Here's an article I did for the January edition of The Avalanche Guild's Monthly Journal. Lots of great stuff in there, you can download the current issue by visiting this link.
October 16th, 2006. It’s just a date right? Well, if you are the kind of Avalanche "super fan" that I consider myself, then that date means a little more to you.
Between November 9th, 1995 (5th home game in Denver) and October 14th, 2006 Avalanche fans sold out every single home game, including the playoffs. On October 16th, 2006 the Chicago Blackhawks were in town. On that night, Avalanche fans did something they hadn’t done in the previous eleven years: pack "The Can" to its 18,007-person capacity. Official attendance for the game against the Blackhawks was 17,681, a mere 326 short of an official sellout.
At the time fans didn’t really know what to make of it. The rabid fan base in the Denver area had been almost spoiled by the product on the ice night in and night out. They didn’t really know what a "losing season" was. Not only did the Avs win their division the first eight years they were in Denver, they didn’t miss the playoffs the first ten years they were in town.
Year after year the Avs were filling their roster with perennial All-Stars. It was no surprise that McNicholls Arena and the Pepsi Center were filled to capacity every night. It was also no surprise that the team brought two Stanley Cups to Denver in the first five seasons.
It’s often said, by people much smarter than me, that the only thing certain in life is change. Ladies and gentlemen, times were a changing. To what magnitude, nobody really knew. And it all started with the 2006-07 season.
That season Avalanche fans didn’t have the pleasure of watching their team play in the playoffs. A feeling that would become more familiar than any fan would like to admit. They also missed the playoffs in the 2008-09 season.
The 2008-09 season was the Avs worst season in Denver. Statistically, metaphorically, or any other adverb you want to throw in there, it just plain hurt to see the team you love finish dead last in the Western Conference and 28th overall in the NHL, ahead of only the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders.
There was a pretty big silver lining to that dark cloud hovering over Pepsi Center though. Finishing that low in the standings meant that the team would more than likely be picking one of the top three in the NHL Draft that June. The team received the 3rd overall pick for that June’s draft through the Draft lottery. Then came the moment that turned the franchise around for good:
"We are proud to select, from the Brampton Battalion of the Ontario Hockey League, Matt Duchene." –Greg Sherman, GM of the Colorado Avalanche
When new Avalanche General Manager Greg Sherman uttered those words on June 26th, 2009, you knew that it was only going to be a matter of time before this team was back to competing for the Northwest Division championship again. What fans didn’t know was just how quickly Matt Duchene was going to positively effect this team.
During the 2009-10 season, the Avalanche made the biggest improvement on their record from the previous season. Not only did they improve their record by 36 points in the standings, from 69 to 95 and make the playoffs, they also improved in almost every single statistical category as well.
During all of the uncertainty heading into the 2009-10 season, one thing that seemed like it was overlooked was the hiring of Joe Sacco. I, for one, was extremely critical of this move at the time. With names like Peter Laviolette out there, I couldn’t believe they would hire from within.
Ever since his hiring, Sacco has shown that he was the right man for the job. And isn’t that what it’s all about? Not necessarily having the best tools to complete a job, but the right ones. Joe Sacco is proving that he is clearly one of the right man for the job. In fact, had it not been for an equally amazing turn around by the Phoenix Coyotes and fellow first year coach Dave Tippet, Joe Sacco would have easily won the Jack Adams Trophy for Best Coach in the NHL.
This season, the Avs are riding on the waves of their new-face team. They have sold out three of their 16 home games so far. By comparison, they only sold out five games all of last year. Many in the media have been critical of fan attendance over the past season and a half. As the team has been steadily improving; so to have attendance numbers. With such an exciting, young team on the ice, it won’t be long until the Avs are starting to sellout games consistently again.
One of the things that make this team worth going out and watching is that they are never really out of a game. They don’t get too high after wins and they don’t get too low after losses or injuries. Case and point, Matt Duchene was recently quoted as saying, "I think that's what a real team is, when you don't fall apart after an injury or two ... We're not satisfied with where we're at, though. We know there's a long way to go." It is this kind of leadership, and "veteran-like" presence, at the ripe ol' age of 19 in the locker room that makes Matt Duchene such a special player.
Heading into the 2010-11 season, the Avs players, coaches, and staff now realize, that they aren’t going to catch anybody by surprise like they did last year. They all know that in order to make the playoffs and challenge for the Northwest Division crown, it is going to take a full 60-minute effort every single night.
The Avalanche have a tremendous group of core players to build a great team around. Paul Stastny, Matt Duchene, Tomas Fleischmann, Chris Stewart, and John-Michael Liles are all in the prime of their career, or will be very soon. With the addition of other key components like Greg Mauldin and rookie Kevin Shattenkirk, I anticipate this team to not only compete for the Northwest Division title, but to also sellout a lot more games in the near future. Maybe they’ll even bring that large, silver trophy back to the Mile High City.