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April 17, 2019

On verge of eliminating

Flames, Avalanche can

pull off unfathomable 

 

IMG_4702.jpg   

 

By the time Jared Bednar arrived at the interview room podium after the Avalanche's 3-2 overtime win over the No. 1-seeded Flames gave No. 8 Colorado a 3-1 series lead Wednesday, midnight was approaching. 

 

Yes, as unlikely as this seemed early in the third period, when the Avalanche trailed the Flames 2-0; as farfetched as it seemed a week ago; and as impossible as it seemed a little over two months ago, the Avalanche is one win away from winning a series for the first time since 2008 and advancing to the Western Conference semifinals. J.T. Compher and Mikko Rantanen got the third-period goals that forced overtime, and Rantanen scored at 10:23 of O.T. to end it.

 

"It's going to be hard," Bednar said of getting that fourth win in the series. "It's the hardest one. Everyone knows the last one, the one you're trying to get to close out a series, is the hardest one. That's a proud team over there, Calgary, it's a really good team, they have a lot of character, they're well-coached, I mean, it's tough. Now we have to go into Calgary and find a way to win another hockey game."

 

And to think that in early February, this team was reeling.  

 

I scrolled down to find this, but it didn't take long. On Feb 7, when the Avalanche had lost five in a row and won only five of its previous 24 games, I felt compelled to comment about Joe Sakic's apparent refusal to cave in to NHL conventionality, scapegoat his coach, fire him during the season and summon all the cliches about how it was just time for a change.  

 

 That would have been so easy to do, and Bednar's rollercoaster experience as a first-time NHL head coach -- and his first experience in the NHL, period -- would have come to an end. He would have been only a few months removed from being a finalist for the Jack Adams Award, but that status adds little immunity. And even after I wrote that column, the Avalanche losing streak reached eight before the turnaround.

 

Of course, Sakic had a similar opportunity after the Avalanche's horrific 48-point season in 2016-17, the worst bang-for-the-buck season in the NHL's cap era ... and perhaps ever. But the circumstances of Bednar's first season bordered on the bizarre, with Patrick Roy's late resignation and an ill-constructed roster (and payroll) in advance of major reconstruction, and Sakic conceded all that. Not to mention it would have required he had made a mistake in going with a coach who never had spent a day in the NHL as either a player or assistant coach.         

 

But it wouldn't have raised too many eyebrows if Sakic made a move in February. He stuck with Bednar, though, and the Avalanche went 16-7-3 down the stretch, secured a second straight playoff berth and now have the 3-1 lead on the Flames, meaning there's a significant chance of the two No. 1 seeds -- Tampa Bay was swept by No. 8 Columbus in the East -- will lose in the first round. 

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Jared Bednar with the AHL's Calder Cup in 2016. The Lake

Erie Monsters went an incredible 15-2 in the playoffs.  

 

Bednar is continuing to demonstrate he belongs in this league and that one of the most inexplicable decisions in his past was Doug Armstrong's firing of Bednar as the coach of the Blues' AHL affiliate at Peoria in 2012.  

 

Since then, Bednar has held aloft the Calder Cup at Lake Erie (Cleveland) in 2016, when he was working for the Blue Jackets' organization, and moved up to the Avalanche. 

 

The man from Saskatchewan, who climbed through the ranks of the ECHL and AHL as both a player and coach, is a genuine inspiration for dues-payers.  

 

After the morning skate Wednesday, I asked Bednar about his evolution over the past three years.

 

"One thing is just learning to be patient and when to push," he said. "You come into the league as a young guy and it's your first opportunity, and you've had some success other places. I had an idea of how I wanted to coach and what my beliefs are, but it's getting the buy-in from your leadership group and opening those lines of communication.  

 

"It took some time here in my first year and we had change in personnel in my second, and really getting to know our leaders and some of the guys that are impact players for us now for a couple of years. I try to be patient, fair, and as honest as I can with them. But there's still times when I think I have to push their buttons to try to get more out of them and I think I've learned that along the way."

 

Bednar20.jpg

With the ECHL's South Carolina Stingrays. Jared Bednar

got to celebrate winning the Kelly Cup both as a player

and as a coach.  

 

 

Gabe Landeskog, although only 26, has been the Avalanche captain for seven seasons.

 

"I think as far as 'Bedsy' goes, he's obviously grown into that role," Landeskog told me after the skate. "He had a tough season obviously his first season, and we all did, but I think he's evolved, he's grown as a coach. He's figured things out as he goes along, whether that's with communication with us as players, or what we as players need, or for systems or coaching on the bench or whatever it is, it just seems like he's that much more comfortable in that role and being an NHL coach.

