Saturday, September 26, 2009

Denver Pro Hockey Over The Years

This week the Colorado Avalanche open another NHL season at the Pepsi Center Thursday night. While football is my favorite sport, over the years I've also had alot of fun attending pro hockey games in Denver.

It all started when I was 7 years old. My Dad took my brother and I to see the minor league Denver Invaders at the Denver Coliseum.

Comedian Rodney Dangerfield used to joke, "I went to a fight, and a hockey game broke out!" That was certainly true of my first hockey game ever. The only thing I remember was a huge bench clearing brawl. My Dad got a piece of a broken hockey stick from the fight, which my brother still has to this day. In today's NHL such a fight would have resulted in half of each team being suspended. Back in the 60's minor league brawls like this were common.

Then in my teen years in the early 70's I would go see the minor league Denver Spurs at the Denver Coliseum.

The Spurs had a good team - they even became the first professional sports team in Colorado to win a championship in 1971–72 when they won the Western Hockey League. The Denver Coliseum was a memorable place to watch a hockey game. That old arena still is in use for what it was first built for in 1952 - hosting Denver's annual Stock Show in January. For hockey there wasn't a bad seat in the Coliseum, even if you could sometimes smell the residue from the Stock Show livestock while watching a game!

The Denver Spurs also was the name of Denver's entry in the new World Hockey Association (WHA) in 1975. I attended the opening game of the Denver Spurs at the new McNichols arena. "Gary McGregor will be the game's next great player" was the hype around the team's supposed young superstar. Well Gary McGregor didn't turn out to be much, and even though the WHA would be the starting point of future NHL stars like Wayne Gretzky the Denver franchise never caught on. The Spurs moved to Ottawa in the middle of the season!

Just when it seemed like hockey would be dead in Denver, the Kansas City Scouts moved to the Mile High City in 1976. No more minor leagues - the National Hockey League had arrived!

I loved going to "Rocky Hockey" games in my college years. Yes the team was called the Colorado Rockies - a name the baseball team would later use after the hockey team left town. I sometimes read that "Denver first had a NHL team in the 70's, but fan support was poor and the team moved to New Jersey in 1982". It wasn't fan support that doomed the Rockies, it was poor ownership. In fact in the team's second year they actually made the playoffs, and I was in attendance at a sold out McNichols arena when the Rockies lost game 2 to the Philadelphia Flyers. The atmosphere that night was just as electric as many years later when I watched the Avalanche in the Stanley Cup Finals.

My favorite player was Rockies rookie Barry Beck, a huge physical defenseman with a laser shot. The next year Beck was traded to the Rangers for players and cash, and the team was never quite the same. The Rockies struggled through 5 years in Denver with poor teams and poor attendance because there were always rumors that the team would be moving. When the Rockies left for New Jersey in 1982 I thought we had seen the end of NHL hockey in Denver.

Denver had minor league teams after the Rockies left town, including the successful Denver Grizzlies in the early 90's. I never got into these teams - still heartbroken by the departure of the Rockies I wasn't into watching minor league hockey.

Much to my surprise the NHL wasn't done with Denver yet! In 1995 the Quebec Nordiques moved to the city to become the Colorado Avalanche.

Some local hockey fans weren't thrilled with the Avalanche arrival. They loved the Grizzlies and the cheaper ticket prices of minor league hockey. I remember longtime Denver sportscaster Sandy Clough saying "let's just keep the Grizzlies, we don't need the Nordiques!"

Well, I disagreed with Clough and these fans. I followed the news of the Nordiques rumored move to Denver very closely, and I was ecstatic when the news became official! I was one of the first 100 people to call to get season tickets. "By the end of the year the Avalanche will be more popular than the Nuggets" I told my friends at the time.

We all know what happened that first year of the Avalanche, as the team went on to a magical Stanley Cup winning season. It was redemption for me from the years of watching those minor league hockey games in the smelly Coliseum and seeing the Rockies move back east. The 1995-1996 Avalanche season was as fun a year as I've had as a sports fan for any team. The excitement continued over subsequent years, highlighted by a thrilling 2001 game 7 Stanley Cup win that I watched in person over the New Jersey Devils (those same Devils that had moved from Colorado in the 80's).

