Vlad’s View: Who (Almost) Wore It Best?

What a ride these past three months have been!

We at Burgundy Rainbow have chronicled the entire jersey catalogue of the Colorado Avalanche, from numbers low to numbers high, making stops along the way where we recalled the glory numbers from yesteryear and the warm memories attached to players of borderline mythical proportions.  Sakic.  Forsberg.  Foote.  Hejduk.

We reminded those reading our jersey journey of a name once forgotten from their memories.  “Hey, I forgot all about that guy!” people might say, upon reading about those players.  Nikolishin.  Corbet.  Aebischer.  Klemm.

We touched on players who could have built upon the legacy of the greats, or had such potential where they could have built their own stories of legend.  Selanne.  Stastny.  Shattenkirk.  Stewart.

We scoured through scores of players who were here just long enough for fans to ask, “Hey, who’s that guy?”  Vernace.  Laukkanen.  Aubin.  Hlinka.

We even touted our own burgundy and blue-tinted rogues gallery that amassed over the past twenty-plus seasons.  May.  Simon.  Worrell.  O’Brien.

We also paused to remember the ones who were gone way too soon.  Belak.  Skrastins.  Salei.  Svatos.

Finally, we examined our present, which is paving the way for the future.  Landeskog.  MacKinnon.  Johnson.  Varlamov.

Yet, for every player that we shined some light on, someone remained missing.

“But Vlad,”  one might object, “you guys covered every single contracted player who played in an Avalanche sweater!  Who, besides the guys who played in Quebec for the Nordiques, could possibly be missing?”

For the most part, that question is totally valid.  We did cover every single roster player who played in an Avalanche sweater, so on technicality, we didn’t miss anyone (even if yours truly unintentionally omitted Ville Nieminen in WWIB edition #39, an oversight that was later corrected).  However, one person–not counting prospects fresh out of the NHL Draft or players signed to a professional tryout (PTO) or emergency recall contract–fits this criteria.

Let’s meet him!  Or…let’s meet him again for the first time!

Vincent Damphousse (2004-2005)

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Vincent Damphousse in what would have been his official headshot for the cancelled 2004-2005 NHL season.  Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

The 2003-2004 season for the Colorado Avalanche was largely viewed as the curtain call for the player core who, since its arrival in 1995, brought two Stanley Cup championships, two Western Conference championships, two Presidents Trophy awards, and eight consecutive division championships (the franchise did win its division during the 1994-1995 season, its final year in Quebec, bringing this total to nine) to Denver.  David Aebischer, in his first full season as a NHL starting goaltender, fell short in replicating the performance of his predecessor, Patrick Roy, in the Avalanche crease.  While it’s unfair to expect Aebischer, in his debut season, to match the pedigree of the winningest goaltender in League history (at the time), expectations for the rest of the team were as high as ever.  Avalanche general manager Pierre Lacroix, notorious for pulling the trigger on blockbuster deals to land high-profile players such as Roy, Rob Blake, and Raymond Bourque, doubled down on his patented “win at all costs” philosophy, signing Teemu Selanne and Paul Kariya to one-year contracts each.  The expectation for the superstar roster was simple: Stanley Cup champions or bust.

The end result was the latter.  The signings of Selanne and Kariya were a spectacular failure, with both men experiencing significant injuries throughout the season.  Despite their lack of production, the Avalanche offense mustered enough firepower to win the Northwest Division for the fifth consecutive year.  The Avalanche would defeat the Dallas Stars in the first round of the playoffs in five games, but would bow out to the San Jose Sharks in the second round in six.  This was not the outcome that Lacroix envisioned when the puck dropped against the Chicago Blackhawks at Pepsi Center in early October 2003 (a 5-0 Avalanche victory).

Fast forward to the summer of 2004.  The Avalanche, along with their 29 National Hockey League brethren, were heading into uncharted waters.  The upcoming 2004-2005 season was in doubt, as the posturing between the NHL and the NHL Players Association reached fever pitch.  Meanwhile, the member clubs attempted to best prepare for the season, hopefully (or maybe ignorantly) believing that the two sides would reconcile their differences and finalize a new collective bargaining agreement in time for the puck to drop in early October.

In Denver, Lacroix was proceeding with a, “business as usual” mentality, according to this article from current ESPN contributor (and now former Denver Post columnist) Terry Frei.  “We haven’t changed anything we’re doing this summer, as opposed to the past,” he stated.  (Hindsight being 20/20, it’s clear that truer words had never been spoken by a top member of Avalanche brass.)