 

"I think every single guy in this room will say the same thing about 'Bedsy.' He's a great coach and a good communicator and he's a really smart hockey man."

 

At the next stall after the skate, I also asked Nathan MacKinnon about Bednar. Keep in mind that before MacKinnon's breakthrough to becoming one of the top players in the league, he and Bednar had some tense moments, as when the rookie coach reacted to a rolling of the eyes on the bench from MacKinnon by briefly -- but rather noticeably -- benching him.

 

"'Bedsy's' been great," MacKinnon said. "He's always even keel. He's never up and down, which is awesome."

 

Rantanen called Bednar "a great coach. He's really honest with players. He's still pretty positive, trying to bring everything positive. He gives us confidence, too. If you make mistakes, he's not going to rip you about that. If you do it repeatedly, maybe then, but hopefully guys in the NHL are going to learn from that. He's a great coach and I really like him."

 

Now he's closing on on his first playoff series win as an NHL head coach. And his team is reveling in the three straight wins in this series, including the wild comeback one Wednesday night.

 

"What's the point of giving up in the playoffs?" MacKinnon asked me after the game. "We knew we could score two and we were dominating the whole play. . . We just felt like we could come back against a really good team. We felt like they were a little winded at altitude and managed to come back. It's awesome, especially when you have the momentum and you're feeling it, and the crowd is so awesome, it's so fun to be part of it." 

 

Compher's goal got the Avalanche going.

 

"There's no quit in this group," Compher told me. "We showed that in Game 2 and throughout the season. We believe that once we get going, there's no stopping us. But that's a huge one, to keep the momentum going in this locker room. We knew (Mike Smith) was good tonight, we had to continue to get rebounds and shots at the net, and if it took a greasy one..."  

 

 

April 15, 2019 (Part II)

Long way from over,

but two No. 8 seeds, 

including Avs, lead series 

 

 IMG_4641.jpg

Nathan MacKinnon is among those congratulating Cale

Makar on his first-period goal Monday.

 


Nathan MacKinnon, whose opinion carries considerable weight in such matters, was impressed with Cale Makar. As was everybody else. 

 

"I asked him before the game, 'How do you feel? Nervous or ...?'" MacKinnon said at his stall after the Avalanche unleashed 56 shots on Flames goalie Mike Smith and beat the Flames 6-2 Monday night at the Pepsi Center. "He just said, 'Good, you?' It's my 500th game. It's just pretty cool. He's not even thinking about being a rookie."

 

MacKinnon had two goals and Makar one as the Avalanche took a 3-0 first period lead, then went on to the win that put Colorado up 2-1 in the first-round series. MacKinnon's drop pass was the setup assist on Makar's goal.    


Suddenly, the Avalanche, which was on the verge of falling behind 2-0 in the series before tying up Game 2 late and winning it on McKinnon's overtime goal in Calgary Saturday night, is in good shape.       

 

And along the way, Makar scored style points with his new teammates.

 

"It was actually a bad drop by me," MacKinnon said. "It was a good handle. I thought he was more in the middle ... You can tell his skill. He didn't just get it and shoot it or try to panic and get it back to me. He stopped it on his backhand, dropped his shoulder, and I think he probably looked around to see if anyone was back door and then snapped it 5-hole. I hear him, too, he's calling for it, his first game ever. He's yelling, '3, 3. 3,' at me. That's great. You want a player to be aggressive and assertive. I was really impressed by that.... I remember when I first came in, I was shy snd I didn't want to yell for the puck."

 

So what does this all mean?

 

In this series, an 8 seed is at least throwing a scare into a 1 seed. And maybe more than that. It seems familiar, too.  

 

I've covered both the NBA and NHL playoffs many times, through the Finals.

 

This isn't going to be a revelation, and perhaps also contradictory, but the strength of the Stanley Cup playoffs -- other than the fact that the trophy itself is the best one in pro sports -- is that anything can happen. Much of that, but not all, involves the leveling effect of goaltending, good and bad.  

 

The strength of the NBA playoffs is that anything can't happen. You just know it can't. It's so pronounced that as great of a breakthrough season the Nuggets have had in winning the Northwest Division and going into the postseason as the Western Conference's No. 2 seed, the chances of them winning the NBA title, or mainly getting past Golden State once the Warriors step on the accelerator in the postseason, are negligible. And again, they're the number TWO seed. I realize I just got through saying one of the charms of the NHL is No. 7 seeds beating No. 2 seeds are common, but this is more about the clearly elite teams making it through to the Finals...and winning.  

