The Colorado Avalanche have been through a lot in the last 21 years since their last Stanley Cup appearance. Even in the last seven years. Fan-favorite Patrick Roy had just departed from the team, and in came Jared Bednar. After winning the Calder Cup in the 2015-2016 season with the Lake Erie Monsters, he was brought on as the rookie replacement to a team and hockey living legend.
That’s like being the warmup band for Nirvana in 1991.
Bednar said an interesting thing about his team at the start of the playoffs this year – his sixth with the team.
“It’s not about ego,” he said.
That might seem established doctrine now, but at that time, the Avs were a fully healthy team. Some guys, like Jack Johnson and Alex Newhook, had played much of the regular season but were now healthy scratches. That no doubt had to sting for both players. And, could have been a cause for some internal grumbling.
But, perhaps taking the lead as dictated by Bednar, neither one complained. Right now, both are playing a regular shift again for a team with a 1-0 Stanley Cup Final series lead over the Tampa Bay Lightning. Injuries happened, so it’s been a “next man up” attitude in the locker room.
No ego. No stars. Just-team. Bednar established that as a team declaration of principles, if you will. It’s not a new concept. Every coach wants that.
But to get a team – especially a team full of highly-paid pros – to put aside their egos? Easier said than done. But Bednar, to this point, has done it.
“The first thing I talked about when I got here was an unselfish team-first attitude. That’s number one,” said Bednar after Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals, “That’s not always easy seven months out of the year but I can say we’ve gotten to the point where I’m having meetings with guys, difficult meetings, our whole staff does just to be honest evaluators of themselves and myself.”
If there is one thing championship teams have in common it’s the “buy-in” to the team’s culture. The team is moving in the same direction with the same goal. Egos and personal agendas are put to the side for the greater good of the team.
In 2017, Matt Duchene wanted out of Denver. He was ready to leave and begin a new chapter of his life, as were the Avalanche. That was the building block to getting guys who wanted to be part of the Colorado Avalanche.
It was first articulated in the visiting dressing room at the Barclay’s Center, when my boss, Adrian Dater, asked these questions to Erik Johnson right after the game against the Islanders in which Duchene was traded to the Ottawa Senators, in the first period.
Some guys from that locker room – many, in fact – aren’t with the Avs anymore. But a new leadership core was set from that day forward. Gabe Landeskog remained the captain, but this would be more Nathan MacKinnon’s team now, too. It would be more Mikko Rantanen’s team. In the next two and three years, guys such as Cale Makar, Devon Toews and Nazem Kadri will fill out a more talented leadership group surrounding them. There would be more setbacks along the way, with last year’s shocking loss to Vegas in the second round, following a 2-0 series lead, primary among them. But the team came back to training camp, ready from Day 1, and here they are, just three wins away from a Stanley Cup.
It’s not nearly complete, mind you. Three more tough, tough wins must be accomplished. But this is a team that is, as Johnson said in the video above, now all “rowing in the same direction.”
“I think just our team overall we’re very unselfish and nobody is really thinking about their own stuff, it’s just about after 60 minutes or whatever it takes that we get the win,” said Rantanen, ” That’s what we’re working towards and everybody’s doing their best to achieve that goal in every individual game. He’s right on that.”
With the core group set, committed and leading by example. it was easy for the new guys to jump on the train and understand what it meant to be a Colorado Avalanche. This season the Avalanche have acquired Nico Sturm, Darren Helm, Artturi Lehkonen, Andrew Cogliano, Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Josh Manson. All have contributed to this team one way or another during the recent playoff run.
Aube-Kubel and Sturm have been in and out of the lineup but provide grit to the bottom six. Lehkonen has six goals so far including the overtime goal to send the Avalanche to the Stanley Cup Final. Manson has been the hero of a game or two as well while playing goalie for a second in the second round against the St. Louis Blues and has six points during these playoffs.
Helm scored a buzzer-beating goal to eliminate the Blues in Round 2.
“I think everybody has a voice in our locker room,” said Toews, who joined the team in the summer of 2020 after what is now looking like one of the best NHL trades of the last 10 year, by Joe Sakic. “Guys that have come in from the trade deadline have a voice and are a part of this team and have felt they’ve been a part of this team for five to six years already. So I think everyone is just pulling the same rope.”
The definition of culture is “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization” The Colorado Avalanche have had one goal and that’s to be in the position they are in now. They are up against the best and will have to beat the best. The plan that was put into motion six years ago with Bednar has received the buy-in it needed. The Avalanche have three more wins to go.
It may not happen still.
But the Lightning will have to beat a team all rowing in the same direction.