- Scott Burnside, NHL
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DENVER -- Matt Duchene is telling us a story about growing up a Colorado Avalanche fan. Not just a fan, but the kind of follower who cannot bear the idea of his heroes failing, of Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy and Peter Forsberg losing a playoff series. The kind of fan who is heartsick with each loss and is filled with joy with each victory.
"Growing up, I can't even being to express how big of an Avs fan I was. One year, in 1999, they lost to Dallas in the conference finals and I wasn't allowed to stay up to watch the end of the game," Duchene told ESPN.com recently. "I woke up the next morning and my dad had put a piece of paper and taped it to my TV and said, 'Dallas 2, Colorado 1, Sorry, pal.' I started crying. I was bawling my eyes out."
The young Duchene was such a Roy fan that he initially wanted to be a goaltender.
"My dad said I could be a road hockey goalie but had to play out on the ice," Duchene said. "I think that was a good choice. I had a mask that I had painted like Roy's; I had posters of him in my room. It's pretty cool playing for him now. Sakic, too. It's surreal, really. The fact I could have a chance to win a Cup with those guys now -- I idolized them growing up. Obviously, it's different now; I don't look at them the same way because I'm older. But I still have that part of me in there -- that 5-, 6-year-old Matt is still there. It's pretty cool.''
And there you have it, in a nutshell, the story of the Colorado Avalanche. The heroes have come home. Not just for a visit, but for good. Or at least for the foreseeable future.
That means this is now Joe Sakic's team. The former Avalanche captain and Hall of Famer is the Avs' executive vice president of hockey operations. He's the engineer sitting in his office, manipulating the gears and pulleys and switches as he tries to rebuild what was once a given here in Denver: a winner. And it is Patrick Roy's team, not just as head coach but as vice president of hockey operations, too, a title that was added when he accepted the coaching job in May. Adam Foote is here, too, working with the defensemen as a consultant. Roy's longtime backup, Craig Billington, is the assistant general manager.
Is it odd after all this time -- Roy has been coaching the Quebec Remparts in the Quebec major junior league for eight years -- to be back where he had so much success as a player?
"No, it hasn't been odd," Roy told ESPN.com Tuesday some 30 hours before he would step behind the Avs' bench to coach his first NHL game. "If there's a place I wanted to come back, it was here. I enjoyed all those years; those eight years in Denver were fantastic years. And having an opportunity to give back to our fans that were so nice to me as a player, now I'm going to give back as a coach. I think it's a challenge that I like, it's a challenge that I'm ready to give a shot at. I feel really comfortable."
Roy is the key figure in this renaissance in the making. If Sakic was the deep pool, unflappable, quietly superlative as a player, Roy was the raging rapids, fiercely competitive, combustible.
As one would expect, Roy is fully engaged during this final practice before the Avalanche open the regular season at home Wednesday night against the defending Pacific Division champion Anaheim Ducks. As the team goes through line rushes and breakout drills, Roy follows the group up the ice, sometimes yelling short instructions, other times banging his stick for emphasis, sometimes giving a thumbs-up at the end of the rush. He darts this way and that before another drill, pointing to places on the ice where he wants his players to go or where he wants the puck to be moved.
In the hour-plus the team works out, there are a handful of teaching sessions along the boards and finally a group gathering at center ice before the workout ends.
"There's so much direction in everything that he does out there. His practices are very structured. You feel like everything you're doing has a purpose," Avs defenseman Erik Johnson told ESPN.com. "Just the command that he has out there. You're so inclined to listen, (A) because you really believe what he's saying, and (B) you know he's been there as a player and pretty much seen everything. He's a winner through and through. We've really liked him. And he's been a great teacher for us."
Alex Tanguay, a former teammate of Roy's from the Avs' glory days who was acquired from Calgary in the offseason, joked that he thinks Roy leaves practices as winded as the players.
"If you watch practice for an hour, he's everywhere," Tanguay said in an interview. "That's the way he is. He's won everywhere he's been as a player. As a coach, he's done his due diligence in junior, so we're looking forward to the start of the season."
