On any team, the support staff is often just as important as the players to the success of the organization. The Avs are no exception. This group of people is often overlooked, but their experiences and decisions play a vital role in the shaping of this club.
The makeup of the Avs' management and coaching staff is very family-centric, for better or worse. This applies in two ways: first, the literal meaning (there are two father/son pairings very, very high up in the organization) and the other, a more symbolic one (the majority of our staff members were either promoted through the Avs' ranks or donned a burgundy and blue sweater at some point). The term "Building from Within", used by General Manager Greg Sherman to describe the process of drafting and developing the future Avs stars instead of trading for them later on, can also be used to describe the Avs way of thinking when it comes to off-ice personnel. In some ways, this is a good thing - it makes the organization a worker-friendly one because promotions are handed out fairly regularly, but it also may limit the Avs in terms of new ideas and ways of approaching problems. It's possible this mentality helped contribute to the traditional secrecy of the organization, but the secretive personalities in charge of the Avalanche may have something to do with that was well.
Another important thing to note is that the management (and really, the team as a whole) can be divided into 2 eras: Pre-2009 and Post-2009. After the "season that did not exist" ('08-'09) and the retirement of Sakic, the team ended up in the cellar of the Western Conference. Since then, almost everyone in a major position (besides the President) has been replaced. There was even a slight transition of owners in the summer of 2010. When this team talks about rebuilding, they don't just mean with the players. The front office staff and the coaches are new too. Top to bottom, this is an organization essentially entering its third season, despite the fact it's been in Colorado for 16. However, the management has shown that it has learned from its past success and mistakes - the first 13 years of the Colorado Avalanche are not ignored, even though they are clearly a thing of the past.
This organization also tends to play things very close to the vest. Over the past year, the management has made an effort to open up and keep the fans more informed, but the old saying is "if you hear about an Avs trade, then it isn't going to happen". Trades, when they do come, are often huge and catch people off-guard because the Avs never let on when they're up to something. It's that way with everything (determining the Captaincy, moving players down the AHL or calling them up, free agent signings) - everything is very hush-hush. It's a very different dynamic than many teams have, and it does take some getting used to. It's also a fairly common source of frustration for the fans.
However, the first step in understanding this very secretive organization is to understand the people in charge. After the jump, there's a breakdown of all the major behind-the-scenes players of the Avalanche. Just strap yourself in - it's a long one.
The Owners: Kroenke Sports Enterprises and Stan and Josh Kroenke
Enos Stanley "Stan" Kroenke started out in real estate after graduating from the University of Missouri in 1973. That same year, while on vacation in Aspen, he met and later married the heiress to a still-small Midwest retail chain called "Wal-mart". After he got his degree, he started to work with a successful retail developer in Missouri on the construction of Walmarts and the surrounding lots. He split and went into business on his own in 1985, and found himself on the Walmart board of directors from 1995 to 2000.
Kroenke has always had a passion for sports. He played basketball in high school, and even to this day is a self-described fitness nut. In 1994, he convinced the Los Angeles Rams to move to St. Louis and bought a minority stake in the organization. However, he remained fairly unknown until 2000, when the Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche, and the newly constructed Pepsi Center were in dire need of a new owner. Ascent Entertainment, the tv company that had originally purchased the then Quebec Nordiques in 1995 and moved them to Colorado, had been basically pushed out of business by Comcast. Due to the money crunch, their shareholders pressured them to put the teams and their recently completed arena on the market. The teams and arena bounced around from owner to owner for a while before Stan Kroenke finally wrote a $420 million check.
Since then, he's purchased the Colorado Mammoth lacrosse team (2002), the now defunct Colorado Crush arena football team (2004), the Colorado Rapids soccer team (2004), Arsenal, an English Premier League soccer team (10% ownership acquired in 2007, built up gradually to majority ownership in 2011), and built Dick's Sporting Goods Park (2004-07). In 2004, he founded Altitude Sports and Entertainment, the TV channel that broadcasts all his Colorado teams' games, and TicketHorse, the company that distributes the teams' tickets. In 2010, he purchased the majority stake in the St. Louis Rams, but since the NFL prohibits owners from owning sports teams in other NFL markets (the Colorado teams are obviously in the Broncos market), he is required to sell his majority stakes in the clubs by 2014.
