DENVER — It has been 21 years since Bob Hartley coached the Colorado Avalanche to their second Stanley Cup behind a star-studded roster that included Joe Sakic, Patrick Roy, Milan Hejduk, Ray Bourque, Rob Blake, Adam Foote, and one of the great leaders in the game, Chris Drury, who got an elevated role when Peter Forbserg ruptured his spleen in the conference semifinals.
There was the young buck, Alex Tanguay, who scored two goals, including the series clincher, in Game 7 against the New Jersey Devils and a slew of great pros like Shjon Podein, Ville Nieminen, Stephane Yelle, Dave Reid, Dan Hinote, Eric Messier and Jon Klemm, among others.
With the Avs on the brink of their third Cup, perhaps Friday night at home, Hartley reflected on 2001 as it compared to this juggernaut 2022 Avalanche team that looks at the beginning stages of being a longtime thorn in the side for the other 31 NHL teams.
“You talk about speed, you talk about composure, you talk about offense, you talk about commitment to the entire game and you’re talking about the Avalanche,” Hartley said during a phone interview with The Athletic on Thursday. “This team is built the way that Joe Sakic played. Two hundred feet of hockey, well-balanced, up and down the lineup.
“Joe was always a player that never got too low, never got too high. The nickname of ‘Ordinary Joe’ was perfect because he was down to his business every day with a smile. Simple, simple guy doing a great job. You look at this team, I see Joe Sakic’s fingerprints all over this team.”
What impresses Hartley the most that is Sakic, the Avs’ general manager, and Jared Bednar, their sixth-year coach, were young when they took over, grew together and showed impressive patience with the core of the team, namely Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen.
“They never panicked,” Hartley said. “They went with them and today those guys are the face of the franchise.”
Beyond the goaltending — because there’s no way of replicating the Hall of Famer in Roy — Reid and Podein, two tremendous role players on that 2001 team, see vast similarities between the 2001 and 2022 editions of the Avs.
“We had (Bourque). We traded for Blake at the trade deadline and Adam Foote was already there,” Reid said. “Cale Makar is younger than those guys, but he’s comparable to any one of those three. Probably at the end of the day will be better than any of those three, and two of those guys are in the Hall of Fame.
“Then you’ve got Devon Toews, who’s kind of a hidden gem. I think everybody’s realizing how good this young guy really is. You can put him as a top-two defenseman on any team and a lot of teams he’ll be No. 1, easy. We brought in Blake, they bring in (Josh) Manson. I’m not making a comparison to a Hall of Famer with Josh Manson. But it’s a similar style. Josh can play any way like Blake could do. If you want him to play physical, he can. You want him to play skill, he can. And whatever way you want him to do, power play, penalty kill, he can be there and contribute in a huge way.”
Similarly, Reid said up front the 2022 Avs can play any way, any style, just like the 2001 team, and have similar complements up and down the lineup.
“We had a little bit of everything, from experience, we had size, more size on the back end of our group than the front end compared to this team,” Reid said. “But our front end carried us. Our skill guys carried us. They play with a ferociousness of the game. Not a physical ferociousness. Their ferociousness is in everything they do, whether it’s loose puck battles, whether it’s forecheck, whether it’s backcheck, blocking shots. We always had the high intensity, but they’re at another level than everybody else in the league with that ferocious play.”
Podein, who often played with Yelle, Messier or Reid, is blown away by this version of the Avs.
“I just got to say the word, ‘Wow,’” Podein said. “The speed of these young men, there’s just no room out there. There’s no air to breathe when you get that puck. Joseph (Sakic) has done just an amazing job building that team to what it is today.
“I don’t know the team personally now, but we had a very, very tight team that was very committed to each other. By just watching from the outside in, it seems like the organization right now has that same feel.”
With the Avalanche on the brink of their first championship since 2001, The Athletic surveyed members of that Stanley Cup team, asking about the similarities they see with this one and their experiences watching.
Editor’s note: Some quotes have been slightly altered for clarity and length.
Joe Sakic, captain and forward
“Twenty one years ago. long time. I think just depth. We had a lot of depth, star players and a deep lineup, guys who played their role and knew their role, accepted their role. On the back end, in my mind this year’s D-core is probably the best D-core since that D-core. A lot of similarities in that way. And just the way we play: I think that year we were really focused from losing two-straight Game 7 conference finals and had a mission from the start to try and get home-ice advantage. It was similar with this group from last year.”
