BURIED UNDER A NEAR DECADE OF MEDIOCRITY, THE AVALANCHE REACHED INTO THEIR GLORIOUS PAST TO TURN IT AROUND
"WHY NOT US?" Patrick Roy, the first-year coach of the Avalanche, likes to ask his players. It is not a question that, say, the Blackhawks, Ducks or Sharks, none of whom you'd expect to express wonder at their good fortune, would ask at the season's quarter turn. Implicit in Roy's query is the acknowledgment that, yes, the first seven weeks of Colorado's season, during which the franchise got off to its best start in nearly 20 years, are to be marveled at. The Avs—Av-nots for much of the previous decade—were the league's second-worst team last year, ranking near the bottom in goals (26th), goals against (27th), shots against (25th) and power-play percentage (24th). Almost as numerous as losses were reports of a dysfunctional dressing room, strained relations between the players and coach Joe Sacco, and incessant trade rumblings. Colorado operates on the league's second-lowest payroll; last summer, the team's biggest free-agent acquisition was Nick Holden, a 26-year-old minor league defenseman, who signed for $1.2 million over two years.
"Last year, for whatever reason ..." begins Joe Sakic, the team's executive VP of hockey operations. "Oh, just forget about last year."
Sakic has been here before. The finest player in team history was a fifth-year center in 1992--93, when the franchise, then the Quebec Nordiques, doubled their point total, from 52 to 104. But that turnaround was explained by an organization-altering trade. In the summer of '92, the Nordiques and the Flyers completed arguably the most momentous swap in NHL history, with Quebec sending Eric Lindros to Philadelphia for $15 million, draft picks and six players. The deal jump-started the transformation of the franchise into—along the Red Wings and the Devils—the game's gold standard for the next decade.
This turnaround—and admittedly, it's still early—is less easy to explain. The Avs are young, speedy and skilled up front, and vastly improved on the blue line since switching from a zone scheme to more aggressive man-to-man coverage. The goaltending is as good as it's been since the halcyon days of Roy, who led the team to Stanley Cups in 1996 and 2001; starter Semyon Varlamov and backup Jean-Sebastien Giguere have combined for a 2.16 GAA, fifth-best in the NHL.
With each victory, the Avalanche distance themselves from last year and reignite belief in the once-robust Denver hockey market. Already, Colorado has as many home sellouts (three) as it did all of last season. That Sakic and Roy are the executive-coach tandem leading this rebirth adds a nice symbolic touch to the feel-good story of the young NHL season.
Still, it's complicated.
ON THE EVENING of Oct. 30, Varlamov turned himself in to Denver police, who arrested him for investigation of second-degree felony kidnapping and third-degree misdemeanor assault. According to the arrest warrant, the goalie's girlfriend, a 24-year-old model named Evgeniya Vavrinyuk, told police he had assaulted her early in the morning of the previous day, kicking her in the chest and telling her in Russian that he would have beaten her more severely if they were in their home country. Varlamov, who has not been formally charged, was held overnight and released on bond a day later. He has not spoken directly about the incident, but through his agent he has said he is innocent. His next court date is Dec. 2, when formal charges could be filed against him.
Meanwhile, Vavrinyuk shared her side of the incident, as well as details about her relationship with the 25-year-old Varlamov, with Denver media. Vavrinyuk says Varlamov had been drinking heavily on Oct. 28, the first of four straight off days for the Avalanche. "He doesn't know when to stop," she said through interpreter Diana Senova, a makeup artist to whom Vavrinyuk had turned after Varlamov kicked her out of his apartment. "When he's drinking, he always gets drunk and it turns off his head. He turns into a beast." The alleged beating took place the next morning, after Varlamov returned home from an all-night party. Vavrinyuk said it was the fifth time that the goalie had beaten her in their yearlong relationship.
Vavrinyuk turned to the Russian-speaking Senova out of desperation, according to Senova's fiancé, Robert Abrams, a civil trial lawyer who is representing Vavrinyuk. The arrest warrant says that Senova had been at Varlamov's apartment doing Vavrinyuk's makeup the day before the alleged attack and did not see any bruising; one day later, she saw bruises on Vavrinyuk's left arm and upper chest.
The warrant also notes that a detective saw bruises on Vavrinyuk's left arm and right hip, but otherwise the facts remain unclear. When contacted by SI on Nov. 5 about the possibility of interviewing his client, Abrams asked, "What kind of fee are you offering?" When told SI does not pay for interviews, he replied, "Oh, O.K. She's a little tired from giving interviews. I'm sure you can understand. Thanks so much for the call." He then hung up.
Sakic, Roy and the Avalanche are sticking by Varlomov, keeping him with the team, but the episode has taken a toll. Colorado has won four of eight since his arrest, and the goalie—after a 7-1-0 start—has gone 2-4-0 with an .898 save percentage. "It's important for him to know none of us will judge the situation until the process is done," says Roy, who in 2000 faced criminal mischief charges in Colorado stemming from a domestic violence investigation (later dismissed). "But we have different people we spoke to and different versions [of the story] than what most people know."
Still, the accusations against Varlamov have tempered the excitement over the Avs' success. Theirs is a good story too, engineered by a passionate coach who is more than meets the public eye.