The veteran forward admitted he was a bit uncertain after the trade, given his relationship with the former netminder.
"For me, the first few days I was traded, I was actually a little nervous. Because Patrick and I ... I mean, I stayed in his basement my first year. He's a friend. He's somebody that I look up to, somebody that I talk to, somebody that in the summer I would normally give a call. He's a friend," Tanguay said. "But I started thinking about it. Then I realized Patrick's personality, Patrick would do anything to win games, so I don't think the friendship will be in the way of him winning some games. So I'm happy. I think what we've seen so far from him, he's very intense. He's very passionate about the game. Certainly his intensity and the work that he puts in, it's a good start for us."
The common train of thought suggests that the game's greatest players might not always be the game's greatest coaches because that which made them transcend the game, to appear immortal against mere mortals, is not something that can be passed on during drills or in video sessions. It is a sacred trust given to those few by the hockey gods, and no amount of coaching will transfer that greatness from those who have it to those who wish for it. And certainly there remains more than a little of the mystical about Patrick Roy.
"Patrick is a mystery, and I think Patrick will always be a mystery to many people," former Colorado coach Bob Hartley told ESPN.com this week.
The vast majority of people don't see the Roy that Hartley has seen. OK, yes, Roy did once smash up a television set in Hartley's office after a game, but that's not what we're talking about, nor what Hartley thinks of when he thinks of the Hall of Fame netminder.
"I've never seen a guy so committed and so giving of his time," Hartley said.
And right from the very beginning, Roy was keenly interested in what Hartley, now the head coach of the Calgary Flames, was doing as a coach. Most goalies use the time when a coach is diagramming plays during practice to take a drink of water or rest.
"But Patrick was always knee down [on the ice], right in front," Hartley recalled. "He had to know what the forwards had to do, he had to know what the D-men were going to do. That was Patrick."
Sometimes Roy would come to Hartley's office not to smash electronics but to query his coach on why he chose the drills. "He would say, 'I want you to explain to me that 2-on-1 drill, that 3-on-2 drill. I want to know more,'" Hartley said.
When Roy became part owner of the major junior Quebec Remparts, the team he would go on to coach, he would have the tapes of the team's game overnighted to Denver, and he and Hartley would watch segments, critiquing the play and the coaching early in the morning before the Avs would practice.
Roy could have stayed in Quebec City, of course. He has nothing left to prove and there are those who would suggest that unless he can turn the Avs into a contender, he actually risks tarnishing his considerable legacy. We don't buy that and we know Roy doesn't care. This is his new job, and it shouldn't really have been a surprise that he ended up back here.
"With Patrick, there's always a plan," Hartley said. "With Patrick, there's always today and then there's tomorrow."
Well, tomorrow is almost here for one of the greatest players of all time. Now he'll start to find out whether he has the ability to translate success with teenagers to success with men.
"There is a big difference," Roy acknowledged. "When you're coaching junior players, you need to teach them what it takes to become an NHL player and what's the journey of an NHL player, how much hard work they have to put, the discipline to making it. The NHL? They're here. They are in the NHL. And I think they need more like a partner. You have to draw the lines, but at the same time they need someone that they feel comfortable that they could knock at the door and we can exchange and we could talk. And I believe in partnership. I believe if your relationships with the players [have] trust and respect, I think it goes a longer way."
If it will always be difficult for fans and maybe even some players to separate the notion of Patrick Roy the player from Patrick Roy the coach, it's a process that has been going on for some time for Roy himself.
"When I was a player, I was thinking about the first game of the season and preparing myself for the first, then the second, now the third, and now thinking we need this start, this and that," he said. "As a coach, it's the same thing, but it's different thinking. I want to make sure that our team is ready for the first game. I want to make sure the system we want to use, you always want to touch a little bit on your system and then your adjustment. But there's a base and there's adjustment that you want to make on the base of your system, and that's what we're trying to do."