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Timeline 25: Remembering the biggest Colorado sports stories of 2002

On March 6, 1995, The Fan was born. In the 25 years since, a lot has transpired on the fields, courts and ice in Colorado, giving the hosts and listeners who’ve been part of the station during that time plenty to talk about and debate.

During the course of the next few weeks, we’ll take a look back at that history, remembering the good times and the bad, the winners and the losers, the successes and the failures. It’s a series we’re calling “Timeline 25” and it continues today with a look back at a a bummer of a year in Colorado sports history – 2002:

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Motor City Meltdown

Things seemed to be a little more difficult for the Avalanche during the 2001-02 season. Coming off of their second Stanley Cup victory in five years, Colorado seemed to be slogging their way through their title defense.

They got out of the gate slowly, sitting at 10-12-1-0 as Thanksgiving approached. Eventually, they’d find their stride, however, riding Patrick Roy to a strong finish. During the season, the Avs goaltender had a goals against average of just 1.94, posted eight shutouts and became the first in NHL history to reach 500 career wins.

That’s why it was so surprising that it was Roy who failed to answer the bell in the biggest game of the season. Arguably the greatest goaltender of all-time, he had one of his worst performances as a member of the Avalanche at the worst possible time.

After finishing the season 45-28-8-1, Colorado struggled through the playoffs. It took them seven games to dispatch of the Kings in the opening round and the same scenario unfolded in round two against the Sharks. By the time the Avalanche reached the Western Conference Finals for the sixth-straight year, they were starting to run out of gas.

Nonetheless, Colorado looked to be on the precipice of a return trip to the Stanley Cup Finals. After winning Game 5 in Detroit, they held a 3-2 lead over the Red Wings, with Game 6 back in Denver.

Then, it all fell apart. The Avs couldn’t get anything going on home ice, losing 2-0 to force a decisive game back in Detroit. And that’s when Roy fell apart.

The goaltender who won the William M. Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals that season couldn’t stop anything. Tomas Holmstrom scored just 1:57 into the game, with Sergei Federov putting one past Roy just 80 seconds later. Later in the first period, Luc Robitaille scored and Holmstrom found the back of the net again.

But the bleeding didn’t stop there. Just 4:41 into the second period, Brett Hull scored to make it 5-0. And less than two minutes later, Fredrik Olausson kept the onslaught rolling. Finally, Bob Hartley pulled Roy from the game, as the goaltender had given up six goals on just 16 shots.

No one knew it then, but the loss to the Red Wings would mark the end of the Avalanche’s great run. They’d make the playoffs in each of the next two seasons, but they’d fail to reach the conference finals. To this day, that bloodbath in Detroit on May 31 was as close as Colorado would get to another Stanley Cup.

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The Next Dirk

By 2002, every general manager in the NBA was eager to find the next Dirk Nowitzki. The German-born seven-footer had blossomed into an All-Star with the Mavericks, causing front offices around the league to start scouring overseas leagues in search of the next great import.

Kiki Vandeweghe was among those smitten with the idea. And in 2002, the Nuggets general manager went all-in on foreign-born players.

One of his moves paid off, as Vandeweghe traded Antonio McDyess, the 25th overall pick in that year’s draft and a second-round pick in 2003 to the Knicks in exchange for Nene, a Brazilian-born player who they had just selected at No. 7 overall. He’d go on to spend 10-plus seaons in Denver, averaging 12.4 points and 7.0 rebounds during his time with the Nuggets.

Vandeweghe’s other foray overseas wasn’t as successful, however. In fact, it resulted in one of the worst draft choices in franchise history.

With the fifth-overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft, Denver selected Nikoloz Tskitishvili, a seven-footer from the former Soviet republic of Georgia. The 19-year-old had played 13 games as a professional in Italy, averaging just 6.6 points per game during his stint on Mike D’Antoni’s team. But Vandeweghe was convinced that Tskitishvili would blossom into the next Dirk.

Obviously, it never happened. He spent three forgettable seasons in Denver, averaging 3.2 points and 1.9 rebounds during that time. By 2007, after stints with the Warriors, Timberwolves and Suns, Tskitishvili was out of the league. In the years since, he’s played for 19 different teams across various leagues, from Spain to Italy, Greece to Japan, Iran to Lebanon.

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Close Calls

The 2002 Broncos will be remembered as one of Mike Shanahan’s many mediocre teams during his final seasons in Denver. They started hot, faded down the stretch and just missed the playoffs, a familiar pattern in the early 2000s.

But this particular team was a little different. They had a chance to be really, really good. Some close calls nudged them off track, however.

Things started fine, as Denver jumped out to a 6-2 start. And it could’ve been even better, if Olindo Mare hadn’t made a 53-yard field goal with six seconds left on the clock to lift the Dolphins over the Broncos in Week 6.

That was just the beginning of the heartbreak, however. Denver was 7-3 when they hosted Peyton Manning and the Colts on November 24. They lost that night when Mike Vanderjagt hit a 54-yard field goal to force overtime and then drilled one from 51 yards out to win the game.

The following week, the Broncos again lost in overtime. This time, it was the Chargers dishing out the gut punch, as Denver fell to 7-5 with the loss in San Diego.

And in Week 14, the Jets scored 10 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to give the Broncos their third-straight defeat. In the span of a fortnight, with games played on each coast and in three time zones, Denver’s season unraveled.

The year wasn’t a total loss, however. The Broncos did find a new star, as running back Clinton Portis burst onto the scene. The rookie rushed for 1,508 yards and 15 touchdowns, filling the void left when Terrell Davis was forced to retire prior to the season due to his nagging knee injury.

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The Spike

The Rocky Mountain Showdown hasn’t been kind to Colorado State. During their 91 meetings with Colorado, the Rams have only been on the winning side 22 times, while also managing to post two ties.

As a result, their victories over the Buffaloes tend to be memorable. They create lasting images that are seared into the brains of the CSU faithful forever.

The match-up in 2002 is probably at the top of the list. That’s a day that will live on forever in Rams lore.

Colorado came into the Showdown as the seventh-ranked team in the country, having been a national title contender the year before. They’d leave Invesco Field at Mile High licking their wounds, however.

With less than seven minutes to play in the fourth quarter, CU was clinging to a 14-13 lead. That evaporated when CSU quarterback Bradlee Van Pelt scampered 23 yards for what would turn into the game-winning touchdown.

It was a play that will go down in infamy, but not just because it gave the Rams a win over the hated Buffs. As Van Pelt crossed the goal line, he spiked the ball onto the head of Roderick Sneed, a move that symbolized every CSU student letting out their frustration toward their rivals.

But Van Pelt wasn’t done insulting the Buffaloes. After the game, the quarterback called into a local radio show and told that hosts that CU was the worst No. 7 team he’d ever seen.

The antics made Van Pelt a legend in Fort Collins.

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Gentlemen, Start Your Engines

Colorado isn’t known as a hotbed of auto racing. But that didn’t stop the folks at CART from trying to tap into one of North America’s best sports regions.

On September 1, they brought a Champ Car World Series event to Denver, hosting the 2002 Shell Grand Prix of Denver at Pepsi Center. Some of the biggest names in motorsports descended on the Mile High City for the Labor Day weekend event.

Bobby Rahal and David Letterman had two cars in the field, as did Paul Newman’s team. And behind the wheel, stars like Michael Andretti, Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan weaved their way through the parking lots around the arena. But it was Bruno Junqueira who took the checkered flag, leading from wire to wire to win the race.

It was the first open-wheel race held in Colorado since 1991, starting a five-year run on the Champ Car schedule.