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 Stanley Cup titles in 2001 and 2022, and the team recorded ten straight playoff appearances between 1995 and 2005 and eight divisional titles between 1995 and 2002. Currently, the Avs have made the playoffs each year since the 2017-18 season.
The Avalanche play home games at the Ball Arena, a venue it shares with the Denver Nuggets of the National Basketball Association. Jared Bednar currently serves as head coach, having led the team since 2016. He replaced Patrick Roy, former Avalanche goalie and Hockey Hall of Famer. Another Hockey Hall of Famer, former Avalanche center Joe Sakic, served as general manager from 2014-22, and is now the team's president of hockey operations.
The Avs have won a total of eleven division titles and remain the only NHL team to have won all of its Stanley Cup appearances (1995, 2001, 2022). The Avalanche’s most recent division title came in 2022, when they defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning 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. The early decades of Avalanche hockey featured the exploits of Roy, who improved upon the "butterfly" style that transformed the goalie position, as well as Sakic, the team's center, whose goal in October 2006 made him just the eleventh player in NHL history to score 1,500 points. Sakic was selected to 13 NHL All-Star games during his career.
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 entered a prolonged rebuilding mode after a disappointing 2009 campaign. The team had only one playoff berth from 2011-17.
After a disastrous 2016 campaign, in which the Avalanche recorded the worst record in the NHL, Colorado found success again in the late 2010s and into the 2020s. Sakic, promoted to general manager after the 2016 season, hired current coach Jared Bednar and made a series of trades and other moves to improve the team. The Avalanche selected defenseman Cale Makar in the first round of the 2017 draft; Makar would play an essential role in the team's return to championship form.
With new coaching, management, and behind the consistent play of a vastly improved roster that included veteran center Nathan MacKinnon, Makar, defenseman Devon Toews, and goalie Alexandar Georgiev, the Avalanche made the postseason every year from 2017 to 2021, although they failed to reach the Stanley Cup finals. Finally, the team secured its third Stanley Cup berth after the 2021-22 season, with postseason victories over the Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues, and Edmonton Oilers. Colorado claimed its third Stanley Cup title after defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning in the penultimate series, 4 games to 2. The Avalanche's 2022 title also earned Sakic the league's General Manager of the Year award, as he became just the third person in NHL history to win a Stanley Cup as a player and general manager for the same franchise.
Avalanche Hall of Famers
Among the team’s many stars during its early years, 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.
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).