 

The Nuggets, who will try to pull even in Game 2 of the first-round series against San Antonio Tuesday night at the Pepsi Center, are the better of Stan Kroenke's teams in April 2019.

 

The No. 8 seed Avalanche has a much better chance of winning a championship. That was true going into the postseason; it's even more clear now. 

 

You accept each league's postseason for what it is and salute the resilience of any team that wins four series. In the NBA it means that the best team won, and there is a certain justice to that.

 

In the NHL, it means that the most deserving one did. 

 

So like this could ever happen in the NBA?

 

After the Avalanche's romp Monday night in Game 3 of the first-round series, the No. 1 seeds in both conferences were in trouble, in danger of losing to the No. 8 seeds, or the second wild-card teams on each side of the draw.  

 

The East's No. 8 seed, the Columbus Blue Jackets, are even more in control, leading 3-0 over a Tampa Bay Lightning team that had 21 more points in the regular season than anyone else.

 

The Flames can reclaim home ice with a win Wednesday; the Lightning needs a miracle. 

 

 

April 15, 2019 (Part I)

Cale Makar will jump

right into Avs' lineup 

 

Cale20.jpg

 

 

It's a little bit, well, eerie.   

 

 Two days after finishing his collegiate career in a UMass loss to Minnesota-Duluth in the Frozen Four championship game in Buffalo, and one day after signing a three-year entry level contract with Colorado, 20-year-old defenseman Cale Makar is set to make his NHL debut with the Avalanche Monday night in Game 3 of the first-round playoff series against his hometown team -- the Calgary Flames.   

 

That's why the sizable Calgary media contingent was among those jockeying for position around Makar's stall after the Avalanche morning skate.

 

"It's a weird feeling playing against the team you grew up loving," Makar said. "My allegiance is with another team now, so we'll see how it goes." 

 

As arrivals to the pack brought the subject back to him growing up a Flames fan, he noted, "Obviously, watching them in the '04 Cup run, it's a different feeling."   

 

When he stepped through the bench and onto the ice for the morning skate, his teammates already out there cheereed.

 

It was both a welcome and a teasing.

 

Hey, kid ...   

 

 "It's a weird moment," said Makar, who signed following his sophomore season with the Minutemen. "I don't think it's really sunk in for me yet. But no, this is a great group of guys, I can tell meeting everybody right off the bat."

 

He said his parents, long-time Flames fans, had converted, "but I've definitely got a lot of messages from friends who are going the other way."  

 

Nobody asked for my vote, but I would have thought it more wise to let Makar literally get his feet on the ground in Denver for a few days, watch Monday's game, practice with the Avalanche Tuesday and play in Game 4 Wednesday. Yes,the upper body injury that knocked Samuel Girard out of the lineup for Game 3 changed the dynamic. Yet I still would have held Makar out until Game 4.  

 

Cale11.jpg

Instead, the Hobey Baker Award winner -- who previously had attended Avalanche development camps after going to Colorado at the No. 4 overall pick in the 2017 draft -- is jumping right in. At several points Monday morning, he phrased it as "if" he played, but it was obvious, even before Avalanche coach Jared Bednar later confirmed it, that Makar was going to play. 

 

"Not too much nervousness, I don't think," he said. "I'm just going to go out there and play and try and do my thing and we'll see."

 

Makar, who worked with the second power-play unit at the skate, added, "I just need to go out there and do what they need me to do. I'll provide offense if I have to and hopefully be steady on the defensive end as well. . . I don't think it's too much pressure. You're going to feel a bunch of different emotions, but you have to be be prepared for that. You kind of live your life to get to this moment. It'll be fun. This team's capable of doing a lot. They're a fast team and I'm excited to get going with them, hopefully tonight."   

 

Makar called the last few days "pretty crazy. I was supposed to fly out of Buffalo (Sunday), and got rerouted to Toronto. It's been a long travel day, but I'm rested up." He joked that Sunday night he "had a really nice bed, the sheets were nice." He said that he had watched as many Avalanche games as he could during his stay at UMass, "if I wasn't doing homework at night. I like the way they play, I think they're very fast, and I think they can fit in really well."

 

In the media room a few minutes later, Bednar said Makar would replace Girard, listed as day to day, in the lineup.   


