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Colorado Avalanche

A professional hockey team in the Western Conference of the NHL.

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Rocking and Rolling

  • Apr 4, 2013
You know, I'm now officially curious as to how it is these former WHA teams followed the same rough pattern: The Winnipeg Jets, Hartford Whalers, Quebec Nordiques, and Edmonton Oilers all started out in the upstart league which tried to challenge the NHL. They all jumped to the NHL. They sucked, then moved, then found dominance. Even the Phoenix Coyotes seem to be playing better hockey than they ever did during their tenure in Winnipeg! The Oilers seem to be the lone exception.

The Quebec Nordiques were another one of the original WHA teams, formed in 1972. They were placed in Quebec City, the capitol of the Canadian province of Quebec, which makes sense in the fact that Quebec City is a pretty important place. It's also one of the smaller markets in Canada, so the Nordiques had the distinction of being one of only two major league professional sports teams to call Quebec City home. (The other was the Quebec Bulldogs of the early NHL.) The name Nordiques, which is pronounced "nor-deeks," is of course a french word. The approximate translation in english is "northmen," or "northerners." Quebec is known as the cultural capitol of French Canada, and in a way it's a bit of the Canadian equivalent to Texas: Much different culture, a certain amount of pride in the way they are and how different they are. There's a secession movement there which doesn't stand a chance in hell of succeeding because Quebec is the second-most populous province in Canada and contains a number of economically important places, including the city of Montreal. Montreal, though, has a serious language divide - half the people there speak french as a primary language, and half english. Quebec City is a fortified city on an island, and the language is quite dominantly french.

The Nordiques were originally sketched for San Francisco, and they were supposed to be called the Sharks. But their funding imploded right before the season, so the WHA had to hurry and sell the team to a bunch of businessmen who happened to own a junior team called the Quebec Remparts. They gave them the Nordiques moniker because the team, well, played in the north. Only the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Cowboys, Vancouver Blazers, and Winnipeg Jets played further north. Hey, when you're pressed for time, ya gotta do what ya gotta do, right? The Nordiques started their legacy with Montreal Canadiens legend Maurice "Rocket" Richard as their coach. His coaching record was a respectable 1-1-0. Those numbers are rather low, you know? Well, that's because Rocket lasted through two games before deciding coaching wasn't for him and stepping down.

The first star for the Nordiques was JC Tremblay. They didn't make the playoffs until 1975, though, after Marc Tardif and Real Cloutier joined up. The Nords went all the way to the Finals that year, but were swept by the Houston Aeros. The next year, the team went nuts on offense - Tardif, Coultier, Chris Bordeleau, Serge Bernier, and Rejean Houle all posted 100-point seasons. In 1977, the Nordiques finally captured the Avco World Trophy, the trophy given out to WHA Champions. By the 1979 merger, the WHA only had three of its Canadian teams left: The Nords, Oilers, and Jets. All three were admitted to the NHL, along with the New England Whalers. When the NHL gave the survivors the customary fuck off, move to the back message usually reserved for teams that survive sports league mergers, the Nords got slammed: The senior teams in the NHL took all but three of their players. They got to hold Real Cloutier, but he wasn't nearly enough to keep the Nordiques from sinking. They also managed to dig up a great rookie named Michel Goulet. They didn't make the playoffs until 1981, having signed Soviet defector Peter Stastny in the meantime. In the playoffs, they got their asses kicked by the Philadelphia Flyers in rather short order.

Goulet and Stastny led the Nordiques on a series of playoff runs which lasted throughout the 80's. Even though this is the NHL and making the playoffs is easier than winning a poker hand with a royal flush, it said something about the Nords that in those 1982 playoffs, they dispatched the Canadiens and Boston Bruins before going to the Wales Conference Finals and meeting the all-conquering New York Islanders, who gave them a short order beating to end the Cinderella run. In the 1984 playoffs, the Nordiques were facing the Habs yet again, and it should be noted that since both of these teams were faces of French Canada, they developed a little bit of a rivalry. The sixth game of this playoff series got a little bit heated, and it became one of the most infamous games in league history. What happened? Well, Montreal won it 5-3, scoring all five goals in the third period, to win the series. That's the less notable aspect of it. The more notable aspect is the penalties list: A breathtaking 252 minutes in penalties were racked up. There were 14 fights, two bench-clearing brawls, and ten ejections, including Stastny and Dale Hunter. The game is known as the Vendredi Saint Brawl in french, and the Good Friday Massacre in english. In 1986, the Nords won their first division title, but got swept in the first round by, of all the teams to be swept by, the Hartford Whalers. 1987 saw another huge playoff war between the Nords and Habs, which ran seven games. Montreal won.

