Revealing Oz: Avalanche players go rogue

Doug Pensinger

One of the biggest complaints of Avalanche fans over the years has been the gag order that KSE seems to have in place over its employees.

Rarely do the fans get more than sound bites of typical hockey fodder like, "We didn't play the full sixty minutes." Viewing audiences eagerly tune into Altitude just to hear Mark Rycroft's analyses as they are rarely anything but honest. In the past, one could always rely on Patrick Roy to say it like it was, but even he seemed to hold back some, generally refraining from calling out individual efforts. Since the hot-headed goaltender left, however, there have been few players that even come close to speaking their minds—until now.

One of the highlights of this heartbreaking season has been the play of Matt Duchene. His off-season training is apparent every time he hits the ice. It's in his stride, his control, and his attitude. That new attitude has extended off the ice, as well. Early on we saw a player who no longer gave the quid pro quo answers. Instead, he spoke his mind, even when it was clear he was calling out a teammate during the drama created by Ryan O'Reilly's hold out.

However, his most cutting remarks came after losses like the one against the Calgary Flames on March 27:

"It’s a joke. It’s embarrassing," Duchene said. "We put ourselves being the 8-ball every night, every single night. Enough is enough. I don’t know what’s going on. It’s a joke . . . "

Erik Johnson was just as vocal about that loss, something that seemed a bit out of character for a guy who always keeps his emotions in check when being interviewed.

"I don’t know how many more times we can talk about having poor starts and not being ready to play in the first period. We’re sick and tired of it, but it’s up to us to change it," Johnson said. "They get in at 3 in the morning (Wednesday) and we laid an egg in the first period. It’s unacceptable. We know that . . . We’ve talked about it enough. You have to do that. Until we do, it’s not good enough. I’m sure you guys are sick of asking us about it and we’re sick of answering it. But our actions in the first period have killed us so many times this year. Talk is cheap."

Nothing comes close to the honesty that Jean-Sebastien Giguere unleashed last night, though. After losing to a team that had no business even being in the game, the 15-year veteran spoke plainly about the state of the team.

"I don’t know what it is. I’ve been around for 15 years in this league and I don’t know what it is. I don’t know why we seem like we don’t care at points. I don’t know, I don’t know we seem like, you know — some guys are fighting to show that they belong in the NHL, some guys are fighting for contracts. And it’s just embarrassing, the way we, you know, the energy we have in the room and the way we approach practices and the way we approach this game. It’s not how you’re going to win any games in this league. I mean, this is a team (Calgary) that we can beat if we set our minds to it, and every day is the same story. I don’t know what to say. I’m beyond words right now."

For a Conn Smythe and Stanley Cup winning player to admit embarrassment like that means things are bad in that locker room. Ryan Boulding of Hockey on the Rocks described the state of things in his article about last night's loss to the Calgary Flames:

A funk has settled into the Avalanche dressing room. You can feel it when entering. You can taste it while standing. You can hear it in the silences. It’s everywhere.

So what's causing these problems? Giguere didn't hold back his opinion on the matter:

"Some guys are more worried about their Vegas trip at the end of the season than playing the games, than playing every minute of the games. . . It’s not constructive. We have to find a way to get out of this losing mentality, you know? It starts with me and the guy beside me and everyone has to do their part."

There's a cancer in the locker room, and it's not just one person. As players like Chris Stewart, Wojtek Wolski, and Kyle Quincey have been shipped out, Avs fans have believed that the one who was the problem was finally gone. But here's the thing: it's not just one person. Like fans have so often speculated, the cancer truly begins with the owner. Former Avalanche and four-time Stanley Cup champion Claude Lemiuex suggests so, blaming the losing environment to the way the team has been run:

"Colorado has been quite a few years now where they can't seem to get it going. I think their hands have been tied a little bit with the salary structure," Lemieux said. "Not to say that if you spend to the cap that you're going to be successful, but in today's game, it's tough to survive and thrive when you aren't spending along with the top third of the other teams."

Certainly players don't want to look around the room and say, "Yeah, that guy was a cheap substitute for a good player. And if the owners weren't so cheap by getting that other guy, maybe we'd have a decent team." But in the backs of their minds, there have to be thoughts that don't reach the light of day, thoughts like, "Why did they get that guy? He doesn't help the team at all."

Two years ago, former Nordique and franchise legend Peter Stastny minced no words in blaming management:

"This young team was ready to challenge, almost, for a Stanley Cup this season. They were so good. All they needed was some more chemistry, and some synergies. Instead, they destroyed the team," Stastny told KMOX radio in St. Louis. "I don't know what they were thinking in the Colorado organization. I should not have said this, but I'm so, so mad what they've done to this team. They've moved the team about two to three years back again."

Whatever the cause, players within the locker room are breaking the code of silence. Is it coincidence that those players are considered fairly untouchable when it comes to trades? Probably not. But I don't think Duchene, Johnson and Giguere are the types of guys who would worry about the fate of their futures when laying out, for all to see, their emotions—anger, frustration, shame—as this team continues to spiral downwards.

Perhaps this will usher in a change for the way KSE operates. No longer can they "get rid" of the "problem child" as the problem children include the best player on the team, a cornerstone of the defense, and a decorated veteran who is respected throughout the league.

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