He said Makar initially would be paired with Patrick Nemeth, "but we'll move him around a little but to try and get him in positions to succeed."  

 

I asked Bednar whether playing Makar immediately was automatic. 

 

"No, I thought through it, for sure," Bednar said. "I mean, it's a big time of the year, a big decision, young guy coming right out of college. But what makes the decision easier is the type of player he is and the type of person he is and the type of year he had in college. So he's a guy that we want to try and get in the lineup here and see if he can help us, and tonight's a perfect opportunity to do that."

 

 POSTSCRIPT: Sure enough ...Understandably, after Makar was so impressive Monday night, I took some teasing for having opined that I would have held Makar out until Wednesday, but I'll stand by my reasoning and won't indulge in revisionism here. Because you know what they say, right? 

 

... and some are rained out. 



April 13, 2019

A donated heart,

a "do-over" and a kicker

 Bagley1.jpg

Read it here 

 

 

 

 April 7, 2019

 

Arenado.jpg 

 Feature on Denver North High School baseball

team honoring the late Irv Brown (On newsstands now.)

 

 

April 5, 2019

Rockies' Home Opener:

Buy me some peanuts

and Cracker Jack

Rockies7th.jpg

Read it here 

 

 

 

 

April 4, 2019

Making playoffs praiseworthy,

but Avalanche needs to

take another step 

 

Sticks.jpg

Avalanche players salute the crowd after the 3-2 overtime win over Winnipeg. 

  

It's this simple, and it's what I asked Avalanche coach Jared Bednar about after his team beat Winnipeg 3-2 in overtime Thursday night and clinched a playoff spot.

 

(Actually, the Avs clinched a playoff spot when regulation ended and they were assured of a point, but you know what I mean.)

 

When the Avalanche was struggling and seemingly destined to iss the postseason, it was getting rotten goaltending most of the time. It was demoralizing and draining, leaving the Avs playing with a dread that a mistake always would end up in the back of the net and that the goalie wouldn't do his job -- which is saving their bacon on many nights and flat-out stealing games on others.   

 

It needed one of the goalies -- Semyon Varlamov or Philipp Grubauer -- to step up.

 

And one finally did.


Grubauer was staunch and stingy down the stretch, infusing confidence in the Avalanches game and leaving himself going into the olayoffs as one of the hottst goaltenders in a league in which anything can happen in the playoffs if your goalie gets hot, stands on his noggin, gets into the heads of the opponents and keeps the puck out of the net.

 

"It's a huge part of it, no question," Bednar said. "Most of the time and especially this time of year, you need exceptional goaltending. Average goaltending just isn't good enough. We've been getting that. Our goaltenders have beeen giving us a chance to win every night and we're spreading around our scoring. We fought through adversity if you look at the injuries we had.


 "You go back three weeks, a month ago when Landy got hurt, when Mikko got hurt and see where we are in the standings, it would have been easy for our team to give up. But I love the character and push and determination and the will to win from our group. That's what I'm most proud of right now. To kick down the front door and get to the playoffs and finish the way we fionished is an exceptional job by our leaders, by all the guys stepping up and our secondary scoring and special teams have been better, golatending has been outstanding." 

 

That's spreading around the credit, of course, and I get that. It's not "wrong." But without Grubauer awakening, little of that would have mattered. 

 

Goalie1.jpg

 

So now, for the second season in a row, Grubauer goes into the postseason as a No. 1 goalie. A year ago, his team -- the Capitals -- ended up winning the Stanley Cup, but it was after Grubauer wilted in the first two games of the opening round series against Columbus and Braden Holtby took over.          

 

"It's been quite the ride here," Grubauer said after the game Wednesday night. "Games we lost and games we won. It's pretty amazing that we actually made it. It could have gone the other way, too, but we have a good group here. . . It's been fun and now the real fun starts."   


I asked him about being in the same situation as a year ago, and what he learned from that experience he can take into this playoff run.


"Last year was tough," he said. "I don't think in Wahington we played our best hockey in the first two games and it cost us. We have to find a way to play 60 minutes against our next opponent and be ready from the get-go. . . . It's a new year. I played a couple more games that last year and I think that's going to help me and played a couple of good teams the last couple of games and, yeah, I'm looking forward to it."   

 

The NHL playoffs are the most relentless and physically and mentally testing postseason in sports, and one of the beauties of it is that anything can happen -- largely because of that influence of goaltending. A No. 8 seed can advance or even win the Stanley Cup, as the Los Angeles Kings did with Jonathan Quick in net in 2012. That's something that can't happen in the NBA. It just can't.  

