Between the Broncos winning the Super Bowl and the Avalanche alum reunion at Coors Field earlier this year, 2016 has been a whirlwind of cheerful reflection on our beloved teams’ biggest victories. While we continue to crow about our city’s fifth major league championship—and fret over the possibility of a Super Bowl repeat—this year also marks the 20th anniversary of our first.
Only eight months after their arrival to Denver from Quebec, the Colorado Avalanche accomplished in one season what even the Orange Crush and John Elway hadn’t yet been able to do: they won it all.
The elusive feat was a slap shot away in the wee hours of June 11, 1996, during Game 4 of the 1996 Stanley Cup Finals. At the Florida Panthers’ Miami arena, fans watched anxiously, waiting to rain rubber rats onto the ice after two overtimes and 104 minutes of scoreless hockey. Suddenly, a missile from the stick of 6′-6″ German defenseman Uwe Krupp rifled past the Panthers’ all-star goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck to cement the sweep.
“We were up 3–0 in the series,” says former Avalanche right wing Adam Deadmarsh, who was on the ice at the time of the winning goal, “and whenever you’re up 3–0, you pretty much think you have it. But as those overtimes clicked on, guys were changing jerseys and gloves and everything because they’re all sweaty and soaking-wet. After we won, the thing I remember most was [Avs’ winger] Mike Keane keeping his equipment on for the entire night and the plane ride home.”
A year earlier in the fleur-de-lis-flecked regalia of the Quebec Nordiques, the Canadian franchise was unceremoniously ousted from the first round of the playoffs after finishing the regular season with the best record in the Eastern Conference. Shortly thereafter, the cash-strapped Nordiques were sold to an American conglomerate and headed for Denver.
After the relocation, general manager Pierre Lacroix buoyed his roster of Quebec holdovers (featuring captain Joe Sakic and emerging star Peter Forsberg) with shrewd acquisitions of Sandis Ozolinsh, Claude Lemieux, Keane—and perhaps most importantly, the game’s best goaltender, Patrick Roy. The latter three were hard-edged veterans with championship pedigrees and helped transform the team from very good to great.
“Because I hadn’t moved with the team, I didn’t have this sense of, ‘Oh, those poor people in Quebec,” says Mike Haynes, the team’s longstanding play-by-play announcer who’s currently with Denver’s Altitude Sports and Entertainment. “But there were some moments where you’d think, ‘What great hockey fans there are in Quebec.’ They’d watched their team be so bad for so long, and then the previous year they’d been a good team, and then they moved [to Denver] and won the Stanley Cup.”
He says the franchise’s move is what paved the way for the Roy trade. “There wasn’t a chance in the world—zero chance—that Montreal would have traded Patrick Roy to Quebec,” he says. “The rivalry was too big, too intense. So I never felt like if they had stayed in Quebec they would’ve won the Stanley Cup, because they wouldn’t have had Patrick Roy as goaltender.”
Entering that year’s playoffs, head coach Marc Crawford’s imposing collection of superstars, impactful veterans, and role players like agitator Mike Ricci and enforcer Chris Simon made the Avalanche a viable threat to win it all. But a secret ingredient to their championship may have been the fresh start and the deep connection between the players that the relocation forged. “I’ve never seen a team that was so together,” says veteran Denver Post sports columnist and ESPN television personality Woody Paige. “I’ve been around basketball teams for 50 years and Broncos teams for 41 years, but the unification of that team is what stood out to me. Those guys grew together. They were migrants, suddenly in Colorado, and most of them had never been here or knew anything about it. It’s a bunch of young guys, and then suddenly you add Patrick Roy to the mix, and he could’ve come in and been such a dominant personality that it would’ve screwed up the dynamic—same with (Claude) Lemieux. It is a stunning story when you think about the individual pieces that made up the whole.”
One might say that it was the Avs’ 1996 win that kicked off our city’s championship streak. (The team captured another Cup in 2001, becoming the only NHL team to win all of its multiple appearances in the Stanley Cup Finals.) Two decades and five professional championships later, Denver’s first title in many ways remains its sweetest.