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Flashback: Quebec Becomes Colorado

October 8, 2011 General No Comments

Flashback: Quebec becomes Colorado
By Sam Laskaris
Nov 5, 2001, 19:19


Following a 13-year absence, the National Hockey League has returned to Denver. But the franchise, dubbed the Colorado Avalanche, is not expected to have many growing pains. That’s because the Avalanche is not an expansion entry but the Quebec Nordiques organization, which relocated to the Mile High City this past May.

The Nordiques compiled the second most points (65)—the Detroit Red Wings had 70—in last year’s shortened NHL season. Despite an impressive 30-13-5 regular season mark, the Nordiques were eliminated in the opening round of the playoffs by the 1994 Stanley Cup champion New York Rangers. The New Yorkers won the best-of-seven set in six games.

Shortly thereafter, rumors which had been circulating for almost a year became reality. Unable to secure some adequate government funding for a proposed new rink, Nordiques owner Marcel Aubut sold his franchise, which he claimed would be unable to survive in small-market Quebec City in today’s big-business NHL.

A Maryland-based communications firm, COMSAT Video Enterprises, purchased the franchise for $75 million and moved it to Denver. COMSAT also owns the Denver Nuggets of the National Basketball Association.

The Nuggets, who sell out most of their home games, and the Avalanche, who are hoping to sell out all their matches, will share McNichols Sports Arena until a new hockey rink is completed. There’s no doubt the Avalanche will be well received. The club cut off season ticket sales at 12,000. The arena’s seating capacity for hockey is 16,500 and team officials wanted to make the remaining tickets available to the public on a per-game basis.


An exciting team…this time

Despite last season’s early playoff exit, the Nordiques-turned-Avalanche are viewed as one of the NHL’s most exciting teams. And since many of the squad’s top players are still relatively young, in their early to mid-20s, the Avalanche should be a force to be reckoned with for several years.

Colorado’s roster in-cludes captain Joe Sakic and Owen Nolan, two of the NHL’s top offensive players; Peter Forsberg, who was selected as the league’s top newcomer last season; rugged and popular winger Wendel Clark; and a pair of promising young netminders, Stephane Fiset and Jocelyn Thibault.

“People are really excited here,” says Avalanche coach Marc Crawford, who was presented with the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s top bench boss last season. “They’ve got a contender right away.”

Denver’s first taste of the NHL lasted from the 1976/77 through to the 1981/82 seasons. The franchise, known as the Colorado Rockies, never had a winning year. In fact, the most games the club won in the then 80-game season was 22, accomplished during the 1980/81 campaign.

After plenty of struggles on the ice and at the gate, the franchise was sold and transferred by its third owner, John Gilbert. The club, purchased by John McMullen, moved east and became known as the New Jersey Devils.

Seven other professional hockey teams have also called Denver home. Most of them had short existences.

The Denver Falcons were members of the United States Hockey League for only one season, 1950/51, before the circuit folded. The Denver Mavericks, who started the 1959/60 season in the International Hockey League, had an even shorter life. After only one month of play, this franchise moved to Minneapolis. Next in line were the Denver Invaders, a Western Hockey League farm team of the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs. After their inaugural season, 1963/64, the Invaders relocated to Victoria, British Columbia.

Though they survived a little longer than their predecessors, the Denver Spurs, founded in 1968, also went through their fair share of moves. The Spurs were members of the Western Hockey League until the end of the 1973/74 season. The following year they joined the Central Hockey League, and a year later they became members of the World Hockey Association. Following a half-season in the WHA, the Spurs folded.

Then the NHL Rockies came into town. The same year they left, the Colorado Flames hooked up with the Central Hockey League. After only one year of play—does this ring a bell?—the Flames were split up as the league folded.

Five years later, the Colorado/Denver Rangers rolled into town as part of the IHL. After two years, the franchise declared bankruptcy in June of 1989.

A sports boom town

The IHL returned to Denver last season. Despite being successful off and on the ice—the Denver Grizzlies captured the IHL championship—the franchise moved to Utah during the off-season. Of course, this was largely due to the announcement that the Ava-lanche was thundering into town.

“This town is just booming,” says Avalanche GM Pierre Lacroix. “The enthusiasm is just unbelievable. It’s way different than Quebec, which was a one-sports town.”

Denver now has four major-league teams. Baseball’s Colorado Rockies and the Denver Broncos of the National Football League also vie for the consumer’s sports dollars. Sellouts are the norm for these franchises, as well.