 

"Everybody's looking forward to that," Grubauer said. "Anything is possible. In the playoffs, everything is brand new."    

 

So for the second straight season, the Avalanche is a No. 8 seed. A year ago, it was an unexpected and even amazing accompishment, considering Colorado went from the worst bang-for-the-buck NHL season (48 points while scraping the salary cap ceiling) ever, to 95 points. The Avalanche gave the Predators a competitive six-game series and it was disappointing, but not thunderously so. This year, one of the possible impediments is that sense of satisfaction for that in-season recovery and turnaround. The first-round matchup against the Flames, who hadve 107 points of this typing, is formidable. But for this team to be truly worthy of praise for progress this season, yee, it needs to knock off the Flames.   

 

Bednar7.jpg

"To me, this is a prove-it season," Bednar said. "Last year, noone expected us to get in. There was no pressure on us. We had a bunch of young kids come in and energize our group, our young core took over the leadership role and things started to roll for us. We had a certain stick-to-itiveness or resolve to our group that was fun and we just kept winning and found a way to get in. We won the right games down the stretch and got in. This year, it was a very similar feeling. I think the presssure got to us a little bit at times. We stumbled around in the middle of the season. But to finish the way we finished and we were much better down the stretch this season and learned some things from last year about what it takes to win. That shows a lot of growth to me.   

 

"Hopefully, we can carry that into the playoffs. Our mindset's not going to just me we got in, great, let's go have some fun in the playoffs. We're gonig into it with a purpose. I think that's the feeling our group will have. If we keep playing the way we're playing right now, we can be a dangerous hockey team." 

 

 

 

      

April 3, 2019

A Great Night at 

Sports Hall of Fame

DaveDaniel.jpeg

Dave Logan and Daniel Graham both were star high school players in the Denver area, All-Americans at

CU, and NFL standouts who finished their careers with the Bronos. As of Wednesday night, they're

also both in the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame. (Photo by Kristin Rucker, Colorado Sports Hall of Fame.)  

  

I'm a long-time member of the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame's selection committee, and I again attended the 2019 banquet Wednesday night at the Hilton Denver City Center. (Yes, for those who shared my initial confusion, it's the former Marriott City Center with a new name.)

 

The most rewarding experience I've had was acting as the presenter for Lt. Col. John Mosley in 2009, and I'm proud to say that came after I wrote about him in a Denver newspaper and interviewed him for Fox Sports Rocky Mountain, nominated him for the Hall of Fame and unashamedly campaigned for him in the selection committee meeting.

 

That was when each inductee had an individual presenter. Now masters of ceremonies Susie Wargin and Dave Logan take turns acting as presenters, introducing the inductees and cuing up the video tribute. It's streamlined, efficient and keeps things moving, through athletes of the year presentations and then the introductions and acceptance speeches from the inductees. The marathon nights of years ago are history.

 

All six of the 2019 inductees are Colorado natives. They were swimmer Missy Franklin; former Thomas Jefferson High, University of Colorado and Patriots and Broncos tight end Daniel Graham; long-time Colorado School of Mines football coach and athletic director Marv Kay; former Steamboat Springs High and Colorado College star athlete Tom Southall, who competed despite being born without a right hand; Todd Lodwick, a six-time Olympian in the Nordic Combined; and Colorado high school wrestling icon Bob Smith. Plus, the professional athlete of the year was Denver South and CU product Phillip Lindsay, who had a remarkable rookie season with the Broncos. (I haven't heard anyone mention this, but I believe he was an undrafted free agent.) Serious arguments could be made for the Avalanche's Nathan MacKinnon, who was second in Hart Trophy voting, or for Rockies Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story, but honoring Lindsay ultimately seemed appropriate when it so obviously meant so much to him to be honored in his hometown.   

 

I was honored and touched to be present for Daniel Graham's induction, given his family's long connection with my family. His father, Tom, was the captain of my father's final team at Oregon, and they moved to the Broncos together for 1972 -- my father as offensive line coach and Tom as a linebacker. They both would go to other NFL teams, but my dad ended up back with the Broncos as a long-time coach, scout and administrator, and Tom and Marilyn kept the same Denver home during Tom's travels and put down anchors in Denver afer his retirement, and twins Daniel and Josh starred at Thomas Jefferson and Daniel moved on to his great career at CU.

 

When Tom died in 2017, I was an honorary pallbearer. Here's my tribute to him. The discerning might be able to spot the significance of the timeline.

