April 13, 2013
DENVER — The easy way out, the way most critics take, is to group the entire Avalanche organization into one giant bubble of indifference.
That’s what I often hear: They don't care.
Depends on who "they" is.
After the Avs stunned the Canucks 4-3 at Pepsi Center, I cornered Matt Duchene in the locker room. Do the players know what the Avs mean to this proud hockey community?
“When I was 7, 8, 9 years old, I used to cry every time the Avalanche got knocked out of the playoffs,” Duchene told me. “I used to bawl my eyes out. I feel like I’ve been an Av my whole life.”
Does that sound like someone who doesn’t care?
Saturday’s thrilling triumph prevented the Avs from being mathematically eliminated from the NHL playoffs.
Still, the Avs entered the day tied for the worst record in the Western Conference and are going to miss the playoffs, again. Colorado will go without postseason hockey for the third straight season and the fifth time in seven years.
That leaves us with one of two conclusions to explain this dramatic slide into hockey irrelevancy, right? Severe incompetence or, yes, someone doesn't care.
Here is part of the problem, as I see it. The Avs — and I’m talking about the people in the top shelf of the organization — are living off the same past that Duchene talked about.
And it is a glorious past, packed with championship parades and historic sellout streaks.
But those days are way, way in the past. The flame from Colorado’s two Stanley Cups has dwindled into puffing embers.
With the Canucks in town, I was feeling a tad nostalgic. This was a rivalry that burned under the skin of former Avs, one notch below the unmentionables from Detroit.
And I couldn’t remember the last time Colorado beat Vancouver. So I looked it up: Prior to this weekend, it had been 21 games since the Avs beat the Canucks in regulation.
“Since then it’s been loss after loss after loss against them,” Duchene said.
Apparently, Avs management is feeling a tad nostalgic, too.
Lining the walls of the hockey press box at Pepsi Center are photos from the glory days.
There, check out Patrick Roy clowning for the camera after winning the 2001 Stanley Cup. And there’s Peter Forsberg, ripping a slap shot past some poor soul in goalie pads. There’s Joe Sakic — hey, I miss that guy, too — raising the Cup in downtown Denver.
Then it struck me: Where is the photo of Gabriel Landeskog, the present-day franchise captain? Where is Duchene? Ryan O’Reilly?
The lone remaining player from the 2001 Stanley Cup champions, Milan Hejduk, was a healthy scratch Saturday.
In Colorado, this shortened NHL season was a scratch.
This is not to say the Avs should forget their Cups of years past or what they meant to Colorado. It’s wonderful the Avs will retire the No. 52 jersey of Adam Foote next season.
It's also another avenue to convince a dedicated fan base it should revel in the past while shelling out hard-earned money for a last-place present.
Just in case the smokescreen is working, allow this reminder: It has been over a decade since the glory days and the team is still going backward.
"I didn’t get drafted by some team that I never followed or cared about. I got drafted by my favorite team,” Duchene said. “I lived and died with the Avalanche over the years. This means something more to me. I remember both Stanley Cup victories so well.
"We’re not far off. Over the summer, management will do what they need to do. Hopefully they can find a couple more pieces to the puzzle.”
From what I can tell, the players care. If the Avs had quit, they don’t overcome a 3-2 deficit with 8 minutes left in the final period to beat the division-leading Canucks. With 7.6 seconds left, Jan Hejda’s game-winner served as confirmation the players have pride left in the tank.
“It says a lot about the team, I think, after a tough stretch,” coach Joe Sacco said.
How long must this hockey community wait before the Avs matter again? In football and with a Texas-sized scoreboard, they would be the Cowboys. Living off the past.
Duchene expressed complete confidence the powers-that-be in the organization will make the right moves to put the Avs in playoff contention next season.
Wish I could say the same.
Paul Klee is the Denver sports columnist for The Gazette. He can be reached via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or on Twitter (@Klee_Gazette).