June 9, 2021

The celebration was on

20 years ago tonight

at the Pepsi Center


John Leyba's iconic shot of Ray Bourque raising the Stanley Cup ... finally. Joe Sakic's gesture remains the best handoff in the history of Colorado sports.


Here's what I wrote 20 years ago tonight as part of a team effort on deadline from the Pepsi Center:

Milan Hejduk Sr., a hockey player and longtime coach in what has become the Czech Republic, speaks only a few words of English. Words such as, "hello," "hockey" and "Stanley Cup!"


In the bedlam that was the Colorado Avalanche dressing room late Saturday night at the Pepsi Center, the elder Hejduk called over a native Czech journalist. He motioned at Joe Sakic, the son of Croatian immigrants to Canada, and asked that a message be passed along.


A few seconds later, the writer was telling Sakic: "Mr. Hejduk says you're the greatest player he has ever seen."


By then, perhaps 45 minutes after the Avalanche finished off the 3-1 victory over the Devils and won the Stanley Cup for the second time in the franchise's six seasons in Denver, the families had joined the celebration. Sakic was holding his young son, Mitchell, and hugging his wife, Debbie.


Sakic's line produced all three goals in Game 7, not just energizing the Avalanche early, but putting to rest the notion that the line centered by the Devils' Bobby Holik had paralyzed Sakic, Alex Tanguay and Milan Hejduk.


(That's Milan Hejduk Jr., by the way. Hejduk played a few shifts on the Chris Drury-centered second line before rejoining Sakic and Tanguay.)


Tanguay scored twice, the second coming off a rebound of a Sakic shot, and Sakic got the third goal. The absence of Peter Forsberg removed one of the Avalanche's strengths - its two-center marquee depth, which caused checking dilemmas for teams such as the Devils, with a big-time, defensive-oriented center, such as Holik.


The second line did contribute at key times in the Finals, and that was crucial when the Sakic line was neutralized, but the Avalanche captain and his wingers were the key offensive forces in the clinching Game 7. And that was before Sakic's second assist of the night, when he made a nifty handoff of the Stanley Cup to Ray Bourque after accepting the trophy from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.


"It was definitely one of our best games in the playoffs, that's for sure," Sakic said of his line. "It was great to move around. Our whole line had our legs and lots of chances, and we just had our legs out there."


The funny thing was that after the morning skate, Bourque even had mentioned that he had told Tanguay, the 21-year-old who wasn't even born when the veteran defenseman played his first NHL game, not to get too nervous.


"We're all nervous before the game," Sakic said, laughing. "I didn't sleep at all (in the afternoon) before the game. We wanted to get it going, and by then, we were wishing it were an afternoon game."


Tanguay, who barely is old enough to be legally sampling the championship champagne, said: "There's no better feeling than this. As a kid, you always dream of being the one scoring the goals, but this is unreal."


The Cup itself, Tanguay said, is "heavy, that thing. It is unbelievable. When everybody is talking about it, you don't really realize it. I never believed in seeing the Cup before I won it. I'd never seen it. I never touched it before tonight. This is really heavy, and this is unbelievable.


"We worked hard as a team to be able to accomplish this for ourselves and for Ray. I think seeing Ray be the first one (to hoist the Cup), after Joe handed him the Cup, I think it put a tear in everybody's eyes."


And the celebration went on into the night, making it obvious that winning one for Ray was a nice tagline, but that a championship tied to the hoisting of sport's most famous trophy has the power perhaps more than any other to make families feel as if every sip comes from the trophy itself.


That brought to mind something Bourque had said after the morning skate, when he was asked about the little speech he had given Tanguay.


"To be honest, I think we're kids every day, playing this game," Bourque said. "For me, especially, at 40 years old, still being able to play this game, it's kind of denial. I'm a young man, but an old hockey player appreciating every second of this and knowing I'm a very lucky guy."


Late Saturday night, as Bourque celebrated among teammates and among family members, in the dressing room and in the hallway, parents - including Milan Hejduk Sr. and Kent Forsberg, who had traveled to the Finals from Europe - and wives and children and brothers and sisters watched, many from perches on the benches in front of the stalls.


Owner Stan Kroenke held a champagne bottle in one hand and leaned over to deliver his message, knowing it was the only way he would he heard.


"Unbelievable year," he said, hoarsely. "Unbelievable accomplishment. Unbelievable people. Unbelievable players. What can you say about a year like this? How often do you go to a seventh game in the Stanley Cup, then you win it in front of the home fans? Unbelievable!"


And the revelry was just getting started.