 

The Grahams are a Hall of Fame family. Daniel's acceptance speech was touching, and he paid tribute to Tom and the rest of his family before leading the crowd (at least those willing) in the CU fight song.  

 

The small-world aspect of that photo above for me is that when my family and Tom Graham came to Denver and I enrolled in the middle of my junior year at Wheat Ridge, my Farmers baseball batterymate was the guy on the left. My (lame) banquet joke is that I never have properly thanked Dave for helping me set a state high school single season that still stands. 

 

For most passed balls.    

    


March 30, 2019

Embedding with

the All-American 

high school musical  

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Read it here 

 

 

 

 

 

 

March 23, 2019

After line breakup, injuries,

MacKinnon soldiers on

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It wasn't that long ago that we were trying to come up with a clever nickname for the Avalanche line — Nathan MacKinnon centering Gabe Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen — that seemed destined to stick together for the ages. The Production Line and the French Connection already were taken and my suggestion, the NordiCanadian Line (one from Canada, two from Nordic nations ... get it?), didn't catch on.

 

Now with Landeskog out since since he was injured at Dallas on March 7 and Rantanen due to miss his third game, also with an upper body injury, at Chicago Sunday night, that leaves MacKinnon the only one active among the three. In an attempt to shake things up and to try to get more balanced scoring from multiple lines, Avalanche coach Jared Bednar separated them, anyway, in early February and has put them back together intermittently since. But at least until Rantanen is back, and it could be as soon as next Wednesday at home against Vegas, MacKinnon likely will continue centering J.T. Compher and Alexander Kerfoot for the time being.

 

And the Avalanche's unlikely resurgence, back into contention for a playoff spot, will continue.    

 

I admit it, too: To paraphrase Dave "Tiger" Williams, which never gets old, I thought them Avs were done like dinner when they lost consecutive home games to Carolina and Anaheim, but they have won four in a row — including Saturday afternoon's 4-2 victory over Chicago Saturday in the Pepsi Center — to get back in the hunt. They were holding down the second Western Conference wild card spot, leading Minnesota and Arizona by one point, going into Saturday night's games.              

 

MacKinnon didn't have a point in the win over the Blackhawks Saturday, and he hasn't hit the scoresheet in the past three games, but the Avalanche got by. I sat down with him after the game for a one-on-one discussion at his stall.   

 

At least now he knows that I'm not there seeking to write another piece about whether he ever could live up to the expectations he faced as a No. 1 overall NHL draft choice, and whether he ever would progress into the "generational" No. 1 pick conversations with Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid and perhaps Auston Matthews. (I admit I overdid that angle when I was around the Avalanche more often in the early years of McKinnon's career.) Crosby, McDavid and MacKinnon recently were tabbed as the top three forwards in the league in the NHL Players Association's poll.  McDavid was a runaway winner, at 63.6 percent, with the Nova Scotia pals — Crosby and MacKinnon — next at 17.2 and 4.1 percent, respectively. That's not a huge vote for MacKinnon, but players could only vote for one, and cracking the top three is a major acccomplishment. This is MacKinnon's sixth season, yet he's still only 23.  

 

 "You have chemistry with some guys there now out of the lineup," MacKinnon said. "It's definitely an adustment, but we have a lot of good players in this room and we've had a decent record since Gabe's gone down and we've gotten help from everybody, so it's been positive. The thing is, we'll get those guys back, or at least Mikko for sure. I don't even know what's wrong with him..." — his nose didn't seem to be growing — "...but we'll get him back and we'll get Gabe back for the playoffs, and that's the goal, to make the playoffs and get the team back together. And you never know what can happen. That's our mindset."'

 

MacKinnon at one point was upset when cooler heads prevailed as he was playing major junior and he wasn't allowed to play high school basketball on a spot basis in the Halifax area, and he remains a major hoops fan. So he's genuinely excited about the Nuggets' success this season and the possibility of having both Denver teams in the playoffs for the first time since 2010 — when both lost in the first round, the Avalanche to San Jose and the Nuggets to Utah.  

 

"It'd be great to have us both make it," he said. 

 

But one of the reasons I brought that up was because the Nuggets and Avalanche had similar seasons a year ago — with playoff berths on the line in what amounted to play-in games in the final regular season games. The Nuggets lost at Minnesota, the Avalanche beat St. Louis at home, and it set the benchmarks for this season. The Avalanche, its rebuild seemingly ahead of schedule after a dreadful 48-point disaster in 2016-17, was expected to make additional improvement this season, while the Nuggets to a point were let off the hook after falling short, with making the playoffs a reasonable goal. Instead, it's the Nuggets who are surprising this season.        

