpful measuring stick, which was fine
until two weeks later in Detroit when the Red Wings took that
stick and beat Colorado bloody with it.

The score in that regular-season game was a shocking 7-0 as the
Avalanche allowed three shorthanded and three power-play goals
by Detroit. "It was almost as if we were in awe of what the Red
Wings had on the ice and on their bench," Leschyshyn says. After
the game Colorado held a players-only meeting to clear the air,
a daunting task considering the stinker the Avalanche had just
played against a team that was its biggest roadblock to the
Stanley Cup. "We realized we couldn't hope some other team would
knock Detroit out for us," Young says. "We were going to have to
beat them ourselves. That game was a huge wake-up call."

The Avalanche was correct. The road to the Stanley Cup
eventually would meander down Octopus Alley in Detroit, but it
started in the streets of Vancouver, in a first-round series the
Avalanche did not relish even though the Canucks had had 25
fewer points than Colorado during the season. Then again, the
Avalanche would have been squeamish about playing the Catatonic
State JV in the first round.

This attitude was a holdover from the team's days in Quebec. In
1995, the Nordiques finished first in the Eastern Conference but
were bounced by the eighth-place New York Rangers in the first
round. "We read what everyone in the media was saying--that we
hadn't proved we could put anyone away in the playoffs,"
Lefebvre says. "That affected us."

Of course many unkind things were being said everywhere,
especially after the Canucks won 5-4 at McNichols Arena in Game
2 to tie the series. Vancouver coach Pat Quinn called the
Avalanche defense "a bunch of marshmallows," but the harshest
criticism was to come from Crawford. He was incensed that
Canucks tough guy Gino Odjick had run wild with no response from
his own enforcer, Chris Simon. At practice the next day Crawford
was berating his players for shying away from the rough stuff
when Simon started shaking his head derisively. Crawford turned
to him and bellowed, "Either you're with us or you're not."
Crawford then chewed out Simon in front of the entire team. When
practice was over, a distraught Simon went behind a net and
knelt for 10 minutes, almost as if he were praying, as Roy and
forward Troy Murray sat with him.

Roy responded in his own way in Game 3, getting his sixth career
postseason shutout and giving the first proof that he was the
playoff goalie he was advertised to be. After the game, in a
CBC-TV interview, he said he had called his father for some
advice. When pressed for the nature of the counsel, Roy asked,
"Can you keep a secret?"

"Yes," the interviewer replied.

"Well," Roy said, "so can I."

The night was vintage Roy--a shutout and a smart-alecky retort.

"I know Patrick," Florida Panthers president Bill Torrey would
say during the Stanley Cup finals. "When he's cocky, you're in
trouble."

"I really enjoy myself in Colorado because I can do things from
the bottom of my heart," Roy says. "This organization lets you
be yourself. In Montreal, you had to be careful with what you
said. They wanted you to speak in cliches."

Colorado lost Game 4 in Vancouver 4-3 and trailed 4-3 in Game 5
at McNichols Arena before Sakic led another rally, scoring the
tying goal on a five-on-three power play with 5:53 left in
regulation and then the game-winner 51 seconds into overtime.
"After the fourth Vancouver goal our whole bench took a deep
breath and said, 'This doesn't look too cool,'" says Krupp, who
had returned on April 6, completing a near miraculous recovery
after his knee surgery. "But we came back. That was big. We
faced adversity and made it through. You have to do that if
you're going to win the Stanley Cup."

The Avalanche did make it through, beating the Canucks in six
games. Colorado had conquered first-round jitters but hadn't
committed to the kind of overall defensive play it would need to
win the Cup. Avalanche players had faced a run-and-gun team in
Vancouver and tagged along, convinced that they had superior
talent. They did, but it was hardly ideal preparation for the
Western Conference semifinals against the rugged Chicago
Blackhawks.

This was a series that ran the gamut, not of emotions--they were
always elevated--but of overtimes. Four of the six games needed
extra sessions, ranging from quickies like Sergei Krivokrasov's
winner 46 seconds into the fourth period of Game 3 for Chicago
to Sakic's triple-overtime goal in Game 4. (Incidentally, the
series was also replete with retorts, including some first-rate
bantering between Roy and Chicago star Jeremy Roenick. Roy got
the last word when he said he couldn't hear Roenick's taunts
because his two Stanley Cup rings were plugging his ears.) In
the longest playoff match in Quebec-Colorado history, Sakic
one-timed an Alexei Gusarov pass at 44:33 of overtime for a 3-2
victory that evened the series. "This could be our launching
pad," Crawford said after the game.

