Commentary

Will Denver rally behind Avs again?

Updated: February 4, 2011, 12:38 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

DENVER -- Here in the Rocky Mountains, the past doesn't so much collide with the present as beat the tar out of it.

The Colorado Avalanche's past is so close, so tangible, it throws a shadow on the bright future of this once-dominant franchise and threatens to choke it into unconsciousness.

Walk into the Avalanche dressing room, and there is former captain Joe Sakic's locker sealed off in Plexiglas like an exhibit at the Smithsonian. Thankfully, there is no wax sculpture a la Madame Tussauds, but it is creepy nonetheless.

Then there was the real, flesh-and-blood appearance of former Hart Trophy winner Peter Forsberg at practice just over a week ago. The onetime Avalanche star is hoping to give it one last hurrah, and it would be fitting that he do it here in Denver, where he established himself as one of the greatest European players of all time.

But Forsberg's presence and the attendant buzz (several hundred fans showed up on a Sunday morning practice in suburban Denver, many wearing Forsberg jerseys to cheer on their old hero) reflect the challenges facing any franchise that was a resident of the upper echelon of any sport -- not just hockey -- for the better part of a decade.

[+] EnlargeAvalanche Fans
Brian Bahr/Getty ImagesThe Avs were an instant success in Colorado, winning a Stanley Cup in the same season they moved from Quebec to Denver.

Unlike in most markets, Denver fans got their cake and ate it all up first. They didn't have to watch the batter of a championship team being made, the ingredients slowly sifted and mixed, with the occasional falling batch. No, they got a ready-made winner when the former Quebec Nordiques moved to Denver in the summer of 1995, giving the city its second chance at an NHL team after the Rockies failed to take root in the late 1970s and early '80s.

The fans in Denver didn't experience the growing pains of that young Nordiques team. Adam Foote did, though. He was in Quebec as a talented young team tried to escape from the shadows of its famous cousins in Montreal. Foote was there in 1993 when the Nords blew a 2-0 playoff series lead against Montreal and lost four straight games to a young netminder named Patrick Roy, who went on to lead the Habs to a surprise Stanley Cup that spring.

Foote is also one of the few holdovers from those days of long playoff runs and sold-out buildings in Denver, and has as good a perspective as anyone on the relationship between the Avs' past and future. He is now team captain and the elder statesman in a dressing room filled with top draft picks and talented acquisitions looking to write their own history in this market.

"I think fans missed those growing pains in Quebec," Foote told ESPN.com. "It was, 'Oh, very good, look at this team.'"

It was Roy, of course, who would later provide the missing piece to the Avs' Stanley Cup puzzle, arriving in Denver in December 1995 and guiding the team to a Cup win later that season. He did so again in 2001. Along the way, the Avs would go to the Western Conference finals six times between 1996 and 2002. They would sell out tiny McNichols Arena and then the Pepsi Center 487 straight times, at one time the longest sellout streak in pro sports.

In a city that lives and dies with the NFL's Broncos and also has the NBA's Nuggets and MLB's Rockies, the Avs shouldered themselves into the public's consciousness and were as big as any of their big league brethren. Maybe bigger.

And maybe that success, so much of it for so long, made the fall from grace harder. Maybe the team took for granted that the fans would always be there, even when those great players retired or moved on and the inevitable process of rebuilding and retooling began.

Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon, said he's talked to people in the sports marketing business familiar with the Denver market, and the belief is that the Avs didn't put enough resources into reinforcing their relationship with their fans. He suggested the Avs perhaps need to take a look at investing more in their marketing or fan outreach to try to restore that bond.

"You need to be out there promoting your brand," Swangard said in an interview. Given the successes of the team in the 1990s, "I would have assumed that that would have afforded a great opportunity to build that community base of fan support," he said.

"Complacency is a very dangerous thing [when it comes to a pro sports franchise]," he said. "Through good and bad, you need to build equity with your fan base."

Starting in 2006-07, the team saw its average attendance slowly dwindle from 18,007 (a sellout) to 13,947 last season despite the team's dramatic emergence as one of the most exciting young teams in the NHL. This season, attendance has jumped back a bit, with an average of 14,894. But there are wild swings, from a solid crowd on a recent Saturday against Boston, an Eastern Conference team that rarely visits, to a sparse turnout two nights later against conference foe St. Louis.

But make no mistake, this is a good hockey town.

On a recent Sunday, The Denver Post -- now the town's only daily newspaper -- ran two columns on Forsberg's return and a column on the University of Denver hockey team. The Avs' practice facility is alive with minor hockey players and their families.

Whatever the cause, arrogance or simply the cyclical nature of sport (remember the curtained-off areas of the Saddledome in Calgary or the empty seats in Montreal before the arrival of U.S. owner George Gillett?), it is a sobering reminder that particular care must be given to the relationship between fan and franchise, even in great sports towns.

"We had to win the fan base's trust back again," Avalanche GM Greg Sherman told ESPN.com. "We've responded pretty well."

We can play with anyone. We don't want to look into the future. Yeah, the future looks bright, but we're playing for now.

-- Colorado forward Paul Stastny

In many ways, Sherman is right.

