The Colorado Rockies 76/77
With the World Association's Spurs leaving town in a midnight move just about 10 months earlier, the NHL powers to be could have been excused for passing over Denver for an NHL team.
But Denver would get a franchise and the team would be called the Colorado Rockies. The team was a transplant from Kansas City, which was a two-year NHL franchise that struggled from the beginning.
The team took to the ice for their first regular season against the Toronto Maple Leafs on October 6, 1976. The game was played at Big Mac.
Things started very well for the Rockies. Rocky goalie Doug Favell played extremely well stopping 39 of the Toronto 41 shots on net. Wilf Paiement was also incredible notching one goal, two assists and a fight. Rookie Larry Skinner scored the first NHL regular season goal for a Colorado franchise. The final score was 4-2.
Doug Favell of the Dynamic Duo Makes the Save in Game One
Actually, the team didn't play too badly for an expansion team. They were in the thick of the old Smythe Division for a major portion of the season. Nevertheless, on most nights it was clear that the Rockies were an expansion franchise.
Early in the season, the Rockies picked up wins by either the goon tactics of wildman Steve Durbano, threats from the GM, or through the heroic feats of their goalies, Doug Favell and Michel Plasse. The latter was the prime reason for a majority of the team's wins in the first year. For the record, Bill McKenzie was also a goalie for the Rockies but only got into five games.
Gooning was one way to win in 1976 and the Rockies had their man in Steve Durbano. After losing three in a row, Durbano did what he did best to get the Rockies going. It worked a few times including one game against the Blackhawks.
Durbano took out Blackhawk star Stan Mikita behind the Rockies net. Jim Harrison of the Blackhawks came off the bench to get after Durbano, who was already at the Rockies bench. A fight began, it didn't take much to get Durbano to drop the mitts, and Harrison was kicked out of the game. (Rockies coach Johnny Wilson was quick to point out that the Durbano fight inspired the team while a late-game fight between the great Bobby Orr and Rocky Roger Lemelin helped secure the victory.)
The now inspired Rockies really took off after the scrap. Winger Colin Campbell beat Blackhawk goalie Tony Esposito less than one-and-one-half minutes later to cut the Blackhawk lead to 2-1. The next goal was off the stick of Paiement, his second of the young season, then Gary Croteau scored to stake the Rockies to a 3-2 lead at the end of the second period.
One of Durbano's last games with the Rockies was against the Saint Louis Blues. Again the Rockies were down 2-0 when Durbano tried to changed the tide single handedly. Blue Bob Plager committed the atrocious act of interference. This drew an immediate response by Durbano as he speared Plager following a conversation with the charasmatic Blue. Blue Pierre Plante immediately went after Durbano. The two were separated but as Durbano was being taken to the penalty box by linesman Malcolm Ashford (this is the same guy Connie Forrey nailed repeatedly in the nose when Ashford was a referee for the WHL) he broke free, grabbed his helmet and fired it at Plager as he was in the sin bin. Durbano for his efforts was kicked out again. (Blues enforcer, Bob Gassoff, just kind of chuckled on the bench the Rocky Mountain News stated.)
Once again though, the Denver Post pointed out that Durbano's actions helped the team become inspired. Paiement scored shorthanded on the resulting Blues power play to cut the Blues lead to 2-1. This would be the final score though as the Rockies effort fell just short.
Despite Durbano's best intentions, superior goaltending was often the one and only way to victory.
Tracy Pratt and Reggie Leach Going Toe-to-Toe
Teams were often piling up over 40 and 50 shots on net against Plasse and Favell. After a November game against Stanley Cup Champion Montreal, Plasse was noticeably tenderized.
"Michel Plasse leaned back against the wall
of the dressing room, dripping sweat and visibly
quite tired. But he forced a smile."
The Canadiens were absolutely blasting the puck towards Plasse all game. One shot off the stick of Murray Wilson put Plasse down in the second period with an arm injury, but the gritty goalie got up and finished the game. For their effort, the Rockies' forwards came back twice from two-goal deficits to finally tie the game at three a piece with just about nine minutes left in the third. However it was Plasse who made the tie stand by stopping 47 of 50 shots, 20 in the third period.