After that, the decline started. After years of making the playoffs, the Nordiques were now finishing last in their division, and in 1989, they finished with the worst record in the NHL. To inject a bit of life into the team, the Nordiques brought in coach Michel Bergeron in 1989. He had coached them through most of the 80's, to their best years. They also scooped up Montreal legend Guy Lafleur! Unfortunately, the Lafleur signing came with a major problem: Lafleur had only been playing since 1988. So how was he such a legend? Well, see, his NHL career had actually started in 1971, and ran to 1985, when he retired. In 1988, he pulled a Favre, or a Clemens, depending on whether your preference is baseball or football. The New York Rangers had given him up because all those years which turned him into a Montreal legend were clearly in the past. But hey, mileage can be overlooked with this guy, right? I mean, look at the accolades: Three Art Ross, two Harts, three Lester Pearsons (now the Ted Lindsay), one Conn Smythe, five Stanleys! Something HAD to be there, right? Well, in limited games, he did put a few points on the board, but The Flower was quite clearly out of gas. In 98 games over two seasons, Lafleur scored only 24 goals, despite still being fairly prolific for a guy with such low ice time. The season saw them finish with one of the most hideous records in league history: With a 12-61-7 record, they had posted 31 points. It was the second of three straight years with the league's worst record.

Goulet and Stastny were both traded in 1990. But they started making up for it with a young forward named Joe Sakic, and they also became the first team to ever draft a European player first overall when they got Mats Sundin in the 1989 draft. The next year, they got Owen Nolan. See what losing gets you? Good draft picks! In 1991, they picked first yet again, and their choice was a certain Eric Lindros. That last one posed something of a problem: Lindros had no intention of ever suiting up for the Quebec Nordiques, and that was very public knowledge. Although he posed with the jersey on draft day, he never actually put it on. Among the things Lindros objected to were distance, lack of marketing potential, and having to learn french. Meanwhile, the team president announced that they were planning to make Lindros the centerpiece of their turnaround. Lindros, having other ideas, refused to sign and began a holdout. The team president said Lindros would never have an NHL career as long as he held out. In the meantime, Quebec finished with another terrible season in 1992. Lindros was popular and marketable, though, so the little cold war between him and the Nords had to end sometime. And with pressure from both the league and fans, it started to look like Lindros was going to get his way.

At the time, the Quebec Nordiques still needed an entire team to get under them. The Philadelphia Flyers were convinced they were a single player away from their third Stanley Cup. They were also VERY convinced that Lindros was that player. Sports fans are well-versed in the story of the Herschel Walker trade: Herschel Walker was a great NFL running back with the Dallas Cowboys in the late 80's. The Cowboys were struggling at the time, though, and Walker wasn't going to carry the team - he was rather the only bright spot on a piss poor roster that kept finishing at the bottom of the standings. At the same time, the Minnesota Vikings were a legitimately good team looking for the one player necessary to get them over the hill, and when the Cowboys started cleaning house for a thorough rebuild, the Vikings decided Walker was their guy. They traded a very large number of players and draft picks to get him. Unfortunately, Walker's playing style didn't fit in with Minnesota's offensive playing style. Dallas, meanwhile, built a team that won three Super Bowls. So what we have between the Flyers and Nordiques right now is the NHL's version of that trade: In 1992, the Flyers parted with Peter Forsberg, Ron Hextall, Chris Simon, Mike Ricci, Kerry Huffman, Steve Duchesne, $15 million, and two first round draft picks, one of whom was turned into Jocelyn Thibault, for Eric Lindros and ONLY Eric Lindros. Lindros became a great star in Philadelphia, and in 1997, he led his team to the Finals - a four-game blowout against the Detroit Red Wings, in which Lindros scored only one goal, which came with 15 seconds left in game four, long after the entire series had been decided.

While the Nordiques traded Mats Sundin to the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1994, the army they heisted from Philadelphia had turned them into a rising power. But while this was going on, Quebec City was getting phased out as a market. It was small in a non-capped league. Strike one. Operating costs were starting to go up. Strike two. The Canadian dollar wasn't nearly as strong as the American dollar. Strike three. Quebec City had no other nearby cities to get fan support from. Strike four. Quebec City was exclusively french-speaking, which discouraged non-french-speaking players and limited marketability. Strike five. The Quebec government refused to bail them out. Strike six, and somebody please fire this dumbass umpire. Some investors from Denver bailed the team out, but they had a teensy little condition: They were taking the Quebec Nordiques to Denver. I've read before that the people of Quebec City actually took it rather well; most still consider the second incarnation of the Quebec Nordiques - the Colorado Avalanche - their team, and still celebrate the successes of the Avalanche as if they were still the Nordiques.

The name Colorado Avalanche was perfect for the team now, because it was such a fantastic description of what they were doing to every other team in the league: Burying and smothering them! In 1996, they finished second in the Western Conference, and went to the Finals. In the Finals, they battered the hapless Florida Panthers in four games for their first Stanley Cup. Now, they were regularly fighting for the best record in the league. In 2000, the Avs picked up the legendary Boston Bruins defenseman Ray Bourque, who had been in the league since 1979 and was hurting for the Stanley Cup, which he had never won. In 2001, it seemed like the Avalanche were on a quest to get every player in the NHL playing for them. Besides Bourque, they had Forsberg, Sakic, Rob Blake, Patrick Roy (a 1996 trade), Adam Foote, and Chris Drury. They powered their way to a glittering record of 52-20-10 (four overtime losses added to overall losses there) for 118 points and the Stanley Cup.

