Colorado Avalanche: A Quarter Century in Mile High

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 7: Members of the Colorado Avalanche 20th Anniversary Team are honored before a game against the Minnesota Wild at Pepsi Center on December 7, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 7: Members of the Colorado Avalanche 20th Anniversary Team are honored before a game against the Minnesota Wild at Pepsi Center on December 7, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images) /

The Colorado Avalanche have had highs and lows in their soon-to-be 25 seasons in the Mile High City.

Had the 2004-2005 hockey season not been lost entirely to the lockout, the Colorado Avalanche would have just had curtain call on their twenty-fifth anniversary season. Undoubtedly, the season would have been filled with in-arena tribute videos of the glory days. The team’s social media accounts would have circulated Stanley Cup memories; and perhaps asked the fans to chime in as well. And, of course, a twenty-fifth anniversary jersey patch would have adorned the team’s sweaters, and been made available for purchase (I would have bought more than one person needs).

However, there was a lockout. The season was lost. And, now, the Colorado Avalanche’s twenty-fifth anniversary season will be celebrated sometime in 2021, presumably (thanks a lot, Covid). With such a milestone being reached, it seems appropriate we recount some of the moments—good, as well as bad—from the team’s first quarter century in the Mile High City.

I’m not writing anything anyone doesn’t already know, but the Colorado Avalanche didn’t begin their life in Denver. Yes, friends…they’re transplants. To find their true story, we have to go back to November 1st, 1971 (the founding of the World Hockey Association) to the San Francisco Bay Area. The WHA formed as a rival of the National Hockey League and, of the founding teams, a franchise was awarded to Northern California called the San Francisco Sharks.

However, as was often the case with just about everything in the WHA, money was a huge issue. The San Francisco ownership team couldn’t get their act together in time for puck drop, and so the franchise was relocated to the province of Quebec, Canada. There, the team hit the ice in 1972 as the Quebec Nordiques. The Nords would play in the WHA—winning one championship, and two division titles—until the league merged with the NHL in time for the 1980 season.

And so began the franchise’s stay in the NHL. From 1980 to 1995, the Nordiques competed for Stanley Cup glory in Quebec. During their stay they developed a heated rivalry with the Montreal Canadiens, got spurned by Eric Lindros, and had varying degrees of on-ice success (including two more division titles) and disappointment. Then, the monster known as “money woes” reared its nasty head once again.

This isn’t an economics blog, and I’m really stupid when it comes to that sort of thing anyway, so I’ll keep it brief. The 1990s was a rough decade for Canadian hockey, because the Canadian dollar wasn’t doing so hot. The Canadiens, Maple Leafs, and Canucks were all fine; but the Oilers, and Flames nearly had the coffin door nailed shut. The Jets, and Nordiques, however, were in dire straights.

The reasons the Nordiques were forced to sell are many, but the short version is the team was sold. Marcel Aubut unloaded the team to COMSAT, who moved operations to Denver, Colorado  in July of 1995; the return of NHL hockey to Colorado was official. After considering a series of alternate names—Black Bears, Cougars, Outlaws—and dodging one of the most infamously horrible names in hockey history (Rocky Mountain Extreme) the team was named the Colorado Avalanche. The name was made public on August 10.

The team took the ice for its first regular season game on October 6, 1995. They defeated their future rivals, the Detroit Red Wings 3-2 with Valeri Kamensky scoring the team’s first goal in their new home. As many know, the Nordiques had a spectacular 1994-95 season, only see it go up in smoke in the first round of the playoffs. The Avalanche were expected to compete right away, and they did.

By December 6th, 1995 the Colorado Avalanche had won sixteen of their first twenty-seven games. Stephan Fiset was a steady presence in goal, but the team was about to get a shot of steroids the likes of which no one expected. Patrick Roy, two-time Stanley Cup champion goaltender with the Montreal Canadiens, was sent to the Avalanche in a blockbuster trade. Though the team faltered in the immediate term, Roy would prove over the long haul he still had what it took.

