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Lighting The Lamp: Rocky Mountain Highs And Lows

You might recognize the "Lighting the Lamp" feature from the Game Time paper. Rick Ackerman has been nice enough to send over his column for the website. "Lighting the Lamp" will be featured every home game day.

Signed Paul Stastny Avs jersey
Rick Ackerman

Lighting the Lamp With Rick Ackerman

Tonight’s visiting Colorado Avalanche joined the NHL in 1979. Of course, back then they were known as the Quebec Nordiques, part of a merger in which the NHL added four World Hockey Association franchises. The Winnipeg Jets (moved to Phoenix as the Coyotes in 1996), Hartford Whalers (relocated to Carolina as the Hurricanes in 1997 and the Edmonton Oilers also made the jump.

The Avalanche should not be confused with the NHL Colorado Rockies, who were transferred from Kansas City in 1976. Originally, the Kansas City Scouts were granted an expansion franchise by the NHL in 1972 and began play in 1974. After two years, poor attendance (an average of 8,200 in the 17,000- seat Kemper Arena), poor play on the ice (27 wins in 160 games) and undercapitalized ownership faced with rising costs and an economic downturn in the Midwest combined to force the sale of the franchise to a consortium led by Denver businessman Jack Vickers, who renamed the team the Rockies.

Things were no better in the Mile High City. The Rockies would qualify for the playoffs only once in six seasons. Even the flamboyant Don Cherry, hired as head coach in 1979, could not save this team. In 1982, poor attendance and rising expenses forced the sale of the franchise to multi-millionaire shipping tycoon John McMullen, owner of the Houston Astros at the time. McMullen moved the team to the East Coast as the New Jersey Devils.

In Quebec, after early success on the ice (mostly due to the acquisition of the three Stastny brothers and wingers Michel Goulet and Marc Tardif), the NHL Nordiques found anything but success from 1987 to 1992, finishing last in their division every year, including three years as the worst team in the league. That led to three consecutive first- overall amateur draft picks, which were used to select Mats Sundin, Owen Nolan and Eric Lindros. Lindros was traded to Philadelphia after refusing to play in Quebec, but it turned out well for the Nordiques as they acquired goaltender Ron Hextall, defensemen Steve Duchesne and Kerry Huffman, center Mike Ricci, the rights to Swedish center Peter Forsberg, a first-round draft choice in 1993 and $15 million.

The trade turned Quebec into an instant playoff contender and the Nordiques rocketed to the top of the Northeast Division. Unfortunately, the team played in the smallest market and venue in the NHL and struggled financially, victims of increased costs and a weak Canadian dollar. After losing millions of dollars, team owner Marcel Aubut was rebuffed by the Quebec provincial government on a bailout that included a new, larger arena and was forced to sell the franchise. COMSAT Entertainment Group of Denver bought the franchise in July of 1995, eventually naming it the Colorado Avalanche. Some 12,000 season tickets were sold during the first month.

Colorado joined the Blues in the Central Division for the 2013-14 season after 17 seasons in the Pacific or Northwest Division. The franchise enjoyed success early on, winning a Stanley Cup in 1996, the first season in Denver. They celebrated another championship in 2001.The Avalanche did not qualify for postseason play in 2007, the first time since relocation, yet would only make the playoffs three times in the following ten seasons. Nor are they expected to qualify this season.

St. Louis and Quebec/Colorado made several significant trades over the years. In 1989, the Blues acquired defenseman Jeff Brown from the Nordiques for center Tony “Circus” Hrkac and goaltender Greg Millen. Brown would play five seasons wearing the Note, scoring 80 goals and 294 points in 329 games. He would lead the defense in scoring four of the five seasons, finishing second to Paul Cavallini in 1990. He also had a major impact during four postseason tournaments, scoring 10 goals and 38 points in 42 games.

A minor, yet meaningful, trade occurred in 1991 when the Blues sent Herb Raglan, Andy Rymsha and Tony Twist to the Nordiques for popular tough-guy Darin Kimble. Better yet, after four seasons in Quebec, Twist returned to St. Louis in 1994 and played four more seasons for the Blues. Kimble, now residing in Granite City, amassed 1,082 penalty minutes in 311 NHL games. A more important, big-name trade in 1994 saw the Blues acquire winger Dennis Chasse and defenseman Steve Duchesne from the Nordiques for forwards Bob Bassen and Ron Sutter and defenseman Garth Butcher. At the time, it was thought Duchesne’s offensive upside was a greater value than the defensive skills of the players dealt to Quebec.

Another lesser deal saw the Blues acquire goaltender Brent Johnson in 1997 for two third-round draft choices. This trade was the first with the newly relocated Avalanche.

However, the biggest, and some would say best, trade with the Avs was made in February 2011. The Blues acquired Kevin Shattenkirk, Chris Stewart and a conditional second-round draft choice for Erik Johnson, Jay McClement and a conditional first- round draft choice. Of course, Stewart was dealt to Buffalo in 2014 along with Jaro Halak, William Carrier and a first-round draft choice for Ryan Miller and Steve Ott.

Shattenkirk, age 27, has amassed 48 goals and 216 points in 364 games for St. Louis prior to this season, while Johnson, age 28, has accumulated 39 goals and 129 points in 326 games for Colorado. McClement only lasted two seasons in Denver, scoring a total of 11 goals and 21 points in 104 games. In four seasons with the Blues, Stewart scored 63 goals and 115 points in 211 games. Draw your own conclusion about who won that trade.

Last season St. Louis was 2-1-2 against Colorado, while the Avalanche went 3-2-0 against the Blues. That’s because two of the Avs’ wins were in bonus time.