Ray Bourque, defenseman
“They’ve been a very talented team for a solid four years. Going into the year they’ve been looked at as a Cup contender. For them they were never able to get through that second round, and the same happened with Colorado (in the late 1990s, early 2000s). They get there the first year (in 1996) and they win, and then they have this talented team that gets to a conference finals but has a hard time getting to the final chapter up until 2001.”
Adam Foote, defenseman
Foote has a family tie to the series. His son Cal is a defenseman on the Lightning.
We had Patrick Roy. I think their goalie here, Darcy Kuember, is probably ready to win a Cup. He’s good enough. But if you don’t win they don’t know. For defensemen, Cale Makar is special, but Ray Bourque was special, Rob Blake was special. They have Nathan MacKinnon, but we had Peter Forsberg, Sakic. They’ve got the starpower here like we did.”
Alex Tanguay, forward
“I think like our team in 2001, they had their failure in the playoffs the previous years with a team they felt could win. The determination and focus they have shown has been incredible, just like our “Mission 16W” hats Ray Bourque brought for us on the first day of the playoffs to keep us focused. Let’s see if it’s enough to beat the two-time champs.”
Bryan Trottier, assistant coach
“They’re looking great. Hungry. … Games have been great entertainment.”
Ville Nieminen, forward
“They play modern hockey, and I think we played modern hockey too. Lots of similarities because of the leadership, will, modern hockey, very well-coached tactically, atmosphere. But at the same time, it’s 20 years ago, it’s totally different. … We had Pierre Lacroix. Now it’s Joe’s time, and you can see Joe’s character.”
Dave Reid, forward
“I think (the teams are) very similar. … We had guys who could move the puck. We had high-end skill players, and our bottom three were all skill players who could move the puck, make that first pass, jump in the play when needed, get in the offense when needed but were responsible defensively. That’s why we were successful, because everybody was responsible defensively and could move the puck.”
Shjon Podein, forward
“The physicality of the game is much different than it was five, 10, 20 years ago. The speed of Colorado allows them to get the opportunity to be extremely physical, finishing their checks, being in your face, stick on puck, little things like that. I think you just see it, night in and night out. I don’t know how else to put it. They’re just … it’s like if you have a bruise on your arm. If someone pokes it, first time, it’s annoying. Second time, third, 10th, 20th, hundred. Pretty soon, you’re like, “Get the F off me.” I think that’s what Colorado is just doing right now.”
Milan Hejduk, forward
“I definitely see some similarities with the 2001 Stanley Cup team. Doesn’t have to be the top guys carrying the load every night but depth guys scoring some huge, timely goals throughout the playoffs. … In my opinion this year’s team could be better than the 2001 team. But they have to take it to the finish line.”
With the Avs one win away from winning the Stanley Cup and ending the Lightning’s dream of three-peating, Reid doesn’t see any way now that the Avalanche will be denied.
He reflected back to MacKinnon’s disappointment when the Avs were defeated last postseason in the second round to the Vegas Golden Knights.
“You could tell that guy is not going to be denied of getting back to that level and achieving great things,” Reid said. “And just the way he’s played this year and the rest of the team follows, everybody seems to have that gallop when Nate’s going. They don’t give you any time in your zone. And they don’t stop.
“I don’t think they’re worried about how the other team plays to be honest with you: ‘This is how we play, and you can keep up. And if you can keep up, good for you. But if you can’t keep up, we’re not going to let up.’ It’s impressive. Very, very impressive.”
Hartley thinks the series is “done.”
“The emotion of (Ball Arena), I remember game 7 at Pepsi Center, 2001, just the vibe around the city. I know that Tampa Bay will show up. I know that Tampa Bay will be ready.
“But, the Avalanche, I think that they’re the new kids on the block now. I would like to see the Avalanche win in Colorado for the players, for the organization, for the fans. It’s such a great sports city that it would be fun.
“For myself, I grew up as a young pro coach in this organization, whether it was in the American League, the NHL, so from far, it’s kind of my favorite team. So I’m rooting for them. There’s the hockey fan in me, but also just watching the Avalanche in these playoffs, they bring back great memories to myself.”
The Athletic’s Joe Smith also contributed reporting to this story.
(Photo: Isaiah J. Downing / USA Today)