Bright young stars populate the team. Matt Duchene established a franchise record this season by becoming the youngest Avs player to reach 100 career points. Kevin Shattenkirk has emerged as a top-flight defensive prospect. Chris Stewart has the tools to be one of the top power forwards in the NHL. The Avs are also one of the highest-scoring teams in the NHL and boast one of the best records in one-goal games, a sign of growing maturity.

Foote insisted fans in Denver understand something is happening before their very eyes, even if it's not reflected in nightly sellouts.

"I think they're starting to realize it's a special group," Foote said. "I think they're smart. I think they know."

Sherman, a native of Scranton, Pa., has an interesting perspective on the evolution of this team. He joined the Avs 15½ years ago, when the team first came to Denver. He was in merchandising and jumped over to hockey operations in 2002.

The party line is that the Avs' history here means that simply making the playoffs isn't enough, but they are committed to restoring the team to championship caliber. For the past few years, though, there seemed to be some question about just how to achieve that.

Tony Granato was given the head-coaching job and was later demoted in favor of Joel Quenneville. Quenneville had some success but was ultimately dispatched. Longtime GM Pierre Lacroix, the man who built those glory teams, stepped aside and installed Francois Giguere.

But there were constant rumors that the wheels were in motion to see the return of the savior, Patrick Roy. Sources familiar with the situation told ESPN.com that Roy was offered the coaching and GM jobs.

If you are a conspiracist (and there are plenty of those around), then you might believe the offers were made with such limitations, both in terms of salary and mandate, that it was highly unlikely Roy would accept the offer.

Hence the public perception that a bona fide hero had been approached about restoring the team to greatness while the team could simply move on in a different direction.

Regardless of the motivation, the team did not return Roy, not yet at least. And while there are those who believe that Eric Lacroix, son of team president Pierre, will some day take over the team, the Avs' current fate lies in Sherman's hands and those of sophomore coach Joe Sacco.

If you were to come up with a nickname for the Colorado Avalanche management/coaching duo, it's not likely going to be "The Dynamic Duo" or "The Terrible Twosome" or "Thunder and Lightning". It's more like "Who's That Guy and What's His Name"?

We're pretty sure Sherman and Sacco would acknowledge the characterization with at least a slight grin. Both were certainly aware their profiles (or lack thereof) would prompt some raised eyebrows when they arrived at the NHL level. But never mistake a low profile for being shy or reserved or anything but fiercely competitive.

In a very short time, Sacco has proved himself to be a bright coaching mind that isn't afraid to go to the whip when needed. The journeyman NHLer was a finalist for the Jack Adams Award last season after guiding the young Avs to a surprise playoff berth.

[+] EnlargePaul Stastny
Michael Martin/Getty ImagesPaul Stastny is just one of the younger Avs stars trying to win fans over.

"I was confident I could do the job," Sacco said. "I was a support player, so I always thought a little bit like a coach. Was I nervous? Was I anxious? For sure."

Perhaps because he coached some of his young Avs charges in the AHL in Cleveland, Sacco -- with Sherman's blessing -- hasn't been afraid to send players down to the minors if he believes they need a refresher course in humility or work ethic.

He did so last season with Stewart, who responded with a breakout season, and this season with T.J. Gagliardi. The stays may not have been long, but the point is that the door will be opened for players who don't perform.

On a recent Sunday after two horrific home outings against Nashville and Boston, Sacco first scheduled practice on a day many thought would be a day off and then skated them ragged. The next night, they beat St. Louis 4-3 in a game that put them back in the Western Conference playoff bracket.

The challenge for Sherman and Sacco has been in replicating last season's successes and making sure the young players don't assume such success is their right.

"The challenge in Year 2 is not to let complacency set in," Sacco said. "That's my responsibility. You have to learn how you're going to bring it the same way every game."

Some players, he knows what to expect every night. "Some guys, you still don't know," Sacco said.

The difficult job of keeping this train on track has become more onerous because of injuries. David Jones (shoulder) is just the latest key part of the Avs' attack to be sidelined. Kyle Quincey, Stewart, Ryan O'Reilly, Peter Mueller and recent acquisition Tomas Fleischmann are among the building-block players who have missed time this season. Fleischmann, acquired from Washington for veteran defenseman Scott Hannan, is gone for the balance of the campaign, as are Quincey and Mueller. The team has lost 244 man games to injury, among the most in the league.

There are other indications of a team still grappling with its identity. The penalty-killing unit ranks 30th at home but is third on the road. Some of the issues are technical, others are injury-related, but there is also the specter of using youth as an excuse. Few would come down hard on the Avs if they took a step back after last season's surprising run.

Paul Stastny, one of the team's elder statesmen at age 25, will have none of that, though. "It's frustrating, because we know what we can do," he said.

Stastny, who won a silver medal with the 2010 U.S. Olympic team, knows his teammates hear the mantra about how good this team can be or will be in a few years.

"That's the problem. You don't want to get brainwashed into thinking that way," he said. "We can play with anyone. We don't want to look into the future. Yeah, the future looks bright, but we're playing for now."

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

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