Tuesday, December 5, 2006

NHL Avalanche & DU Forge Unique Bond

Editors Note: Last week we published a link to an article about the relationship between the Pioneers and the Avalanche. It was pretty obvious that the writer wasn't your usual "WCHA Hack Blogger." Sure enough a little research revealed that the author was Chuck Mindenhall, who has written for Entertainment Weekly, Dazed & Confused, Village Voice, Blender and others. When we provided the link last week it was in a PDF File. LetsGoDU received permission to run the article in its entirety below.

The Icemen Cometh (Together)

The long-lasting relationship between the DU Pioneers and the Colorado Avalanche
From: Denver Sports Guide
By Chuck Mindenhall

Back in 1995, when the Quebec Nordiques relocated to Denver, the newly christened Avalanche players learned of the local flora & fauna (or, more technically, of the local barley hops and co-eds) from the nearby DU Pioneers. The Avs felt right at home because, as George Gwozdecky remembers, “[the Pioneers] were the only other hockey guys they knew in town, and many of them had known each other from the juniors.”

In retrospect this union would seem inevitable for three basic reasons: (a) hockey players, no matter where the game is played, speak hockeyese, a sort of pidgin polyglot of which only those who lace them up are fluent, (b) Canadians, whenever they can, like to party, and (c) college kids, as often as they can, like to party.

But at the time, Peter Forsberg (22), Mike Ricci (23) and Adam Deadmarsh (20) were in fact as young (and in most cases as single) as the crimson and gold’s Charlie Host (23), Brent Cary (24), Sinuhe Wallinheimo (23), and Antti Laaksonen (22). Besides, nobody in Denver could tell the difference between the previous year’s Calder Trophy winner (Foppa) and DU’s Petri Gynther (a fellow Finn), and that, used properly, was fun.

Theirs would prove a lasting embrace.

Today, Detroit still calls itself “Hockeytown, USA,” which is only slightly more accurate than the Raiders archaic “Commitment to Excellence” BS. In point of fact, Denver has become the true Hockeytown, U.S.A, with four combined championships in the past twelve seasons between DU and the Avs—more than any other professional and collegiate combo anywhere in that span. That means that every third year (or so) somebody’s hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup, or the prestigious Cutting Board—and nearly every year guys are wearing their beards longer than Pissarro deep into the playoffs.

Which is good because the Front Range fans love a winner, and that’s all we have when it comes to hockey. We support the Avs and Pios through thick (DU has 39 consecutive sellouts, and the Avs only recently had their sellout streak end at 487 games)—and luckily we don’t know too much about thin. For the sake of comparison, consider the Denver Nuggets, who seldom sell out, or the DU hoops team that drew a measly 797 people for its home opener this year (Yemi couldn’t have mattered that much, could he?). They have a combined zero championships between them—ever—so a basketball town we ain’t (just ask Charles Barkley who loves to throw beaks this way). In sticking with hockey, Detroit has won three Stanley Cups, but the Wolverines (and Spartans, for that matter) have come up nil. Boston College and Boston University have won a combined three titles in that span, but the Bruins haven’t summited.

No, as of 1:29pm, November 15, 2006, Denver is hockey supremacy.

And much of that has to do with the continued relationship between the two clubs.

This year’s Avalanche team has three former DU players—Paul Stastny, Antti Laaksonen and Mark Rycroft. Stastny has limited speed, but good woodwork, whereas Laaksonen has ridiculous speed and average woodwork, but his scoring ability is suspect—and Rycroft came out of the Blues woodwork (mostly because he likes the city of Denver). Yet these are right living DU boys, and it’s no coincidence that three of the five DU alum now in the NHL have wound up in Avalanche sweaters—though the NHL is a business and in business this kind of thing is called “coincidence.” For one, Joel Quenneville and George Gwozdecky are on the phone at least once a week, and not always to shoot the breeze. When the NHL returned after the lockout, Quenneville called Gwozdecky with no small amount of curiosity about how to handle the notable loss of red line. Gwozdecky, who laughs because the NHL bettered itself by mirroring the long-standing rules of the college game, was only too happy to oblige. Perhaps Quenneville could use a refresher course, I dunno.