Also true to his word, Lacroix went back to the chapter in his playbook that often brought him success: seeking out that “missing piece” to add to his star-studded roster that would give his club the edge over his long-time Western Conference rivals in Detroit and Dallas, but also against teams like the Sharks and the Calgary Flames (who nearly became the first Canadian based franchise to win the Stanley Cup in eleven years earlier that summer).  On August 18, 2004, Lacroix threw caution to the wind–or in this case, an impending labor stoppage–and signed Vincent Damphousse, former captain of the very same Sharks club that eliminated the Avalanche from playoff contention earlier in the spring, to a one-year, $2 million dollar contract.  The move was certainly vintage Lacroix in adding a highly-skilled veteran player to his stable of superstar skaters wearing the Avalanche crest.  The 36 year old center had scored 432 goals and racked up 773 assists, totaling 1205 points over 18 seasons playing in the NHL.  He was also part of the Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens in 1993, and was a three-time NHL All-Star game nominee.

According to this article from the Sun Journal, the Damphousse acquisition was meant to provide some potential skill loss should both Kariya and Forsberg opt to not return to the Avalanche.  “Vincent Damphousse provides us with quality forward depth,” said Lacroix in the article, “His versatility and experience will definitely contribute to the future success of our club.”  While it would be understandable that the Kariya signing would be a one-off for the franchise, the thought of seeing Peter the Great play in a jersey that wasn’t the burgundy and blue was outright blasphemy.  Perhaps the Damphousse move was a carrot to keep both players in Denver at one absolutely last potentially great final lap around the ice before taking its bows with Lord Stanley in tow?

“He’s versatile, he adds depth and we need to be prepared for alternatives in case Peter decides not to come,'” Lacroix elaborated to Frei. “If Peter Forsberg’s here, (Damphousse) will have one role, and if Peter isn’t here, it will be a different role. He’s the kind of guy who can do that. He’s done a great job against us in the playoffs, too. We all know him, and we think he’s a perfect fit for us.

For his part, the Sun Journal quotes Damphousse eager at the chance to bring another championship to the Mile High City.  “I’m excited and extremely enthusiastic about joining the Avalanche, a club that has already established a winning tradition in Denver,” he said. “I’m looking forward to playing in such a great hockey environment.”

(Why would anyone say anything differently, after all?)

From both Damphousse and Lacroix, the signing seemed like a perfect match.  Then again, so did the signings of Selanne and Kariya the previous summer.  But…if it did work out, Damphousse would be the latest of several high profile players who would forever be woven into Stanley Cup lore in Colorado.  A third championship banner in eight years would all but cement Lacroix legacy as a Stanley Cup architect, echoing back to the very first trades for Claude Lemieux and Roy in 1995, Bourque in 2000, and Blake in 2001.  Other players, like Theo Fleury in 1999 and Dave Andreychuk, who arrived with Bourque in 2000, fell short of their goal, but nonetheless wanted to be part of that fledgling legacy of success.  The Damphousse signing signaled to Lacroix that his dream of that third banner which slipped away the previous season could still become reality.

Reality poured a bucket of cold water on that dream when, on September 15, 2004, the NHL and the NHL Players Association failed to agree on a new collective bargaining agreement.  The NHL owners locked out its players, ultimately leading to the cancellation of the 2004-2005 season.  As a result, Damphousse never suited up for the Avalanche despite being a contracted, but locked out, player.  He did, however, serve as the Avalanche’s player representative during the lockout.  On September 07, 2005, Damphousse officially announced his retirement shortly before the start of the 2005-2006 season, with zero games played in an Avalanche sweater.

Damphousse wore the number 25 for a significant stretch of his career.  Six other players wore this number throughout the history of the Avalanche.  He also wore the number 10 during his stay with the Toronto Maple Leafs.  Ten players wore this number for the Avs as well.  He could have worn either number well, though it would have been my preference to see him keep number 25.

We almost knew what number he could have chosen had there never been a lockout back in 2004, and we almost knew what it would look like to see him celebrating power play goals with Forsberg, Blake, and Sakic.

Had Lacroix’s dream worked, as it had before, we’d almost know what a third Stanley Cup championship parade with the core of the glory years would have looked like in downtown Denver, and we’d almost know we could have bid that core a properly glorious farewell had they reached the mountaintop one last time.

Fact is, we’ll never know what might have been, but Vincent Damphousse stands alone as the only player who almost wore it best for the Colorado Avalanche.

Thanks for reading!

(Special thanks to avalanchedb.com, eliteprospects.com, espn.com, and sunjournal.com for providing statistics, quotes, and contract information used in this article!)

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