What is a billionaire to do? Why, sell them to his son of course.
Josh Kroenke was grew up in Columbia, MO and was primarily a basketball player, although he dabbled in just about every sport but football. He decided to follow in his father's footsteps and attend the University of Missouri (Mizzou), but on a basketball scholarship. His playing time fluctuated greatly and he caught a lot of crap for being the Walmart heir there on scholarship. So, after college, he left the Midwest and worked for Lehman Brothers in New York before deciding to get into the family business in 2007. He spent time in both the Avs and Nuggets front offices before becoming the President of the Denver Nuggets and the owner of both teams. He is now also the official Governor of the Colorado Avalanche.
Both Kroenkes are known for their work ethic and very "down to earth" personalities. They aren't very well known - in fact, Stan's nickname is "Silent Stan" because he rarely gives interviews, and Josh has been asked to show his ID badge in the back hallways of the Pepsi Center during Nuggets games. Stan doesn't meddle much in the day-to-day operations of his teams, and Josh has been accused of concentrating more on the Nuggets than the Avs. However, with the NBA in lockout right now, the Avalanche is the only team on Josh's plate.
Despite the owners being called
All in the Family: Pierre and Eric Lacroix
Pierre Lacroix, a Quebecois from Montreal, got his start as a highly successful sports agent. He then joined the Nordiques as their General Manager in 1994 and followed the team to Denver a year later. He was the guy responsible for crafting the teams that won the Cups in '96 and '01. To say he was never afraid of a big trade would be an understatement. After all, he was the one that pushed the Roy, Bourque, and Blake trades through. He continued to serve as the Avs GM until 2006, when he passed the title off to Francois Giguere and took over the role of President and Alternate Governor.
His son, Eric, played for the Avs from '96-'97 to '98-'99. He was never a hall of famer, but he played 8 seasons and over 450 games in the NHL as a left wing. After he left the NHL, he worked in the Avs' hockey operations department, then moved to Arizona and was the co-owner and assistant coach of the CHL Arizona Sundogs (who were the CHL champions in 2008 under his tenure). After that, he became a pro scout for the Phoenix Coyotes. In 2009, he decided to come back to the Avs and currently serves as the Director of Hockey Operations.
Greg Sherman, General Manager and Executive Vice President
Even though he was born in Scranton, PA, Greg Sherman is a Denver boy who graduated from Cheery Creek High School. He earned his bachelor's degree from the University of San Diego in '92 and joined the Avs organization in '96. He worked his way up through the ranks and served as an Assistant General Manager for 7 years, mostly negotiating contacts and working with salary cap management. After Roy turned down the vacant GM position in 2009 after Francois Giguere was fired, Sherman, a highly unlikely candidate (Dater had him at about a 10% chance of getting the job), was hired. Even to this day, he's still seen as more of an accountant than a true hockey guy, and he's arguably the most unknown GM in the media-saturated NHL. However, this may not make him a bad one.
At the time of his hiring, the Avs had $43 million (a major amount of the allowable payroll) going to only 13 players, 7 of whom were over 30 years old and not producing many points at all (Darcy Tucker). They had just finished at the bottom of the Western Conference. Sakic was done, and the future of the Avs was in question. One thing for sure was that it was time to clean house. Pierre Lacroix took care of most of it - firing Giguere, head coach Granato, and a number of other management people, then hiring Sherman, Sacco, and others (like his son) to fill the vacant positions all within a very short period of time. Overpaid players were also dropped, and new ones - young ones - were brought in via the draft.
Sherman was seen as a figure head for Lacroix - holding the title while Lacroix pulled the strings. However, in the next few years, one could argue that it became more of a partnership. Sherman is better with salaries, Lacroix better with player analysis. Put the two together in the rebuilding situation the Avs are in right now, and it's perhaps the best solution possible. Lacroix is the hockey guy - he excelled in the pre-salary cap era because when he saw a player with talent, he went out and got them no matter what. That mentality is what caused the extreme overpaying that the Avs experienced in 2009. Sherman, on the other hand, tempers that and makes sure payroll stays low while the Avs are building their core. He's much more of a businessman, figuring out risk-to-gain scenarios. He's perhaps the least flashy GM in the league, and people tend to judge him for that. However, they forget that Lacroix is still around, quietly overseeing everything. The last few major trades (Johnson, Varlamov) have shown this - they're gutsy and very Lacroix-esque in scale, but they're also budget-friendly career reclamation projects with moderate- to high-risk but enormous gains if they pan out.