The words would be prophetic. After that win at the United
Center, the Denver crowds began hitting higher decibel
levels--even all the corporate seats in McNichols's lower bowl
were crammed--and the Avalanche found another gear. It won the
next two games to close out Chicago before moving on to the
much-anticipated matchup against the favored Red Wings. "The
Detroit series had me concerned," Young says. "Did I feel we
could beat Detroit? Yes. Was I as confident against them as
against another team? No. I knew we had to play our best hockey
to beat them, and even if we did play our best, there would be
no guarantee."

The Avalanche stunned Detroit twice at Joe Louis Arena, winning
Game 1 on Keane's overtime knuckleball that had Osgood talking
even in the traditional postseries handshake line--"He told me I
was lucky," said Keane, who was still miffed about that remark
even during the Stanley Cup finals--and a 3-0 Roy gem in Game 2.
Detroit fired back in Denver, winning Game 3 and the postmatch
screamfest, during which Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman opened
the door of the Detroit bus to curse Lemieux, who had given the
Wings' Slava Kozlov a sneaky rabbit punch. The cheap shot earned
Lemieux a one-game suspension, half of what he would get for the
Cup finals after checking Detroit forward Kris Draper into the
boards in Game 6, fracturing Draper's jaw and generally
rearranging his face.

Crawford tried to answer Bowman's insults before Game 4 by
saying a plate in Bowman's head, the result of being clobbered
with a stick in junior hockey, was causing interference with the
Colorado coaches' headsets. Ah, the joys of playoff hockey. The
only sensible one in this boorish business was Crawford's wife,
Helene, who, after hearing her husband's comments, told him, "I
hope you're sleeping at the hotel tonight."

The Red Wings strafed Roy 5-2 in Game 5 in Detroit, raising the
possibility that not all of the Nordiques' dubious playoff
traditions had been exorcised in Colorado. But neither Colorado
nor Detroit was the team it had been almost three months before
in the second Avalanche-Red Wings regular-season game in Denver.
Detroit somehow seemed smaller and mildly disinterested, while
the Avalanche, a pack of marshmallows no more, was peaking.
Colorado disposed of the most successful team in regular-season
history in Game 6 with a thorough 4-1 victory.

The Stanley Cup finals never seemed in doubt after the first
period of Game 1, when Florida stormed to a 1-0 lead. The
Panthers had neither the skill, the speed, nor the pedigree to
match the Avalanche, which seemed remarkably at ease playing
with one-goal leads. Most of all, the Panthers had no Sakic.
After missing a pair of breakaways in Game 1, he had four
assists in Game 2 and a goal, a playoff-record sixth
game-winner, in Game 3. Sakic's 18 playoff goals earned him the
Conn Smythe Trophy.

Sakic had always been a superb player--he had 102 points in
1989-90, a season in which the Nordiques had only 12 wins, four
fewer than the Avalanche had in the 1996 playoffs--but now he
was not alone. With the fruits of high draft picks from the
lousy years in Quebec, with Lacroix's daring yet judicious
trades and the monster deal previous general manager Pierre Page
made to get Forsberg, Ricci and others from Philadelphia for
Eric Lindros in 1992, he had abundant help. He also had Roy, the
best money goalie in the world.

"I've got one question," Keane said after Game 3 of the finals.
"When Mario Tremblay pulled Thibault [in Game 6 of the
Canadiens' first-round series loss to the New York Rangers], did
he go over to him and tap him on the shoulder and tell him not
to worry, that the whole team was at fault and not just him? I
hope so. All Patrick wanted from Mario that night was a little
bit of respect, a pat on the back. I can't help but think that
if he hadn't been a rookie coach, the problem would have been
resolved. Things happened so quickly. Maybe if they hadn't, our
team wouldn't be where it is today."

COLOR PHOTO: BARTON SILVERMAN Tales of the rotten Rockies (left) have been overtaken by the exploits of Lemieux and the Avs. [Denver Rockies hockey players in game]COLOR PHOTO: TIM DEFRISCO [See caption above--Claude Lemieux]COLOR PHOTO: TONY BIEGUN/BENNETT STUDIOS Ozolinsh brought his power-play prowess--and some oomph--after arriving from San Jose in a trade. [Sandis Ozolinsh checking Winnipeg Jets player]COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA Perhaps no NHL center brings such a balance of offense and defense to his team as Forsberg does. [Peter Forsberg in game]COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Sakic may have been a quiet leader in the locker room, but on the ice his actions spoke volumes. [Joe Sakic]COLOR PHOTO: TIM DEFRISCO After a halting start with the Avalanche, Roy proved to be its saving grace in the postseason. [Patrick Roy]COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO The burgeoning brilliance of Deadmarsh allowed Lacroix to trade Nolan and fill a major need. [Adam Deadmarsh]COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT LABERGE/BENNETT STUDIOS Crawford knew which buttons to push, including berating his team after a playoff loss to Vancouver. [Marc Crawford yelling]