The last time the Colorado Avalanche went to the Stanley Cup Final was in 2001. The team had obtained Ray Bourque from the Boston Bruins the season before, hoping to give the Hall-of-Fame defenseman a chance to skate around the ice with the Cup.
Bourque came up big. The Avalanche defeated the New Jersey Devils in seven games on the same home ice where this year’s Final will begin against the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning tonight.
In a departure from tradition, when commissioner Gary Bettman handed the Cup to Joe Sakic, the Colorado captain passed it to Bourque, who hoisted it skyward and took the first turn around the ice with Lord Stanley’s coveted hardware in front of a tumultuous crowd.
“Joe had an incredible year that year,” Bourque recalled in a video interview. “But I told him, ‘The best assist you’ve ever had was passing me the Cup.’ What a classy thing for him to do.”
Bourque then retired after 22 seasons. And Sakic, who played his entire 21-season career with the Quebec Nordiques/Avalanche franchise, is now the general manager who built the current Western Conference-winning team.
“He’s an icon of the game,” Sakic said about Bourque. “Just a tremendous person, tremendous player. He wanted to win that Cup so bad. I just thought it was the right thing to do.”
It’s been a long haul back to the Cup Final for the Avalanche, whose owner, Stan Kroenke, hopes to celebrate a second championship this year after his Los Angeles Rams won the Super Bowl in February.
In contrast, the Lightning are trying to become the first team to win three consecutive Cups since the New York Islanders won four in a row from 1980-83, following the feat of the Montreal Canadiens from 1976-79. No team has won even three in a row since the Isles’ run, although six times teams have won back-to-back Cups, including the Edmonton Oilers and Pittsburgh Penguins twice.
Winning three in a row is “an accomplishment in any sport,” said NBA coach Steve Kerr, whose Golden State Warriors are on the brink of defeating Boston in the NBA Finals, which would give them their fourth title in eight seasons. The Warriors had an opportunity to win their third in a row in 2019 but were defeated by the Toronto Raptors.
“There’s an accumulation of emotion and wear and tear that you deal with over time,” Kerr said Monday night before Golden State took a 3-2 lead over the Celtics in the best-of-seven series. “You go from the first year when it’s fresh and new. By the third year you’ve been hunted by every other team, and they’re building to try to beat you. It just wears you out.”
It was a different game back when the Canadiens put together their dynasty. The first round of the NHL playoffs was a best-of-three series. In 1980, the playoffs expanded to a best-of-five as the Islanders dominated the league.
Now, all four rounds are a grueling best-of-seven, and the surviving team has to win 16 games to capture the Cup. If the Bolts do it again, they will have won a record 48 playoff games over three postseasons.
That’s the daunting task.
“No one would fault them if the players let up,” said Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper, who is finishing his ninth full season with the Lightning, making him the longest-tenured coach in the NHL. “Hey, you’ve won one, you won two, and to come back and go for a third…”
Tampa Bay defeated Dallas in the Edmonton bubble that ended the coronavirus-shortened 2019-20 season, and the Canadiens last year at home in Tampa’s Amalie Arena, where much of the 2020-21 season was played in front of empty seats or limited capacity.
This season has seen a return to normal; the league played its entire 82-game season for the first time since 2018-19, although 131 games were rescheduled because of COVID. And fans were back in big numbers. The Lightning, one of six teams to play all 41 home games at 100% fan capacity, led the league with a total attendance of 782,772 and an average sell-out crowd of 18,092.
The Avalanche, who played at 97.2% capacity in 18,007-seat Ball Arena, weren’t that far behind with the 11th highest home attendance of 717,450 and 11th highest average of 17,498.
Colorado finished with 119 points this season, second most in the league, while Tampa Bay finished with 110, the eighth most. According to Sportico’s most recent valuations of the NHL teams, though, the two are below the median value of the 32 franchises. The Lightning are 18th, worth $805 million, while the Avalanche are ranked 20th at $775 million. The top NHL team is the Toronto Maple Leafs at $2 billion.
The NHL is a hard cap league, which allows lesser revenue and valued teams to compete for the championship by utilizing shrewd hockey talent judgment. The cap this season was $82.5 million with a $60.2 million floor. The Lightning, in an attempt to keep their Cup-winning team together, spent $83.7 million, about $1.2 million above the cap. The Avalanche were just below the floor at $57 million.
The Avalanche have won the Cup twice, the first time in 1996 just after leaving Quebec City for Denver. “The way I look at it is, to be the best you’ve got to expect to be able to beat the best,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said Sunday. “That’s [the Lightning]. They’re the team that everyone’s trying to model after.”
The Avalanche will always have Ray Bourque.