Sherman by himself would probably not make a great GM. But Sherman + Lacroix + now Sakic could be a very potent combo. Like the players on their team, there is more talent and skill in the Avs front office than they are given credit for. Sherman is still new to the job - this will only be his third season - but he's made some pretty smart moves so far. If one of the major trades goes south, he may be scapegoated by the rest of the organization, but his track-record to this point is at least decent and could get even better as the young players he's brought in continue to mature and improve.
Long story short: Don't write Sherman off as a failure yet. There's a very balanced management running the Avs right now as more of a business than a purely hockey club. When it's time to spend, they'll spend, but they'll do it in a way that maximizes performance instead of just spending for spending's sake (here's looking at you, Toronto and Florida).
Sakic's Back in Town
Part of the front office equation just joined this summer. Super Joe Sakic, long time captain and anchor of the entire pre-2009 Avalanche franchise, came back to the organization and is now the Executive Advisor and an Alternate Governor. Even though his exact duties are a little ambiguous, one thing is for sure - he'll be offering Sherman opinions on the game from a player's point of view. He knows just as much as Lacroix on which players are needed to create a successful team, but he has a unique locker-room perspective instead of a solely talent-based one. Expect to see traces of that in the moves that the Avs make from now on.
Also, it appears as if Sakic is being groomed to take over the post of GM. However, when Super Joe talks about learning the "business side of hockey", there is no greater mentor in the organization than Greg Sherman. In the post-lockout NHL, teams have to be run like a business due to the salary cap, but the knowledge of how to effectively do that can be taught in a relatively short amount of time. The knowledge Sakic brings to the table, as well as the brand name - everybody knows who Joe Sakic is - is something that can't be duplicated. A change will probably come eventually, but don't expect it before next summer. If the trades from last year pan out, Sherman will probably stay on a while longer, at least until the rebuild is over. Sakic will almost certainly be the Avs GM at some point, but just like the young players coming into the league, it's best if he is mentored a while before taking over the position.
In Pracey We Trust
Rick Pracey, the Avs' head scout, started his hockey career in the OHL as a goalie for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. He only played one season and 10 games with them, but during that time, he was a teammate of a prominent young defenseman named Adam Foote. After that, Pracey bounced around from league to league (including some college time) for the next few years, playing only one game at the AHL level. He never played in the NHL. However, after retiring in '98, he came back as a scout for the OHL in 2000. He joined the Avs soon after and was a scout of the organization by the 2001 draft. He worked his way up through the ranks and became the Avs' chief scout prior to the 2009 draft, replacing Ted Hampson.
Up to that point, the Avs hadn't put much stress on the draft - they were a team designed to "win now", not 10 years from now. When the bottom fell out from under them in '08-'09 and they didn't have any prospects to replace their aging players, drafting instantly became a top priority. Pracey is one of the primary reasons the Avs' rebuild has gone so smoothly. Not only does he get the top picks right (let's be honest - even a blind ostrich could have picked Duchene at #3), but he finds talent deeper in the draft as well. He goes against the grain and relies completely on his scout's reports, often snagging players that have fallen out of favor due to injury (such as 2010's brilliant first round pick of Joey Hishon).
Not many hockey fans care too much who their chief scout is. Fewer still can name them. But around here especially, Rich Pracey is held in very high regard. He has shown enough competence in three short years that when an Avs fans have doubts about a draft pick, they'll shrug it off with an "In Pracey We Trust". He is extremely well respected by the fanbase and is talked about quite often around MHH and the Avalanche community.
