History can be a great teacher. And when it comes to professional sports teams who call Colorado home, it provides the ultimate lesson in terms of what’s needed to win.
When the Broncos won Super Bowl 50, the last time a victory parade was held through downtown Denver, there was motivation to get it done before Peyton Manning’s career was over. Anyone who watched the team in 2015 knew that the clock was ticking on the Hall of Fame quarterback’s career, so everyone within the organization knew what was on the line that evening in Santa Clara.
Late in the game, this fact was on full display when his teammates serenading Manning with a “Peyton (blanking) Manning” chant in the huddle. The waning seconds were a tip of the cap to one of the all-time greats
It was hard not to recognize how similar this was to the Broncos first championship. Back in 1997, time was running out for John Elway; the winningest quarterback in NFL history had done everything but win a championship during his illustrious career, something that was on the minds of every player in orange and blue as No. 7 entered his 15th season.
That extra motivation was impossible to miss during the postgame celebration. In one of the most-iconic moments in franchise history, team owner Pat Bowlen raised the Lombardi Trophy and uttered those four famous words: “This one’s for John.”
Similarly, the next season was about sending Elway out on a high note. The Broncos responded, starting the season 13-0 and rolling to a second-consecutive title, sending Elway off with a Super Bowl MVP trophy in his final game.
This trend repeated itself a few years later when the Avalanche hoisted their second Stanley Cup. While everyone on the roster certainly wanted to win a championship in 2001, every player knew that “Mission 16W” was really about one thing – getting a championship for Ray Bourque.
After 20-plus seasons in Boston, one of the best defensemen in NHL history came to Colorado in 2000 in search of the championship that had eluded him during all those stellar years with the Bruins. It didn’t happen in the 2000 playoffs, putting the pressure on everyone involved the following season.
That’s why the Game 7 win over the Devils was all about Bourque. As soon as Joe Sakic got his hands on the Cup during the postgame celebration, the captain immediately passed it on to his veteran teammate. It was Bourque’s moment, something that everyone outside of New Jersey reveled in watching.
Five years earlier, the Avs had brought the first major championship to the Mile High City. That season, the motivation was two-fold.
On one hand, the team was trying to establish a toe-hold in Colorado. Denver was a football town, while also boasting a long-time allegiance to the city’s NBA team and a new-found love for the MLB expansion franchise that was setting attendance records. So it was imperative for the latest NHL team to call the city home to build an immediate affinity between the franchise and the fans.
In addition, the players in the room were trying to help one of the greatest players in league history to save face. On Dec. 2, 1995, Patrick Roy was left in net too long by Montreal Canadiens head coach Mario Tremblay during a dismal performance; after surrendering nine goals in a 11-1 loss to the Detroit Red Wings, the goaltender was finally removed from the game, a slap in the face that led to him demanding a trade from the team with whom he’d become a legend.
So after the Avalanche acquired Roy, that first season in Denver took on an entirely new dimension. All of a sudden, it wasn’t just about winning enough games to win over a new fan base; it was about helping one of the greatest goaltenders in NHL history avenge a gigantic slight.
That’s five championships. All unforgettable moments in Colorado sports history. And they all had one thing in common.
The teams hoisting the trophies at season’s end all had a sense of urgency.
There was no “wait until next year” being kicked around. No one was talking mentioning that “the future is bright” with any of those teams. There were no five-year plans.
It was all about winning. Right then. And right there.
That’s a mentality that is currently missing. Not a single team that plays in the 303 area code acts as though the time to win is right now.
This past weekend, the Avalanche made two very good selections during the first round of the NHL draft. It’s impossible not to be excited about what Bowen Byram and Alex Newhook will bring to the ice in the next decade.
But the almost universal response from Colorado fans and the Avalanche media was a bit off-putting. It was all about how great the Avs defense was going to be in the future, with Byram, Cale Makar, Sam Girard and Conor Timmins in tow.
That’s not necessarily inaccurate, as that quartet figures to be amazing. But it kicks the can down the road. It eliminates all immediate expectations, instead buying time as the team looks ahead three or four years. And it ignores the fact that the team needs to be striking now, while Nathan MacKinnon and Gabe Landeskog are in their respective primes.
But it’s not just the Avalanche who are guilty of this offense. It’s an epidemic in Colorado.
The Nuggets are in love with their young core, perfectly content to see what Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Malik Beasley, Monte Morris and others can accomplish down the road. There’s no concern for what they can, and perhaps need to, do right now.
The Rockies are content to have one of the best young players in the league signed, sealed and delivered for seasons to come. With Nolan Arenado on the roster, Colorado is excited to see what their young pitching staff can do in the seasons to come.
Heck, even the Broncos are falling victim to this trap. Sure, Von Miller is 30 years old, but Bradley Chubb is a rising star on defense, while Courtland Sutton and Phillip Lindsay have a ton of potential on the other side of the ball. It’s a dangerous team in future, or so the pundits say.
But here’s the thing about the future: It sneaks up really fast.
Before teams know it, those young players are in their prime. And if the team isn’t ready to win at that point, the pressure starts to mount to pull off a trade; franchises have to parlay talent into future assets while they can.
Within the next three years, those conversations will be happening about Arenado, Landeskog, MacKinnon, Miller, Jokic and Miller. If the Avalanche, Broncos, Nuggets and Rockies aren’t competing for titles, the front offices running each team will have to consider maximizing each star’s value on the open market.
That’s why today’s teams need to learn from the past. They need to take a chapter from the championship winners that have come before them.
The time to win is now. The great players are in place. They may not come around again.
Every team in Colorado has a one-of-a-kind, MVP-caliber talent on their roster. They need to maximize every year in which they enjoy that luxury.
The time to win is now. There needs to be a sense of urgency.
History tells us that’s how championships happen.
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