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!

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