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The Colorado Rockies' brief NHL tenure in Denver captured hearts and minds of hockey fans

By Paul Patane, SportsEngine, 09/24/20, 10:00AM MDT

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Hub exclusive: The franchise played in Colorado from 1976-82 before relocating to the East Coast and becoming the New Jersey Devils.

Colorado Rockies forward Wilf Paiement (center) celebrates a goal with teammates. Paiement was a two-time NHL all-star with the team. Photo from the 1977-78 Colorado Rockies Media Guide

Colorado Rockies forward Wilf Paiement (center) celebrates a goal with teammates. Paiement was a two-time NHL all-star with the team. Photo from the 1977-78 Colorado Rockies Media Guide

When the Colorado Rockies took to the field at Mile High Stadium on April 9 during the 1993 Major League Baseball season, it was the first home game for the newly created expansion team. Yet, the club’s nickname likely seemed like déjà vu for many Coloradans. It may have even gotten some of them wondering what could have been.

If the start of the ’93 MLB season didn’t get some of the state’s sports fans feeling nostalgic, then the New Jersey Devils winning the Stanley Cup in 1995 with a four-game sweep of the Detroit Red Wings sure could have.

From 1976-82, the Devils were an NHL franchise based in Colorado known as the Rockies. The organization relocated to the now-demolished McNichols Sports Arena in Denver after spending its first two years as the Kansas City Scouts. While the Rockies' time in Colorado was short — ownership decisions and mismanagement resulted in the NHL experiment in Denver fizzling before the team gained any traction — it was long enough to capture the hearts and minds of hockey fans across the state.

Colorado's first NHL team

 

The Rockies, the first NHL club in Colorado history, posted a regular-season record of 113-281-86 in their six seasons and never had a winning record. They made the postseason just once — in 1978, but were swept by the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the playoffs.


Joe Starkey. Photo from the University of California Berkeley

Joe Starkey was the play-by-play announcer for Rockies’ television and radio simulcasts for their first three years. Starkey is best known as the voice of more than 500 University of California Berkeley Golden Bears football games and for his 20 years doing play-by-play for San Francisco 49ers games, but he has vivid hockey memories despite being four decades removed from announcing Rockies games.

“They had some basics there that you would think might turn out to be pretty good, but obviously the only successful year they had was Year 2 when they got to the playoffs and were eliminated very quickly in two straight games in Philadelphia,” Starkey said.

He added: “There was a core there that [the Rockies] could have put together, but there always seemed to be something where somebody was making the wrong decision on a trade, or whatever, and they never found their way.”

Oil magnate Jack Vickers of Kansas-based Vickers Petroleum bought the Scouts after two seasons in Kansas City and moved the team to Colorado, where the Rockies competed in the Smythe Division of the Campbell Conference, which has since been redubbed the Western Conference. Vickers didn’t last long as franchise owner, selling the team to New Jersey-based businessman Arthur Imperatore Sr. in 1978 — prior to the team’s third season in Colorado.

Starkey mentioned there was a buzz surrounding the team, that expectations were high and those he spoke with thought the team would ultimately find success in the Centennial State. It helped that the University of Denver Pioneers men's hockey team had been both popular and productive, winning two NCAA national championships and making six Frozen Four appearances in the decade prior to the Rockies’ debut. 

Rockies goalie Doug Favell attempts a save in a matchup against the Atlanta Flames. Favell played three seasons in a Rockies sweater. Public domain photo

Rockies goalie Doug Favell attempts a save in a matchup against the Atlanta Flames. Favell played three seasons in a Rockies sweater. Public domain photo

Ticket sales were encouraging those early seasons, and fans following the team from its arrival experienced some initial highs, including when the Rockies won their inaugural first game, defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-2 on Oct. 6, 1976.

Forward Simon Nolet was team captain the first year. A former all-star and Stanley Cup winner with the Flyers in 1974, Nolet registered just 31 points in his only season in Colorado before retiring, but other standout players emerged.

Wilf Paiement was a fan favorite who played three and a half seasons in the Rockies’ blue, red, gold and white sweater before being traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs during the 1979-80 season. The forward registered more than 100 points in both the 1976-77 and 1977-78 seasons.

