DENVER — The synergy that fuels the Colorado Avalanche machine emerged from a heated argument.
The enduring message: No, we don't need to all get along in order to succeed.
Two years ago next week, coach (Jared Bednar) and star player (Nathan MacKinnon) got into it. Got into it good. During a frustrating loss to the Calgary Flames, MacKinnon fired a water bottle into the boards and fired off a shot at Bednar from the bench: Just do your (expletive) job.
Just look at 'em now, one week from opening the season as betting favorites in the NHL: “Our expectation is to win the Cup,” MacKinnon said the other day, as serious as a man can be.
Boy, how time flies when you’re winning — and how a pro sports franchise crawls to a stop when you’re not. Was it really only seven years ago that Joe Sakic was shadowing John Elway at Dove Valley and scribbling notes on how to run the hockey half of Colorado’s championship franchises?
Trust your gut, Elway advised Sakic then. Trust in Joe, Avalanche believers say now.
The juxtaposition of the state’s most successful teams at the moment is jarring. In the same week that Elway stepped away from day-to-day operations as Broncos general manager, Sakic has the Avs stepping into a training camp that has fans giddy, and for good reason. If you thought the Avs who skated to the Western Conference semis offered a thrill a minute, wait till you get a load of the bunch that held its first scrimmage Wednesday.
“There wasn’t too many guys out there I didn’t like,” Bednar said after.
“All the top guys were buzzing and going pretty well,” Conor Timmins said.
“It’s amazing what players we have this season,” MacKinnon said.
Oh, it’s not fair to suggest Sakic is Elway’s equal as an executive. One has a championship, one’s working on it. Plus, the Avs were in the Broncos' current sad position for far too long. But if you're searching for reasons why the Broncos are overhauling their front office while the Avs are overwhelming opponents with a deep and gifted roster, look no further than the synergy on the hockey side. From general manager to coach to team captain, the Avs are aligned in what they wish to accomplish and how they’re going to do it. Meantime, the Broncos are conducting a search for a new general manager after cycling through three coaches in five years.
Come to think of it, that was pretty good advice Elway texted to Sakic back in the day. When Bednar’s first season as coach resulted in a league-worst 48 points, Sakic trusted his gut that Bednar was the right man for the job. Nailed it. When Gabriel Landeskog’s first seven seasons as captain resulted in zero playoff series wins, Sakic trusted Landy was the right man to lead them on the ice. Nailed it again.
"Landy's a guy that leads by example,” star defenseman Cale Makar said Wednesday.
Helps, too, when the team’s best player, MacKinnon, is unafraid to light into teammates if he doesn't appreciate the effort — or even if he does. It was during their pre-bubble practices I knew these Avs truly were building a championship future. MacKinnon snapped teammates back into shape both with his skates and his mouth. He never stopped yapping, much of the trash-talk unprintable in these pages.
“He doesn’t take a shift off,” new defenseman Devon Toews said. “He doesn’t take a play off.”
When’s the last time a Broncos player took the mic to scold his own after yet another defeat?
Hockey’s a finicky game, anyway, and a schedule shaped by COVID-19 protocols should make it even more so. The Avs open Jan. 13 with a back-to-back against the West Division (that's new, too) rival Blues, and three times this year will play the same team four games in a row — the rare back-to-back-to-back-to-back.
“I honestly would compare it to college,” Makar said of the unusual 56-game regular season.
But the Avs have a Stanley Cup shot in large part because they’re aligned from the GM to the coach and all the way down to the fourth line — despite hurt feelings along the way.
Now one thing's left: Do your job.