When the Avalanche won the 1996 Stanley Cup in their first season in Colorado, sports pundits lauded Denver as a great hockey town. Fans waited in hours-long lines to purchase tickets, and the Avs jersey became an ubiquitous fashion trend.
Much of the groundwork for the Avalanche’s mainstream success, however, had been laid the previous year by Denver’s minor league hockey team, the Grizzlies.
Co-owners David Elmore and Donna Tuttle—who also own the Colorado Sky Sox, a minor league baseball team based in Colorado Springs—launched the Grizzlies as an expansion team, despite Denver’s history of failed minor league hockey teams. Denver’s previous pro team, the NHL Colorado Rockies, had closed shop in 1982.
The Grizzlies played just one season in Denver for the now-defunct International Hockey League. The impending arrival of the NHL forced the team’s relocation to Utah in 1996, where it continues to operate.
But the Grizzlies made their one Denver season count. The team won the IHL’s Turner Cup championship and posted the league’s best regular-season record. Coach Thomas “Butch” Goring was named Coach of the Year, and goalie Tommy Salo won the MVP, Rookie of the Year, and Outstanding Goalie awards.
More importantly, the Grizzlies attracted 12,094 fans per game at Denver’s McNichols Sports Arena, many of whom simply became automatic Avalanche fans when the team came to the Mile High City the following year.
This June, players and staff from the Grizzlies met at Brooklyn’s at the Pepsi Center for a 20th reunion party. Former President and CEO Bernie Mullin spoke to the crowd, alongside a host of former players and the team’s co-owners, David Elmore and Donna Tuttle. After many glasses of beer and wine, the former coworkers and teammates told stories about the team’s short-lived success, and how the Grizzlies effectively brought the NHL back to Denver:
Derek Armstrong (Center)
“I was just some kid from Ottawa—I didn’t even know where Denver was on a map. I lived at Colorado Blvd. and I-25, and there weren’t any good bars around there. I hung out in the DU neighborhood, and would drink at the Pub on Pearl and the P.S. Lounge. It was fun because nobody in town knew who we were at first, so we could go to bars. After the first few months, people started to know the Grizzlies.”
David Elmore (Team Co-Owner)
“We had always loved Colorado. I was in real estate and had sold properties in Vail, and I had moved the Sky Sox to Colorado Springs in 1988. I owned a minor league hockey team in Richmond, Va., and always felt that [hockey] should also be [in Denver]. I will always remember our TV commercial: it said ‘Warning, Man-Eating Grizzlies Are Here!’”
Kelly Williams (Vice President of Marketing)
“You could buy rink-side seats for $15! We gave so many tickets away too. If your kid got straight A’s, we gave you tickets. It was all about getting [people] into seats.”
Michael Haynes (PR Chief, Radio Play by Play)
“I was getting paid something like $19,000 a year and working in a temporary trailer outside of [McNichols Arena]. I had just come from the American Hockey League and Colonial Hockey League, where I was in places like Utica and Thunder Bay, Ontario, calling games for 200 people. I was just so happy to have a job. I was doing radio, and we’d take calls in between periods, and it was non-stop questions about the actual game of hockey. What is offsides? How do they know when to change lines?”
Bernie Mullin (President and CEO)
“Even when fans knew [the team] was leaving, they still loved us. We sold $100,000 worth of merchandise the night we celebrated the cup, even though the team was dead. It was an amazing phenomenon. We came into a city that hadn’t had pro hockey in 10 years, and we were so successful after one year that the NHL moved back, and look how successful they’ve been.”