Lighting the Lamp, With Rick Ackerman
The Colorado Avalanche have the most fortunate fans in NHL history. The hockey gods rewarded them like no fans have ever been rewarded as they celebrated a Stanley Cup championship the first year the franchise played in Denver. The NHL franchise in Colorado was actually born as the Quebec Nordiques of the World Hockey Association in 1972. Originally the franchise was awarded to a group in San Francisco, a team that would have been known as the Sharks. However, the funding for the Sharks fell apart and the WHA hastily sold the organization to a group of six businessmen from Quebec City who also owned the highly successful (and profitable) junior Quebec Remparts.
Forgotten by even the most ardent fans is that the legendary Maurice ("The Rocket") Richard coached the Nordiques, yet he stepped down after only two games, citing that coaching was just not his forte. The first true star in Quebec was defenseman J.C. Tremblay, who led the league in assists the first year and was a first team all-star four years in a row. Serge Bernier and Rejean Houle joined the Nordiques the second year and along with Marc Tardif and Real Cloutier led the club to the Avco Cup Finals, only to be defeated by the Gordie Howe-led Houston Aeros. Former Blue Chris Bordeleau joined the team in 1974. After finally winning the championship in 1977, the Nordiques were part of the merger with the NHL in 1979, but became one of the worst teams in the NHL and struggled financially, having the smallest market in the league.
Despite the presence of rookie winger Michel Goulet, Quebec sank to the bottom of the NHL standings. In 1980, though, the Nordiques made international headlines when they signed Peter and Anton Stastny, who defected from Czechoslovakia via a series of cloak-and-dagger moves out of the Communist controlled country. They would be joined by brother Marian the following year. Led by Goulet and the Stastnys, Quebec would make the playoffs for the next seven years in a row. Decline set in again after that and the Nordiques would finish last the next five years, despite the signing of aging legend Guy Lafleur in 1989. Goulet and Peter Stastny were traded away in 1990, replaced by rookies Joe Sakic, Mats Sundin and Owen Nolan in the amateur draft. In 1991, the last-place Nordiques chose star center Eric Lindros, although the scoring star from the Oshawa Generals made it clear he would not report to Quebec. He even refused to don the Nord's jersey on draft day. Eventually, Lindros was traded to Philadelphia in June, 1992, for Swedish star Peter Forsberg, center Mike Ricci, goaltender Ron Hextall, defensemen Steve Duchesne and Kerry Huffman, two first round draft picks and US$15 million. Forsberg won the Calder Memorial Trophy as rookie of the year and the Nordiques became contenders again. Despite success on the ice, the Nordiques continued to lose money, though, due to the small size of Quebec City, a small arena without luxury boxes, a shortened season due to the lockout of 1994-95, the weak Canadian dollar and rising salaries of players and other operating expenses.
Owner Marcel Aubut was rebuffed by the city of Quebec for tax relief or help in building a bigger arena in May, 1995, and promptly sold the team to COMSAT Entertainment Group of Denver. 12,000 season tickets were sold in a little over a month after the announcement of the sale was made. And, so, the Colorado Avalanche took the ice at the old McNichols Sports Arena in October, 1995, led by captain Joe Sakic, defenseman Adam Foote, and Swedish sensation Peter Forsberg. In hindsight, the Lindros trade was one of the most lopsided deals in sports history and was a major reason for the success of the Avalanche over the next decade. Colorado triumphed in yet another lopsided trade in December, 1995, this time with the Montreal Canadiens. The Canadiens young goaltender was upset with Coach Mario Tremblay, who left him in goal after giving up five goals on 17 shots, declaring it was an attempt to humiliate him. When he allowed two more goals in the second period, he raised his arms in a mock celebration. After two more goals were scored, he was finally pulled, and as he left the ice, he told Canadiens President Ronald Corey, "It's my last game in Montreal." The next day he was suspended, and finally traded (with ex-Blue Mike Keane) to Colorado. It was Patrick Roy who would have the last laugh, however, as he led the Avs to a 104 point season, winning the Pacific Division and a Stanley Cup in 1996, sweeping the Florida Panthers, 4-0.
The Avs' success would continue as they won seven more division championships, one more conference championship, two President's Trophies, and one more Stanley Cup in 2001. Goaltender Roy was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as the outstanding player of the 2001 playoffs, holding off the New Jersey Devils in a seven game series. The tears flowed when captain Sakic immediately handed the Cup to defenseman Ray Bourque, obtained earlier from Boston in a trade. It was Bourque's first Cup after a 22 year career.
The visiting Avs are now in last place, yet will nevertheless provide a formidable opponent tonight for the Blues. In the most recent 14 games with the Blues, Colorado sports a 11-2-1 record, including two previous wins this shortened season. It would certainly be nice for the Blues to reverse the trend tonight and reward loyal fans with a bunch of goals, including a couple on the power play, and defeat the Avalanche.