ROY'S FIRST game as an NHL coach, a 6--1 defeat of the Ducks in Colorado on Oct. 2, ended with a scene that recalled the emotional way he played during his 19-year Hall of Fame career. Angered over a late knee-to-knee hit on rookie center Nathan MacKinnon, Roy marched to the edge of the bench shouting profanities at Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau. Roy then leaned in and gave the plexiglass dividing the two teams' benches a strong, two-handed shove, dislodging the pane, before pushing it a second time into the Ducks' bench. As a goalie for the Avalanche from 1995 to 2003, Roy set several NHL records and won a third Conn Smythe Trophy in addition to his two Cups. But what endeared him most to fans was his fiery play—his center-ice fight with Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood in 1998, for example. His plexiglass-rattling eruption last month was good, nostalgic theater. Good theater for the kids too.
"I think it played really well in this [dressing] room," Giguere says. "It showed that we were going to have some emotion behind the bench."
The Avs' turnaround began on May 10, when Josh Kroenke, the son of owner Stan Kroenke, took over as team president. The younger Kroenke's first act was to give Sakic final say over all personnel decisions. The two men immediately trained their sights on Roy, who had turned down the same position in 2009 to remain coach and GM of the Quebec Remparts, the junior team he co-owns. It wasn't tough to convince him this time around, Sakic says. Following a round of golf with Kroenke and Sakic on May 14, Roy was on board.
Great players don't always make great coaches, or even particularly good ones (Wayne Gretzky never made the playoffs in four seasons with the Coyotes, from 2005 to '09); the history of goalies, who tend to be loners, isn't much better (Glen Hanlon never reached the postseason as the coach of the Capitals from '03 to '07). Still, for Roy, it was time.
"When you start coaching, it gets into your blood," Roy says, "and you wonder what you can do at the next level."
IN EIGHT seasons with the Remparts, Roy learned how to prepare, how to be patient, how to communicate and teach. He also emulated some of the qualities he admired in several of his former NHL coaches: Pat Burns's beat-cop discipline, Jacques Demers's compassion and good humor, Marc Crawford's oratory and Bob Hartley's attention to detail, systems and strategy.
"Every morning, he'd come in and bring me my blueberry muffin, and we would sit and talk," says Hartley, who coached the Avs from 1998 to 2003, and is now the coach of the Flames. "He was basically an assistant coach while being a No. 1 goalie for us."
But it was Demers, Roy's coach in Montreal from 1992 to '95, who had the greatest influence. "Jacques was more of a players' coach, open-minded, and he loved his players," Roy says. "He was almost like a dad to us, not like a coach.... I think it's important that players feel they have the support."
How much does Roy's coaching style explain the Avs' success? How much of it is just nice, but meaningless, Hall-of-Famer-comes-home-and-does-good narrative? The answer lies somewhere in between. Of all the major North American team sports, hockey has proven the most resistant to the empirical analysis that has become de rigeur in baseball, basketball and even football. Advanced metrics exist in hockey, but for the men running NHL front offices, many of them former players, the ability to own the locker room and the bench is the currency they trade in.
And Roy has won the locker room. Colorado isn't the youngest team in the NHL, though the Avalanche do have the youngest captain (winger Gabriel Landeskog is 21), and one of their offensive leaders is the 18-year-old MacKinnon—tied for third in rookie scoring with 12 points—the first pick in the 2013 draft. "[Roy] wants to work with us instead of always butting heads with us," says Giguere. "He'll get mad, sure, he's a coach. But he won't put you down."
Roy is deliberately positive. In team video sessions, he reinforces what players do right rather than what they do wrong. During a tough 4--2 win over Calgary on Nov. 8, Roy saw that the Flames were moving the puck around the walls and back to the point with too much ease, helping them sustain pressure in the Avs' zone. Rather than go to the video—where he had no footage of a forward locking the boards properly—he walked it through in a drill in practice the next afternoon.
"The way [everyone's] been practicing this year has been very different," says Giguere, a 16-year vet who called out his teammates last April for being more interested in "their Vegas trip" than in finishing out the season well. "Last couple years, we'd win a couple games in a row, and we'd come in to practice and just be awful, just be totally relaxed and take everything for granted."
Of course, keeping a positive attitude is easy on a winning team. "I don't know what's going to happen if we lose a few games in a row," Giguere says.
Colorado dropped three in a row last week, losing consecutive games for the first time this year. Roy's challenge will be to keep the Avalanche winning as the season grinds on, and to keep their focus on the ice if charges are brought against Varlamov. Still, with the way they're playing, the postseason doesn't seem like a pipe dream.
Why not them?
Sakic, Roy and the Avalanche are sticking by Varlamov, keeping the goalie with the team.
Great players don't always make great coaches, or even particularly good ones.
Photograph by DAVID E. KLUTHO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
BOARD CERTIFIED Roy (inset) has won over a roster heavy with youngsters, including Duchene (9), with his résumé and a good bit of bench theater in the season opener.
GEOFF BURKE/USA TODAY SPORTS (ROY)
[See caption above]
GARRETT ELLWOOD FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (VARLAMOV)
SORDID EPISODE Vavrinyuk (above) has alleged that Varlamov (1) beat her on the morning of Oct. 29.
RJ SANGOSTI/THE DENVER POST/GETTY IMAGES (VAVRINYUK)
[See caption above]
MICHAEL MARTIN/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES
TEEN EFFORT Recent struggles have enabled the Avs to load up on such elite prospects as the 18-year-old MacKinnon (29).