The Colorado Avalanche, based in Denver, is the only National Hockey League (NHL) team in Colorado, competing in the Central Division of the league’s Western Conference. Formerly the Quebec Nordiques, the team arrived in Denver in 1995 and won the Stanley Cup—the NHL title—in its first season as the Avalanche. The Avs, as they are affectionately known, added another Stanley Cup in 2001 and recorded ten straight playoff appearances between 1995 and 2005 and eight divisional titles between 1995 and 2002. Patrick Roy, former Avalanche goalie and Hockey Hall of Famer, currently serves as head coach, while another Hockey Hall of Famer, former Avalanche center Joe Sakic, serves as general manager. The Avalanche play home games at the Pepsi Center, a venue it shares with the Denver Nuggets of the National Basketball Association.
The Avalanche’s most recent division title came after the 2013–14 season, in Roy’s first season as head coach. Despite winning fifty-two regular season games, a tally that led the NHL that year and matched a franchise best, the Avalanche lost to the Minnesota Wild in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Initially brought to Denver under the ownership of the COMSAT telecommunications company, today the team is owned by Kroenke Sports Enterprises, which is headed by billionaire Stan Kroenke. Kroenke Sports also owns the Nuggets and Major League Soccer’s Colorado Rapids.
Before the mid-1990s, Colorado hockey fans often found themselves disappointed, as the Denver Falcons, Denver Mavericks, Denver Invaders, and Denver Rangers all came and went. More stable were the Western Hockey League’s Denver Spurs (1968–76) and the NHL’s Colorado Rockies, which played in Denver from 1976–82 before departing to New Jersey, where the team became the Devils.
The Avalanche, which began in 1972 as the Quebec Nordiques in the now-defunct World Hockey Association (WHA) before moving to Colorado in 1995, finally gave devotees a durable and often superior team. The Avalanche’s Stanley Cup title in its inaugural season, followed by a decade of consistent success, created a strong following among a generation of Colorado hockey fans. The franchise still holds the NHL record for most consecutive sellouts—487.
Avalanche Hall of Famers
Among the team’s many stars, three proved the brightest—Peter Forsberg, Roy, and Sakic. The Swedish-born Forsberg, who joined the Nordiques in 1993 and came to Denver when the team became the Avalanche, was named the NHL’s most valuable player for his performance in 2003–4, in which he scored twenty-nine goals and seventy-seven assists. Forsberg was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2014.
Roy, a Quebec City native and the team’s goalie, captivated fans with his signature style, known as the butterfly, where he kneeled on the ice with his legs at right angles to his body. Roy’s flexibility enabled him to cover the entire bottom of the net with his goal pads, reducing the number of goals scored against the team. Roy played a major role in refining the butterfly technique, pioneered by Chicago Blackhawks goalies Glenn Hall and Tony Esposito from the 1950s through the 1980s, and it has since become the dominant goaltending technique in professional hockey. Roy was named the NHL’s best goalkeeper in 1989, 1990, and 1992. In 2006 Roy was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, and in 2013 he became the head coach of his former team.
Another Canadian, center Joe Sakic, also achieved supernova status and helped to make Denver a hockey town. As captain, he led the team to the Stanley Cup title in 1996 and was named MVP of that year’s playoffs. Sakic was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2012. Unlike Roy, who returned to Canada, and Forsberg, who retired to Sweden, Sakic remained in Colorado. He worked for the Avalanche, coached high school hockey players, and helped the homeless.
The Avs have won a total of nine division titles and remain the only NHL team to have won all—both—of its Stanley Cup appearances. In 2013 Roy replaced Joe Sacco as head coach and Sakic became general manager. The new leadership produced quick improvement but only middling results, as the Avs have been in a continuous rebuilding mode since 2009.
Parts of this article adapted from Carl Abbott, Stephen J. Leonard, and Thomas J. Noel, Colorado: A History of the Centennial State 4th ed. (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2005).