"I'm tired, but happy," Plasse said in the Post. "At the end of the game, I couldn't get up any more. I was having everything I had at the end to get at the puck."
Often after a win, it was the goalie who was heralded at the hero. Plasse and Favell didn't get any easy wins.
After a game against Cleveland, the Denver Post headlines screamed: "Look, In the Nets! It's Rocky 'Superman' Plasse!" The Rockies won the game 5-3.
While goaltending salvaged games for the Rockies, sometimes threats coerced wins.
Michel Plasse Squaring Up Against Red Wings
A November 2-1 loss to Cleveland raised the ire of GM Ray Miron. During the second intermission, Miron burst into the locker room and said that if the Rockies didn't pull the game out, they were down 2-0, he was going to call up three minor leaguers and send down three Rockies. Miron kept his word after the 2-1 Rockies loss and called up Mike Kitchen, Paul Gardner and Jim McElmury. Gardner immediately began scoring, tallying five goals in his first four NHL games. Kitchen helped shore up the defense. The help produced. The tie with Montreal, a 5-3 loss to the Bruins that had Bruin coach Don Cherry raving that he was "impressed" with the Rockies and a 6-3 loss to Atlanta and a road win against the struggling Penguins were all signs that the Rockies were going to be a reasonably tough team for their first year.
Despite flashes of brilliance from the Rockies throughout the season though, the team just couldn't put much together to sustain a long winning streak. On some nights they were coming back from two and three goal deficits to get ties or the occasional win, but then the next night the team would run up against the Broad Street Bullies, the Boston Bruins or the Montreal Canadiens. Then it was just a matter of being outshot, out hit or just completely overmatched.
For a while however, the Rockies would put all they had together while playing some of the bottom-feeders of the league and actually threaten to make the playoffs.
They would start their mini-run to the playoffs by upending divisional rivals the Minnesota North Stars. It took three goals in the third period, including two in the final two minutes, to win it 4-2. After the game, coach Johnny Wilson was raving for his team, which took over sole possession of third place in the Smythe with the win.
"This was a good hockey game," Wilson said as he
relaxed at his desk, waving a long, fat cigar. "Good
bodychecking. Good skating. "That
ought to bring the fans back." ---Denver Post
Yes, everything was looking up. By the February 1, 1977 showdown with the Rangers, the Rockies had a two-point third-place lead over Minnesota and Vancouver. Plasse would stop 48 of 50 Ranger shots while Dean, Pyatt, Hudson, Arnason and Gardner each scored one goal a piece to help the Rockies to a 5-2 win. The win extended their third place lead to four points.
"All-Star goaltending", Ranger coach John Ferguson
said. "He was always a good goaltender. If
he'd kept his mouth shut, he'd still be in Montreal." ---Denver Post
(This comment was in reference to Plasse's criticism of then Canadien coach Scotty Bowman.)
A Feb 6 game against the Penguins saw the Rockies score four unanswered third period goals to win it 5-2. Former WHA Denver Spur Ron Delorme scored the game winner in his first stint with the team. He had been playing with Baltimore in the Southern Hockey League and only earned a chance because the Clippers had folded.
Pressuring the North Stars
An 8-6 win against Minnesota extended their third place margin to five points ahead of Minnesota. At this point, they were only five points behind second-place Chicago. A Feb 16 win against Detroit, which concluded a four-game season series sweep of the Red Wings and a Feb 20 victory against the North Stars gave the appearence that the Rockies were well on their way to a playoff spot.
But then it happened. The offense left the team and the goaltending couldn't save them anymore.
By March 27 the Rockies were officially out of the playoff hunt thanks to an 18-game winless streak that began on February 22. No wins in the month of March doomed the Rockies.. The only reason the team even got ties in the winless streak was because of Favell and Plasse. A typical night saw them facing 50 shots. This kind of winless streak was not uncommon for the franchise, the KC Scouts had finished their tenure in Kansas City by only winning one game in their final 44.
The winless streak finally ended in a 6-3 win against the Vancouver Canucks in the second-to-the-last game of the season
The season ended with a loss to the LA Kings. The Rockies wouldn't improve much for the rest of their stay in the Mile Hi City.
Shanahan and Gordie Lane Have an Audience