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Friday, February 2, 2001
It may not be glorious, but it's tradition nonetheless

Yes, after the Quebec Nordiques slid into Denver on a silver platter in 1995, the long-suffering Colorado hockey fans had to wait several months to win a Stanley Cup. And that's only about 53 years and a few months less than the Rangers' fans had to wait between theirs.

Guilty. I used that line a few times myself.

But as the All-Star weekend is about to unfold in Denver, let's dispel some of the myths surrounding Colorado as a hockey market.

It is not true that nobody in Denver even knew the color of the blue line before the Avalanche arrived in Denver. Hockey is deep-rooted in Colorado, going back through the University of Denver and Colorado College programs and approximately 327 different pro franchises. OK, so Colorado hockey hasn't exactly been a glorious tradition. But it's a tradition nonetheless.

You name it, Denver had it:

  • The old Western League, with the Denver Spurs playing the Portland Buckaroos, Seattle Totems and the San Diego Gulls. The Spurs played in the Denver Coliseum, which meant the fragrances of the National Western Stock Show always hung around after the end of the rodeo in January, through the rest of the season.

  • The World Hockey Association's Denver Spurs had a half-season run in 1974-75. In midseason, they headed to Cincinnati for a game against the Stingers. On the plane flight, veteran Spurs center Ralph Backstrom – the former Canadien – sat next to assistant coach Bob McCord. "He was rubbing his chin saying, 'I don't think we're coming back.' " Backstrom recalled the other day. "I asked him what he was talking about.

    "He said, 'I was in my office this morning and they were moving the furniture out.' I said, 'Where we going?' He said he had heard rumors we were going to Canada. I said he was crazy. So we get to Cincinnati, and we have the Cincinnati Stingers on one blue line and the Denver Spurs on the other. We get to the national anthems. And they play, 'O Canada.'

    "'O Canada'? All the guys are looking down the line and trying to hold back from laughing. I guess that sort of confirmed we were going to Ottawa."

    They played three games in Ottawa as the Civics, but then financing for a new ownership fell through and the franchise folded. That set the stage for the NHL's arrival the next season.

  • The Colorado Rockies played six seasons in Denver, from 1976-82. (Those Rockies didn't have good pitching, either.) They arrived as the inept Kansas City Scouts, handicapped because the NHL had allowed a shady and underfinanced ownership to come into the league with the expansion franchise in Missouri. And the most games they ever won in a season was 22. They made the playoffs once, in 1977-78, thanks to a 19-40-21 record. Everybody made the playoffs that year but the Charlestown Chiefs.

    Nobody invested more emotional commitment in the franchise than Blues assistant coach Mike Kitchen, the only player with the Rockies from their arrival in Denver to their departure; goalie Chico Resch; and McDonald, who actually was distraught over being traded to Calgary ... until he came to his senses.
    That doesn't mean the Rockies, who became the Devils, weren't fun. On Saturday night, when several former Rockies play in the Heroes of Hockey Game on the hybrid Colorado team that represents the Rockies, Nordiques and Avalanche, you might even notice that the Rockies had some pretty good players, then wonder why they were so rotten.

    All the stories would take up your computer's RAM.

    Don Cherry coached the Rockies one season, in 1979-80, and got fired.

    It was the best thing that ever happened to him; he went from there to his long run as the CBC's caustic commentator. That was Rocky Hockey. Whether Cherry, Lanny McDonald or anyone else, leaving seemed to be the best thing that ever happened to those guys, whether they knew it at the time or not.

    Other than that, the Rockies were the first major-league team to use Rock 'N Roll, Part 2, as a triumphant anthem. They had either the greatest uniforms in the league or the worst (nobody was neutral on the subject). Their attendance wasn't great – but showed promise whenever the Rockies surged or the marquee teams came to town.

    Nobody invested more emotional commitment in the franchise than Blues assistant coach Mike Kitchen, the only player with the Rockies from their arrival in Denver to their departure; goalie Chico Resch; and McDonald, who actually was distraught over being traded to Calgary ... until he came to his senses.

    In addition to Resch, McDonald and Kitchen, the other ex-Rockies in the Heroes game will include Blues coach Joel Quenneville; Rob Ramage, the No. 1 overall choice in the 1979 draft; Barry Beck, the 1978 rookie phenom who was sent to the Rangers for a CARE package of six players in 1979; Wilf Paiement, who was traded to Toronto; Lucien DeBlois, who also played for the Nordiques; and Steve Tambellini, now a Canucks executive.

    Beck and Ramage could have been a fearsome defensive pairing for 15 years, if they had stayed together and healthy. But that was the Rockies' story: They were Team Instability.

    "In this league, if you said you survived 'Rocky Hockey,' that means you went above and beyond," said Resch, now a Devils' broadcaster. "You could get through any blizzard of life if you got through that. It's not that it was all bad, but the toughest part was just the uncertainty. There never was a commitment for a four- or five-year plan. There wasn't even a four- or five-month plan. It was a four- or five-day plan.

    "The fans that came were very good. We always thought we were one win from getting it going. But you know, it's really nice to know it was the hockey town we all thought it was. Unfortunately, it just took longer than we would have liked."

    The NHL was gone for 13 years. In the interim, several incarnations of minor-league hockey came and went. By the time the Nordiques arrived, Denver had grown and boomed. Approximately 23 of us in the Pepsi Center on any given NHL night were living in Colorado when the Rockies left town. The talk about the Avs' crowd being unknowledgeable is simply ignorant. Many Avs fans were Bruins or Rangers or Blackhawks or Red Wings fans as they were growing up. Of course, the plague is that when these people move to Colorado, THEY CAN'T STOP TALKING ABOUT WHERE THEY'RE FROM – and they always seem to be at the next desk in the office, or the next table in the restaurant. (Not that we semi-natives are sensitive to this, or anything.)

    The Avs have (allegedly) sold out since November 1995 simply because they're winning. But along the way, the winning team has brought a lot of folks onto the bandwagon who previously would have pronounced Rocket Richard's last name the same as Richard Simmons' first name. This is not the bandwagon sham hockey town some folks want you to believe it is.

    And a few of us really do feel bad for Quebec.

    Terry Frei of The Denver Post is a regular contributor to His feedback e-mail address is

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