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A Stanley Cup Final 20 Years in the Making for the Colorado Avalanche

It’s been a long and painful journey to this moment; soak it in Avs fans.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Colorado Avalanche at Edmonton Oilers Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

“With under a minute to go, it’ll be a power-play opportunity for Colorado and the only issue is whether or not they’ll be able to get a goal here in the final minute of play to wipe out that shutout. Scotty Bowman behind the bench looking down at yet another W with that magnificent total—he’s five and three right now in Game 7...the countdown continues, home stretch of goals: Robitaille one and two, Olausson and Haula were one, one in the game. Datsyuk had three assists. Yzerman, Lidstrom two assists each. Federov, Datsuyk a goal. This game is over, to the Stanley Cup Finals go Detroit!”

Those were the last words any Colorado Avalanche fan heard from a broadcaster (the great Gary Thorne) in a Western Conference Final before this year’s sweep of the Edmonton Oilers. It was one of the most highly anticipated Game 7’s in NHL history which capped off perhaps the most intense rivalry the league has ever seen. The Hall of Fame-laden Detroit Red Wings put practically every Hall-of-Famer on the scoresheet against the Hall of Fame-laden Avalanche in a 7-0 rout.

Many thought that was Patrick Roy’s last game at the time. The good news is it wasn’t, the bad news is his career ended in overtime in a Game 7 the following year against newly-minted rival Minnesota. The point here is that we talk a lot about 1996 and 2001 in Avalanche lore because 2002 is almost as painful as those years are joyous.

The rivalry functionally ended that season on Detroit’s terms as they etched their names into the Stanley Cup. For all the good fortune that we Avs fans had dropped into our laps, thanks to a city across the continent deciding to not shill out public funds for a stadium and a bailout for a hockey team, that run of luck ended on about as sour of a note as possible … and then the Avs spent two decades wandering aimlessly through the wilderness.

Peter Forsberg left for Sweden the year year after Roy retired, and Sakic finished his career trying to carry flawed rosters that flamed out in either the first or second rounds of the playoffs—all while Detroit closed out their Hall-of-Famer’s careers with one more title and a symbolic passing of the torch to the next historically dominant force in the league, Sidney Crosby. Perhaps that’s just the price a new fanbase must pay for getting everything it could possibly ever want right away, but that doesn’t make the last 20 years for a once-proud franchise any less disheartening.

This brings me to Monday night. Drink it in, Avs fans.

For the first time in 20 years, the Colorado Avalanche is going back to the Stanley Cup Finals. That is a sentence that both feels surreal and wholly expected to write. Avalanche fandom is a weird headspace because we’ve lived both ends of the extreme in a relatively short amount of time. Few fanbases than ours are better equipped to relate to both the current dynasty in Tampa Bay and perpetual doormats like Arizona.

We were handed a dynasty and a white-hot Godzilla vs. King Kong-level rivalry to fastrack us all to hockey die-hard fandom. Then, it slowly trickled away into a decade and a half of relative irrelevance punctuated in 2017 by the worst season any team has had in the salary cap era (until 2020 when the Avalanche’s eternal dance partners, the Detroit Red Wings, usurped that title from them too.) Now the Avalanche are being led into a new era that we all can feel in our bones has echoes of the old one. Exciting, high-skilled offensive-minded hard-nosed hockey is back on the menu at ̶M̶c̶N̶i̶c̶h̶o̶l̶s̶ ̶A̶r̶e̶n̶a̶ ̶P̶e̶p̶s̶i̶ ̶C̶e̶n̶t̶e̶r̶ Ball Arena.

Unlike the 1990s however, we have actually developed a more personal relationship with this team. We watched Nathan Mackinnon win the Calder Trophy at age 18 and then struggle for three years to regain the form he had as a teenager before blossoming into the super-duper-star the Avalanche always believed he could be. Gabriel Landeskog was handed the captaincy at age 19 and then put more pressure on his shoulders by also winning the trophy for the league’s best rookie. Mikko Rantanen was a relatively old guy making his full-season debut for the Avs at 20. Cale Makar stepped out of the NCAA Championship game into the NHL playoffs at the ripe old age of 21 and scored just a handful of shifts into his already historic NHL career.

Joe Sakic was a six-year veteran before coming to Denver. Patrick Roy won two Conn Smythe Trophies before putting on a Colorado uniform (the catalyst for putting on that Avalanche sweater? You guessed it, Detroit yet again. The Avs and Red Wings seem to be fused together at the subatomic level and have been obeying the laws of Quantum Entanglement ever since the Avalanche arrived in Denver.)

The only core player from that era who went through something similar to the current crop of Avs is Peter Forsberg, who played his first full season in the NHL as an Avs player at the age of 22. It’s different when not only do you watch a team crawl through the muck and struggle to learn how to win but also watch them grow up from kids to men right in front of your eyes. It feels blasphemous to say given the godlike reverence we Colorado fans give to the 1990s teams, but this squad feels more important in large part because so many of us have grown up alongside them.

The pom-poms. Joe Sakic. A bunch of players born between 1992 and 1998. All the Small Things. Turning off All the Small Things so the crowd can sing “work sucks!” by itself. This is a franchise imbued with 1990s Colorado culture and backed by a millennial-driven crowd with an innate skill to infuse today’s hockey with the intensity of the days of yore.

Having a great hockey team is fun. Having a great hockey team that oozes connections to your childhood (or your kids’ or grandkids’ childhoods) is cathartic, and you can feel that energy connecting the past and present just coursing through Ball Arena during every playoff game.

For those too young to experience the joy of the 1990s, you’re getting caught up on it right now: FiveThirtyEight’s ELO metric currently rates this squad as the most dominant one in Avalanche history.

Colorado has grown a lot as a state since the glory days, both literally and metaphorically, and this growth has welcomed a lot of new fans into the Avalanche family, making Ball Arena one of the most intimidating places for visitors in the NHL. You don’t need to have been around when the Avs were dropped in our lap to appreciate how much this team means to this town. But, for those of us who were indoctrinated into hockey fandom by Joe Sakic, it is surreal seeing the author of so many great moments of our childhoods build a high-powered team in the same vein as his own centered around the protégé of the superstar that Sakic’s 1990s rivals passed the torch to. Sports sure are serendipitous sometimes, aren’t they?

Enjoy this feeling Avs fans, we’ve earned it.