The Colorado Avalanche cruised into the playoffs, capturing their second consecutive division title as a franchise, and their first of eight consecutive in the Mile High City. They moved past the Vancouver Canucks, Chicago Blackhawks, and Detroit Red Wings in six games each. And that last series, oh boy was it a good one. The Avalanche would meet the Florida Panthers in the Stanley Cup Final.

After skating to a 1-0 game four victory in triple overtime at Miami Arena, the sweep of the Panthers was complete. The Colorado Avalanche raised their first Stanley Cup in franchise history; the first major-professional championship for the city. After a parade in Denver, and even a return to Quebec City to share the championship with their old francophone fans, the Avs set their sights on the next season. If there was any doubt of the championship or the team being for real, the Avs would prove they were indeed no fluke.

In a season that included such highs as another divisional championship, and even the President’s Trophy for the best regular season record, there weren’t many lows. Even though it ended in defeat, who can honestly say the “Brawl in Hockeytown” wasn’t incredible? The Avalanche would make another appearance in the Western Conference Finals, again face the Detroit Red Wings, and again the series would be over in six games. Unfortunately, this go-round didn’t go the Avs’ way.

As a Colorado Avalanche fan, the first taste of true disappointment came in the 1997-98 playoffs. The team won their division, and finished with ninety-five points in the standings. Their point total was good for second place in the Western Conference, which meant they’d face the seventh-seeded Edmonton Oilers. Anything can happen in the playoffs, but what happened next, shouldn’t have. The Oilers upset the Avalanche in seven games.

After the next two seasons of the Avalanche making the Western Conference Finals—losing both years in seven games to the Dallas Stars—they would reach the top of the pile. With Ray Bourque in the mix (acquired from Boston the year previously) they set out to get the team, and their grizzled veteran, a Cup. The Avalanche managed exactly that, winning their second Cup in six seasons. The conclusion of 2000-01 campaign is forever immortalized by Gary Thorne’s words, “And after twenty-two years…Raymond Bourque!”

More from History

Though the next year would end for the Avalanche in the Western Conference Finals, once again at the hands of the Detroit Red Wings, it was really the conclusion of the 2002-03 season that brought major disappointment. It just marked the end for so much. The run of consecutive division titles (eight in Denver, nine including the last year in Quebec) was over; the bonafide Cup contender gone. And, after a game seven loss in the opening playoff round to the third-year Minnesota Wild, the great Patrick Roy would hang up the pads for good.

This is when things became fair-to-middling for Day One Avalanche fans. Honestly, if the team wasn’t winning a Cup or, at least, competing in the Conference Finals, it was a let down. Over the next ten seasons, the Avalanche won just three playoff rounds, and missed the post-season entirely five times. And let’s not even discuss Reebok Edge and losing the brilliant jerseys the club once had.

It wasn’t until the return of Patrick Roy—this time as the head coach—and Joe Sakic as General Manager that a glimmer of hope was finally visible. Roy lead the team to their best finish in what felt like a lifetime (and, in fact, the team’s second best finish ever in Denver) and captured the central division title. Though the post-season ended in another heartbreaking game seven loss to the Minnesota Wild, the future was bright. At least, that’s what we thought.

The team slid back to the basement, and Roy peaced-out of Denver again. The return to the cellar felt sadly normal; oddly comfortable. It wasn’t until the team hired Calder Cup-winning head coach Jared Bednar away from the Columbus Blue Jackets organization, and he began showing promise at the highest level, that the team began scaring people again. As of this writing (Bednar’s fourth season with the club) the team has three consecutive playoff appearances—the most recent two saw them win the quarter finals—and they are once again seen as legitimate threats to win the Cup.

Next. Colorado's 2001-02 Season. dark

Going into the club’s real twenty-fifth on-ice season the collective looks forward to momentum gained from the 2020 postseason. We look forward to adding a piece or two that helps return the team to the Conference Final; perhaps beyond. We look forward to greatness, and maybe some more outdoor games. Oh, and an anniversary jersey patch.