As I sit in the Pepsi Center Thursday night watching the Avalanche open against San Jose I will remember all the years of going to hockey games in Denver. I no longer have season tickets, but I did not want to miss this opener (and the retirement ceremony of my all time favorite Avalanche player - Joe Sakic). The Avalanche will likely struggle this year and resemble more 70's Rocky Hockey rather than the Cup winning Colorado team of 2001. That's ok. It'll be fun to watch the next wave of young players which hopefully will be the nucleus of the next Avalanche Stanley Cup contending team in a few years. No matter how bad the Avalanche are this year, I know one thing - NHL hockey is here to stay in this city!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Cincinnati will be a bellwether game for the Broncos

I'm looking forward to tomorrow's Bronco opener against the Cincinnati Bengals. Usually this time of year I make my predictions on the season. This year I am going to make my predictions based on what happens in the opener.

I was talking to a friend a few weeks back about the importance of this Cincinnati game. "If they win they'll finish 7-9, if they lose they'll be 6-10" he said. I think this game has far more importance on how the Broncos season will go than a mere one game swing in the standings.

If the Broncos beat the Bengals ...

It'll be a huge boost in the team's confidence. All the critics of the offseason changes and disappointing preseason will be quieted. If the Broncos can beat a good Bengals team on the road, I predict they start out 4-0. The schedule then gets much tougher, and they'll finish with an 8-8 record. Matching last year's win total with all the offseason turmoil and changes in personel will be a good season in my book. A few weeks ago I said that this bronco season reminds me of the miracle 1977 season. I still say that, but the only chance for a surprise season this year is to win the opener.

If the Broncos play a good game but lose by 7 points or less to the Bengals ...

It'll be disappointing but encouraging at the same time. Lose a close game to the Bengals and I say the team is 2-2 after 4 games and finishes 6-10.

If the Broncos get blown out by the Bengals ...

They'll also lose to the Raiders in two weeks and they could very well lose to Cleveland in game 2. It'll be a disappointing season with maybe a surprise win or two - the team finishes 4-12.

I'm hesitant to pick a win/loss total now because we really don't know what we have with Josh McDaniel's Broncos. The Cincinnati game will tell us alot. What kind of game plan does the rookie coach come up with in a real NFL game? (the preseason is not a good indicator). Is Kyle Orton a competent starting quarterback in this offense? Is the Bronco defense really improved and able to cause turnovers? How about McDaniels first draft class? (will rb Moreno have an impact? Will nickel back and returner Alphonso Smith show his worth?)

I'll miss the first half of the Bengals game as I will be in transit to Las Vegas for a work conference. I'm going to plan the rest of my Sunday based on what happens in the first half; if the Broncos are in the game I'll skip the opening session of my conference and watch the game at a Las Vegas Sports Book. If they are getting blown out I'll forget about football for the day (or at least until the evening, when I'll be in a sports book watching Jay Cutler vs the Packers!)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

21 years of fantasy football

I hosted my annual nfl fantasy football draft on Saturday - the 21st year I've had a "live draft" nfl league. Nowadays it seems most fantasy drafts are done online. Our "old school" draft is still done in person and gives owners a sense of what the real nfl draft is like.

One unique feature of our league is an auction for the first 6 players, and a draft for the remaining 16 players. Here's a video clip of one player being auctioned off:

When I first heard fantasy football calls on sportstalk shows in the 80's I used to think, "get off the air! Let's talk real football!" I soon caught the fantasy sports bug, though, as I played in a league at a local health club and was hooked. I ran my first league a year later in 1989.

Since that first nfl fantasy league I added one fantasy sport after another. I now run leagues in nfl football, ncaa football, nba basketball, nhl hockey, major league baseball, and even golf! I find I am a much more knowledgable fan of each sport now, as playing fantasy sports requires you to learn about all the players in a league rather than just the ones on your favorite team.