 

"We made it by one point last year," MacKinnon said. "So it's not like we were a Cup favorite this season. We won the last game of the season to make the playoffs. But, yes, our goal is to win the Stanley Cup, not just make the playoffs. Just making the playoffs doesn't rally matter."  

 

With seven games remaining, MacKinnon has 37 goals and 54 assists. He was tied for ninth in goals going into Saturday night's games and his 91 points placed him seventh in the league. He stands a bona fide chance of bettering his numbers of last season (39 goals, 58 assists and 97 points), when he finished second in the Hart Trophy voting ... and should have won. So this much is obvious: Last season was no fluke.

 

"I just want to be the player this for the next 10, 15 years," he said, then laughed. "OK, maybe not 15, but 10 for sure. I work hard at it. I take it more serious than I have when I was 18, 19, 20. That's when you're coming in and you learn, when you're young, I feel confident that I continue this." He said cracking the top three forwards in the NHLPA poll "is humbling. There are so manay very talented players in the league, it could have gone to a lot of different guys. Obviusly, I'm happy they voted (for) me, but it's just a poll." 

But the point is, the votes he gets now are for accomplishment, for cracking the very elite ... and not for underachievement.    

 

 

 

 

March 21, 2019

CU in the NIT? 81 years ago,

they were in the first one

Buffs4.jpg 

Tad Boyle watching from the sideline in the Buffs' final regular-season game against USC

 

When I researched March 1939: Before the Madness,  I came across three things about the University of Colorado program in that era that I hadn't known. And I was reminded of them as the 2018-19 Buffs accepted a bid to the NIT and beat Dayton in the first round, and it turned out that they'll play host to another NIT game against Norfolk State on Monday night. That's because Norfolk State knocked off Alabama in the first round.   

 

One, the Buffaloes appeared in the very first National Invitation Tournament in 1938. It's a bit confusing because at the time, the NIT wasn't even officially called that. The Metropolitan Basketball Writers Association, with an eye on following the success of regular-season doubleheaders staged in Madson Square Garden, organized and staged the 1938 and 1939 tournaments and also flaunted the conflict of interest, hyping them to the point where you'd think Roanoke College -- one of the six teams in the 1939 tournament -- was the equal of the top teams in the nation.

 

Two, the reason the Buffaloes were considered a marquee drawing card and coveted as a member of the 1938 field was that their star was one of the highest-profile college athletes in the nation at the time. 

 

Byron "Whizzer" White.

 

Yes, the future U.S. Supreme Court justice, the renowned football hallfback, also played basketball for the Buffs.

 

I didn't know that.

 

Here's the story of that first NIT, from the pages of my book:

 

* .  *   *

 

 

Whizzer.jpg 

 

Meanwhile in New York, the first national invitation tournament was played on March 9, 14, and 16, 1938, so it sandwiched the PCC title series. It definitely was an outgrowth of the regular-season doubleheaders and involved the type of conflict of interest for writers that wouldn’t have been tolerated later. Although Ned Irish’s fingerprints were on the tournament, too, the Metropolitan Basketball Writers Association, made up of New York scribes, founded, sponsored, and promoted it—and promoted it to the point where they sometimes came off as carnival barkers imploring passersby to enter the tent. The writers’ group was founded in 1934, and Irving T. Marsh and Everett B. Morris, both from the Herald Tribune, were its ringleaders. Morris also was the paper’s boating writer.

 

The plan was to follow Ned Irish’s doubleheader formula in putting together tournament fields, mixing New York–area teams with intriguing squads from other parts of the country. One of the goals was to confirm New York’s primacy in the college basketball world, and the tournament did that, but there was some confusion because nobody seemed to know what to call it. Most often, it was “the national invitation tournament,” with the informality of lowercase letters, but it also was labeled the Metropolitan Basketball Writers’ tournament, the New York writers’ invitation tournament, and several other combinations. Capital letters and/or the NIT acronym didn’t come into play right away.

 

The participants in that six-team 1938 inaugural invitation tournament were Colorado, Oklahoma A&M, and Bradley Tech, joining eastern entrants Temple, New York University, and LIU. As those with the farthest to travel, Colorado and Oklahoma A&M had byes, and the writers probably were second-guessing the bracketing that matched two New York teams, NYU and LIU, in the March 9 quarterfinals, which guaranteed the early elimination of one local draw. In a shocker, NYU knocked off Clair Bee’s Blackbirds 39-37. The Blackbirds finished the season with a 23-5 record, disappointing given the expectations and a soft schedule, with the other losses coming to Marshall, Minnesota, Stanford, and La Salle. In the other quarterfinal, Temple beat Bradley Tech 43-40.