Most of the those involved with the Nordiques, however, admit leaving Quebec City was tough.

“Everyone has a lot of friends there,” says Avalanche center Mike Ricci. “We met a lot of nice people—people like restaurant owners who treated us really well.”

Ricci, who began his career with the Philadelphia Flyers and joined Quebec as part of the blockbuster deal involving the rights to Eric Lindros, says the franchise move to Denver made him feel sort of like he’s been traded again.

“Trades happen so often now,” he says. “It’s just part of the game and everybody is well aware of it. This move sort of feels like a trade, but the good thing about it is you get to take all of your buddies with you.”

Another plus, added Ricci, is that the players won’t have to shoulder any unnecessary blame for the team’s financial shortcomings.

“It’s tough if the owners are having to go to the government asking for money,” he says. “We don’t want to put people in more of a burden than they’re in. People might start thinking it’s the players’ fault. What they might not realize (is that) if taxes get raised in that situation, our taxes get raised, too.”

Ricci doesn’t mind the fact the Avalanche will have to share the attention of Denver’s sports-mad fans.

“I’m not Mr. Spotlight,” Ricci admits. “It’s tough being the only show in town. So I’m looking forward to being in Denver. It will also be nice to meet other professional athletes and set each other up with tickets to our games. Being able to go to a Broncos or a Nuggets game is something I’m looking forward to.”

Team captain Sakic also likes the thought of not being so much of a public figure as he was in hockey-crazy Quebec.

“In Quebec, everywhere you went people would always recognize you and be pointing at you,” he recalled. “I’m the kind of guy who wants to leave the hockey part of my life at the rink.”

Breathing easy?

It’s expected the Avalanche will leave most of their rivals gasping for breath at their new home. Breathing conditions in the Mile High City will be tough for those clubs coming in from altitudes closer to sea level.

“Everybody is saying this to us,” notes Lacroix. “(Nuggets) strength and conditioning coaches are saying it’s an advantage. Our coaches will do everything they can to try and make it work in our favor. But we still have to play the games. It’s not as if the score is going to be 1-0 in our favor before we begin every game.”

Being a pre-season favorite for the league crown means diddly, Lacroix adds, citing some experiences from last year.

“People were expecting a lot from the (New York) Rangers,” he pointed out, “and the Devils came out on top.”

Moving from a predominantly French-speaking Canadian city to a thriving American one will have another plus for the Avalanche. Quebec was notorious for being one of the least desirable locales for NHL players, partly because of the language situation and also because of the city’s high taxes.

“There’s no longer that consideration,” Crawford agrees. “But I don’t think it was a problem. Players really wanted to come and play in Quebec City the past few years.”

Though he would have preferred to stay in Quebec, Crawford is relieved the transfer issue is now complete.

“At least we won’t have a cloud over our head, like Winnipeg.”

It was widely believed the Winnipeg Jets would also be moving this past offseason. But the club will stick it out in the Manitoba capital for at least this season, with a zillion rumors no doubt circulating as to its future.


A fan farewell

It seemed most of Winnipeg’s citizens got behind the team when a move appeared imminent. Meanwhile, a protest in Quebec City only drew an estimated 300 fans unhappy that the Nordiques were on the move.

“We had great fans in Quebec,” Crawford reflected. “They were tremendous. I don’t think the fans in Winnipeg cared any more or any less for their team than those in Quebec. Maybe the ones in Quebec were more realistic. They knew no matter what they did it would happen anyway.”

Following a sensational regular season, what Nordiques supporters weren’t expecting was a quick playoff ouster. Sakic said the club’s uncertain future had no effect on this result.

“The players weren’t too concerned with what was going on,” he remembered. “At that time, no one knew what would happen.”

The Nordiques did have a 2-0 lead in the series, however. Increased media attention on the series—after all, the top regular-season finisher was playing the defending league champs—may have led to some Quebec players second-guessing themselves and their future.

“I wouldn’t say we choked,” Sakic says. “I think we just got beat by a more experienced team. We had a lot of youth on our team and we learned a lot by watching (the Rangers). They showed us things, like how you have to sacrifice the body in order to win. Hopefully that experience will help us down the line.”

Way up in those Rocky Mountains.

This first appeared in the 11/1995 issue of Hockey Player Magazine®
© Copyright 1991-2001 Hockey Player® and Hockey Player Magazine®

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