But the point is that Quenneville and Gwozdecky trust one another from the original days when Coach Q was an assistant under Marc Crawford (also a friendly in DU circles). Thus Rycroft slinks into town almost unceremoniously, and Laaksonen becomes a fourth-line fixture. Meanwhile Paul Stastny (who also knows Quenneville from his days with the St. Louis AAA Blues) is drafted and given an enviable chance to succeed. Clearly, Gwozdecky has somebody’s ear.

By now you’ve heard the “Peter Stastny taking a young Joe Sakic under wing” story from back in Sakic’s early days with the Nordiques, and how Sakic will now take young Paul Stastny (or “Staz,” as he’s known) into his care in the same fashion. Sakic has between one year and six left in him (depending on whom you ask, and on what day), and Paul is being groomed to be The Man in Colorado. What this means is that Joe Sakic’s son Mitchell (incidentally a junior Pioneer), should be ready for reciprocal guidance by 2018, when Paul is the resident graybeard of the Avs. That is certain. What isn’t as certain is if Paul’s name is pronounced STOSS-knee (as the old schoolers call him) or STAZ-knee (the preferred pronunciation for those born in the mid-1980s)—and the media wags are split 50/50 on that issue.

The DU/Avs link goes eerily deeper than that. Stastny still lives on DU campus with Peter Mannino, the 2004 Frozen Four MOP (which is college’s Most Outstanding Player, because, apparently, it’s less isolationist to be Outstanding than Valuable). Mark Rycroft is married to Steven Cook’s sister, Dominique. Steven Cook is of course the third-line kamikaze for the Pioneers whom DU radio voice Jay Stickney called “the Gerald Wilhite of hockey” because he can’t stop without crashing. “Cookie” leads the WCHA in surgeries with seven—and he is a battle-tested warrior who’s allergic to beer. This, without a doubt, renders him a college coach’s dream. At any rate, Rycroft is living with Steven Cook’s parents during the season because, well, why not.

DU’s senior speedster J.D. Corbin is an Avalanche prospect whom some think skates more like Antti Laaksonen than Antti Laaksonen (which isn’t exactly Pro-Laaksonen—but I’ve always suspected Corbs’ game to be more like how I’d imagined Howie Morenz’s to be). Bryan Vines, who captained the 2002 DU team, is now the video coordinator for the Avs, and for this he thanks Gwozdecky. Meanwhile Ron Grahame, the Assistant Vice Chancellor Senior Associate Athletic Director for Intercollegiate Sports Programs at Denver (a beautiful title for a writer who’s paid by the word), holds the all-time record for saves at DU with 3,565, has a son who scouted for the Avs and a wife, Charlotte, who serves as the Executive Director of Hockey Administration there. Oh, and Norm Jones, a former DU alum and radio voice of the Pios is now play-by-play radio voice of the Avs. Ditto Peter McNab as a DU alumnus. It really verges on (good, clean, American) incest.

Right, but the glue that holds everyone together, at least unofficially, is Jim Wiste. Wiste co-captained the 1968 DU championship team alongside Cliff Koroll, and now owns and operates the Denver hockey man’s lushing crib, The Campus Lounge (at the corner of University and Exposition). On any given day a smattering of DU officials, alum and Avalanche cognoscenti can be spotted dining (Tony Granato eats a chicken burrito there before home games) and imbibing together at the Campus Lounge. Wiste’s owned the joint for 30 years, and golfs with Quenneville when he gets a day off. He’s a wonderful host who speaks to everyone from Ray Ferrero to Gerry Powers as a professional courtesy—but always in haste, as if there’s a roast in the oven.

I know what you’re saying, “yeah, but perchance this kind of cross-pollination and interconnectedness is more prevalent to other sports than you’re leading on,” and you’re probably right. But we’re talking Denver, and in Denver the hockey family is so vastly familiar with itself, that thesedays if you are rooting for the Avalanche, then you’re pulling for the Pios and vice-versa. You can’t make that argument for the Broncos and CU, or the Nuggets and Metropolitan State (though, I guess Mike Dunlap could have started a trend) or the Rockies and, what, the Sill-Terhar Ford sponsored little league baseball team.

In all of those instances there are too many egos at play.

No, the Avalanche and Pioneers are class organizations that are genuinely interesting in each other’s successes, and each does what it can to ensure those successes continue. And, just like all classic hockey lore, it all started around a keg.

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