Starting goaltender Doug Favell was also adored by fans and was a key contributor, backstopping the Rockies for their only Stanley Cup Playoffs appearance in ’78.

Shuffling the deck chairs

 

Despite having been in Denver just two seasons, Starkey said Vickers threatened to relocate the team in 1978 on the broadcast of a Rockies' playoff matchup against the Flyers, suggesting on the air that season ticket sales needed to be higher or he’d move the team.

Seeing that as an early red flag, Starkey thinks that threat squashed momentum with fans and he chose to leave Colorado a year later, assuming it was just a matter of time before the Rockies would be moved to the Northeast, and he returned to the Bay Area in California.

“I actually quit on the air on the last game of the ’78-79 season,” Starkey said. “Munson [Campbell, the organization’s managing director] had been fired, and I thought the team was in total chaos. There didn’t seem to be any sense of direction, nothing was going well, so I made the announcement on the air and said this is my last game.”

With new ownership and management in place, the Rockies saga took an even stranger turn for the 1979-80 season, when former NHL player-turned-coach Don Cherry was hired as head coach.

Cherry lasted just one season with the Rockies, managing a dismal last-place finish in the division standings.

Soon, a new owner came in and took over: Peter Gilbert, who later flipped the team in 1982 to a new ownership group spearheaded by John McMullen who ultimately completed the organization’s move to New Jersey.

Joe Cirella. Photo from the Stockton Heat

Joe Cirella. Photo from the Stockton Heat

Defenseman Rob Ramage was a team captain in the 1981-82 season and a player that recently drafted Joe Cirella looked up to. Cirella was then an 18-year-old defenseman who was taken No. 5 overall in the ’81 draft and was making the leap from playing juniors in Canada to the NHL. Being a young draftee who was immediately able take the ice and contribute was an opportunity Cirella embraced.

“The biggest transition was the strength and speed of a lot of the other guys, and understanding the game,” Cirella said of his start with Colorado. “The game’s changed from what it was back then. There was a lot of hooking and holding, a lot of responsibilities, so the speed was faster than say junior hockey, where I’d come from.”

Cirella was the team’s final first-round draft pick and stayed with the organization through its move to New Jersey. He played for the Devils through the ’88-89 season, and his NHL career ran through the mid-1990s.

Cirella skated in 65 games as a rookie with the Rockies and recorded seven goals and 12 assists. When it became clear Colorado wasn’t going to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 1982, Cirella returned to the Oshawa Generals, the juniors team he played for in the Ontario Hockey League prior to being drafted, to continue developing his hockey skills. He went back to his NHL club the next season.

“It left a great impression for me as a young kid learning the ropes, living on your own in Denver at that time,” Cirella said of his hockey experiences in Colorado. “To play the game that you grew up loving, and getting to play at a pretty high level was a dream come true.”

Cirella, who is now an assistant coach with the Stockton Heat, the American Hockey League affiliate of the Calgary Flames, said his playing days in Colorado were a long time ago but he remembers McNichols Arena having been a pleasure to play in and that the team had a good group of fans. He also remembers Colorado having a great hockey atmosphere.

“It was loud back then. That I do remember,” he said.

Starkey looks back at those Rockies years and wonders what might have happened to the team if it had stayed in what was becoming a burgeoning sports scene. The professional sports fanbase in Colorado was growing as the Denver Nuggets had recently joined the NBA, and the minor league and college success of teams such as the Denver Pioneers left Starkey assuming that the Rockies had a long-term future in the state. 

Though the Rockies’ tenure in Colorado was unsuccessful, chaotic and brief, the absence of an NHL team in Denver was also relatively short, as the Colorado Avalanche arrived in Denver 13 years after the Rockies left.

The approval announcement that the Quebec Nordiques would relocate to Colorado and become the Avs came around the same time the Devils were winning their first Stanley Cup in 1995.

“For great moments, there just weren’t very many,” Starkey said of the Rockies. “They didn’t win a lot and there wasn’t a lot of drama.”

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