The hockey buzz is back in Colorado, where the Colorado Avalanche are showing signs of becoming relevant again after three consecutive seasons without an appearance in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the first hat trick of failure for the franchise since its arrival from Quebec in 1995.
The return of Hall of Fame goalie Patrick Roy as head coach, a decade after he retired as a player, is the reason apathy has turned into enthusiasm, along with the fact that another Denver icon, Hall of Fame center Joe Sakic, has been given the reins as executive president of hockey operations.
Roy, who backstopped the Avalanche to Stanley Cup championships in 1996 and 2001, is as popular as ever after a 10-year absence. How so? Even he was taken aback after being recognized by a customer during a recent visit to a Denver coffee shop.
"Hey, coach, how are you doing today?" Roy related. I was like, Oh, yeah, that's me. The people here are so great. Honestly, they make me feel so welcome and I appreciate that a lot.
I'm so happy to reconnect with them and have the same goal, seeing this team winning the Stanley Cup. This is the fun part, and I'm excited about that challenge.
Call this an experiment of sorts—a calculated gamble, really—since Roy, now 47, has no previous NHL coaching experience. But this hasn't stopped the Avalanche in the past.
Bob Hartley, who once worked in a windshield factory and never even played a game in the NHL, did some coaching in junior and minor league hockey before guiding a star-studded Avalanche team to a Stanley Cup championship in 2001.
Roy won't have that luxury in his first season behind the Avalanche bench; the team finished last in both the Northwest Division and Western Conference a year ago with a 16-25-7 record, and next -to-last in the overall standings. The team's fortunes have deteriorated to the point where it has had a top-three pick in three of the past five NHL drafts.
Qualifying for the playoffs was taken for granted during Roy's playing days, now it seems more like an unreachable goal. Yet, Roy isn't deterred. He has never backed down from a challenge, his relentless passion for winning has never waned and he certainly has the respect of his players.
"I've never been more excited about a season in my life," said fifth-year center Matt Duchene, who, as a child, hung posters of Roy and Sakic on his bedroom walls. "It's going to be cool, it's going to be special. We've learned how to lose, now we have to learn how to win."
Roy enjoyed plenty of success the past eight seasons as part owner, general manager and coach of the Quebec Remparts in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, where he won a Memorial Cup championship in 2006 and posted an overall record of 348-196.
He demanded excellence from himself and his teammates during an 18-season playing career with the Montreal Canadiens and Avalanche, and his fierce competitive nature burns as brightly as ever.
"I'm here to win," he said. "It's not an ego thing. In my years in Denver, we all put our egos aside, and I'm going to put my ego on the side."
Though he claims to have mellowed since putting away his goalie mask and pads—he had to exhibit patience while coaching teenagers in Quebec—Roy's fiery nature has surfaced during early Avalanche practice sessions; he'll halt a workout to bark at an individual player before gathering the troops for a group lesson.
"You don't want the player to feel he's the only one that does it wrong," said Roy, who is relishing his role as a hands-on coach and teacher. "You want the entire team to understand what we are looking for."
But even Roy isn't arrogant enough to predict a return to the playoffs while coaching a team laden with a stable of young, talented forwards, but one that needs vast improvement on defense and in goal.
"I know not too many experts put us in the playoffs," he said. One of his first priorities is to develop what he calls a "Stanley Cup attitude," to change what has been a losing culture for far too long.
"You can pretend you want to win, but there's a big difference between pretenders and the ones that will do what has to be done," Roy said. "I mean, a lot of people have question marks about our team. I like our team. We want to have a Stanley Cup attitude, and we're going to work hard on it."
It remains to be seen how Roy will react after difficult losses, which are certain to come, and his honeymoon with Avalanche fans won't last long if the one-ice product isn't more competitive and entertaining to watch than it's been in recent seasons.
All popularity aside, Roy is savvy enough to know that.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes in this story were obtained firsthand by the writer.