The beginning of the end of Colorado dominance came with the installment of the salary cap. The cap was never going to let the Avs keep all that firepower. They did manage to stay good, though, and they did some damage in the 2006 playoffs before getting swept by the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. It had been a great year, but it was also the first sign that things were changing in the NHL; the Avalanche had never been swept in a playoff series before. The slide came, but the Avs never completely let themselves fall under since then. Unfortunately, they've turned into a bit of a tease since then. They're bouncy. They'll have a good season where they win over 40 games one year, then a bad season where they'll post less than 70 points.

JC Tremblay had his number retired upon his retirement from the Quebec Nordiques in 1979. That was followed up by the retirement of the numbers of Marc Tardif, Peter Stastny, and Michel Goulet. But the Avalanche apparently don't feel like they're Quebec City's team anymore, because the second they got to Denver, all those numbers came right back out of retirement! The list of retired numbers for the Avs is completely different. It includes Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Patrick Roy, and Ray Bourque. Sakic and Forsberg are both among the immediate name people associate with the Avalanche. Bourque and Roy both performed brief but powerful stints with them. Roy came along in 1995. He was a longtime staple for the Montreal Canadiens, whom he had backstopped to two Stanley Cups before one nasty night in December 1995. On December 2, his Canadiens played against the Detroit Red Wings. They lost 11-1. Roy gave up the first nine of those goals. He had never quite gotten along with Mario Tremblay, and he believed Tremblay kept him in that night just to embarrass him. After finally getting pulled, Roy stormed past Tremblay on his way to see Montreal's GM, to whom he said his days in Montreal were officially over NOW. Bourque's acquisition was a bit more poignant. Bourque was a face as identifiable with the Boston Bruins as Roy's was with the Montreal Canadiens, but Bourque didn't leave because he hated his team. He was a career Bruin who had been drafted in 1979 and led them to two Finals, both of which Boston lost to the Edmonton Oilers dynasty. By the time he was traded to Colorado in 2000, Boston was clearly a team in rebuilding. Bourque was in his absolute twilight as a player, and wanted to make one final, spectacular run for a Stanley Cup. He approached his GM and requested a trade to an Eastern Conference team that had a shot - his primary choice was Philadelphia, and the Flyers had offered a package in return. But the GM was just finalizing his trade to the Avalanche. The GM also really wanted to see Bourque win the Cup, and he told Bourque "This may not be your first choice, but this is the team I feel is best."

In the 1996 Western Conference Finals, the Avalanche met the Detroit Red Wings. During the sixth game, Kris Draper of the Wings was slammed face-first into the boards by Claude Lemieux. Draper had to have his face reconstructed, and his jaw was wired shut for five weeks. That was the beginning of one of the nastiest rivalries in the history of the league. In one game in 1997, there were nine fights, eleven goals, 39 penalties, 148 penalty minutes, one hat trick, and a fight between goalies Patrick Roy and Mike Vernon. Lemieux was a player singled out by Detroit's players. This rivalry isn't nearly that bad anymore. The Quebec Nordiques also had that nasty war with the Montreal Canadiens.

The Colorado Avalanche currently holds the record for longest consecutive sellout streak. It started on November 9, 1995 and didn't end until October 16, 2006. That's eleven years, almost to the day. As for the identifying moments in their history, there were the aforementioned fights, but those are more of an exception to their identity than the rule, at least as the Avalanche - lord knows the Nordiques knew how to brawl. I want to single one out because it's one of my all-time favorites as a hockey fan. It's one of the great emotional payoffs NHL fans get to see for all the brutality of the sport. When the Stanley Cup is awarded, it's customary for the team Captain to be the first one to hoist the Cup and skate around for a few seconds before handing it off for the other players to each get their turn. When Joe Sakic took hold of it after the 2001 Finals, though, his first act, instead of hoisting it, was to give it to the one player who was retiring after that game after 22 years in the league of never winning it: Ray Bourque. The televised announcement of Bourque's name upon his taking the Cup is one of hockey's most famous calls. ("RAYMOND BOURQUE!") For his day with the Cup, Bourque took it to Boston.

The Quebec Nordiques were known for one of the coolest jersey designs in the league. It had a lower case letter N, done up like a Picasso, and the sweater integrated the fleur-de-lis into the design. It's worth a purchase if you can find it, especially since the Avalanche sweaters look more like the result of 90's marketing hubris than anything an NHL team should be wearing.

I would give the Colorado Avalanche a plus rating if I could. But, unfortunately, they have those awful days as the Quebec Nordiques to deal with, as well as the fact that they apparently refuse to acknowledge their past. Taking numbers out of circulation just because of a move is just classless. I give them a small amount of points, though, because they got Ray Bourque the Stanley Cup, and Bourque is a longtime favorite of mine even though he played for the fucking Boston Bruins, and I also enjoyed the way they fleeced the Philadelphia Flyers - Peter Forsberg alone became a better player than Eric Lindros would ever be. If this was awhile in the future, the Colorado Avalanche would be higher rated, but they haven't been genuinely bad in a long time, so new NHL fans should feel free to hop aboard - as if you even need me to say something like that.

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Nicholas Croston ()
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Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial.      Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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