Coaches and the Phenomenon of "Building from Within"
Joe Sacco, the head coach, does not enjoy the instant acceptance of his moves that Pracey does. "The Other Joe" was drafted #71 overall by the Maple Leafs in the '87 draft. He played right wing for Boston University and a whole set of NHL teams (none of them the Avs) before retiring in 2003. Two years after he stopped playing, he accepted a head coaching job with the Avs' newly-created AHL affiliate, the Lake Erie Monsters, and coached them to two decent seasons considering the lack of talent on the roster. He was promoted to the Avs head coaching position in the summer of 2009 and led the team to an unlikely playoff appearance (Anderson playing like a beast helped). He was named a finalist for the Jack Adams Award (best NHL coach), but lost to Dave Tippett of the Phoenix Coyotes. Things were looking up for Skipper Joe.
Then 2010-11 happened.
The first half of the season went really well. The team was running a fast break system that took advantage of the speed of both the Avs' forwards and blueliners. Even though their GAA was terrible, it didn't matter because they were leading the league in Goals For and winning their games. But in late December, the LA Kings showed the hockey world how to neutralize the Avs' offense. Instead of switching to a different gameplan, Sacco and the players kept running the same one and got owned for the rest of the season. The ineffective plays, combined with the ungodly amount of injuries the team sustained, were enough to cause that second-half tail spin. Sacco went from the golden boy of the organization to public enemy #1 in the eyes of the fanbase (well, maybe public enemy #2 after Brian Elliott). If Sacco doesn't improve his record this year, he'll be looking for a new job very soon.
Now, it should be said that Head Coaches often receive both more praise and more blame than they actually deserve. I personally think Sacco is a pretty decent coach who is simply inexperienced. He had to deal with a lot of stuff in his sophomore season that he just wasn't prepared for. He's a player's coach - most of them really seem to love him - but there was only so much he could do to motivate them last year. Give him a few years and he'll be just fine. Besides, stability in the coaching position is sometimes more valuable than experience. Still, when a team needs a scapegoat, the coach is often the first one to go.
But not all the coaching blame can be placed on Sacco. Over the past two years, he had two assistant coaches: Steve Konowalchuk and Sylvain Lefebvre, both former Avs. Defenseman Sylvain Lefebvre made the jump with the franchise from Quebec to Colorado and won the Cup with the team in '96. He was later traded to the Rangers and retired in '04. A year later, he was Sacco's assistant coach in Lake Erie and made the jump to coaching his former team in '09 and has been there since.
Konowalchuk played LW for the Avs in '03-'04 and '05-'06. He graduated to the assistant coaching position in 2009 after working in the Avs' player development department, but left this summer to coach the Seattle Thunderbirds of the WHL. His replacement, Adam Deadmarsh, also is a former Av - this time a RW. He too made the jump from Quebec to Colorado and won the Cup in '96, but was traded mid-season in '00-'01. After he retired, he became the Avs' video coach and was promoted to the position of Assistant Coach this summer.
Kirk McLean joined up with the Avs in 2010 and is starting his second season as their part-time goaltending coach. He played goalie for a number of NHL teams over a 16 year span, but spent most of his time with the Canucks where his still is the most winningest goaltender in their history. When he isn't helping our netminders, he's running a restaurant in Vancouver called "McLean's" and also owns a Junior team in the BCHL. The fact that the Avs' don't have a full-time goalie coach is a very hot-button topic right now, especially with the steep priced paid to get the young and still-in-need-of-guidance Semyon Varlamov. It's a problem. With any luck, the Avs will fix that problem soon. If Sacco is fired, given the Avs history, there is a chance that Patrick Roy could be offered the head coaching job. If that does in fact happen, a goalie coach would become much less important. However, until that point, it's still a major concern that the entire fanbase is hoping gets addressed as soon as possible.
To sum it up, the Avs not only have one of the inexperienced teams in the NHL, they have one of the most inexperienced coaching staffs as well. Pierre Lacroix and Milan Hejduk are the only true veterans ANYWHERE in the organization, and that's not going to help the coaches all that much. Everybody's learning as they go and mistakes will be made. But this is a big year. For Sacco especially, it's do or die. If he can come up with a winning season and prove he has what it takes to be an NHL coach, he'll be sticking around for a while. If he doesn't, it's bye-bye Sacco and hello David Quinn (LEM's current coach), Roy, or some other former Av/person in the system.