 

 

Colorado had won the Rocky Mountain region’s Big 7 league, but the Buffaloes were sought because they had the biggest star in the tournament—an event its home-state Denver Post, by the way, called “the first national Invitation Intercollegiate tournament.” That star was a scholarly fellow from Wellington, Colorado. Byron “Whizzer” White was an All-American halfback for the Buffaloes and a solid starter for Colorado in basketball. The New York scribes couldn’t get enough of him, just as they had enjoyed building up Luisetti when he came through with Stanford during the regular season. The Colorado hero was the toast of Manhattan from the time he arrived with the Buffaloes’ traveling party. He had eight points in the March 14 semifinals as the Buffaloes edged NYU 48-47 on Don Hendricks’s late basket.

 

In the other semifinal, the Oklahoma Aggies, coached by 33-year-old Henry “Hank” Iba, lost a 56-55 heartbreaker to Temple. The New York scribes puffed out their chests as they typed, knowing the nip-and-tuck semifinals had been exciting, and hoped for a reprise in the March 16 championship game.

 

Instead, they and the fans got a stinker. Temple routed Colorado 60-36 to win the tournament title, and Whizzer White bowed out of his college basketball career with a 10-point night.   

 

Minutes after the championship game, he again was being asked which he would choose—the outlandish $15,000 contract from franchise owner Art Rooney to play for the Pittsburgh Pirates (yes, Pirates, pre-dating Steelers) or a Rhodes scholarship to study in Oxford.

 

“There are about 500 people trying to make up my mind,” he said in the Madison Square Garden dressing room. One way to tell that White already was an extraordinary celebrity was that at least one scribe actually talked to him after the game instead of following the usual procedure of typing eyewitness accounts of the game and not seeking comment from anyone involved.

 

Temple, the tournament champions, finished the 1937–38 season with a 23-2 record. Many in the east advanced the Philadelphia squad as the nation’s best, and it wasn’t unreasonable. Their head-to-head victory over Stanford, the west’s top team, bolstered the claim. There were scattered references to the Owls as “national champions,” but for the most part, the national attitude—at least among those who noticed in other areas of the country—seemed to be that the Owls had won a new tournament for New York teams and invited guests, no more suited to select the best team in the land than, say, a holiday tournament. It was a tournament for select (and selected) teams, but not a national championship, and Stanford wasn’t there.

 

After beating the Webfoots for the 1937–38 PCC title, the Indians didn’t go anywhere, except perhaps to their homes during spring break. They already had made two cross-country trips to New York and beyond in the previous sixteen months. That was enough.

 

Considered an experimental venture that first year, the invitation tournament was pronounced a success. The catch, though, was that organizers couldn’t count on having a Whizzer White–type drawing card every year from among the teams brought in from outside the New York area or the East Coast.

 

Stanford coach John Bunn was one of many in his profession who began to wonder if there might be a way to both combat the national invitation tournament and determine a national champion, perhaps as soon as the upcoming 1938–39 season.

 

* .  * .  * 

OK, that's No. 1 and No. 2.

 

No. 3 is that when the National Association of Basketball Coaches indeed put together the first NCAA tournament for 1939, setting up four-team regionals in San Francisco and Philadelphia,with one representative from each of eight districts, and then a championship game in Evanston held in conjunction with the NABC convention, the Buffaloes were one of a handful of teams turning down invitations. My opinion is that by the end of the season, the eventual champion -- Oregon -- was the best team in the nation, and the Ducks routed all three of their opponents, Texas, Oklahoma and Ohio State. But we'll never know how the Buffaloes would have done.

Here's how that came about, again from March 1939: Before the Madness.  

 

 

* .  * .  *

  

The Colorado Buffaloes had gotten over their loss to St. John’s in Madison Square Garden. They easily won their league with a 12-2 league record, beating out (in order) Utah State, Utah, Wyoming, Denver, Brigham Young, and Colorado A&M. The Buffaloes were the obvious NCAA tournament choice in the Rocky Mountain district that included the states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Montana, and New Mexico.

 

CU officials announced that they would conduct a vote among the players and take the result under advisement. With the Buffa- loes’ season over and no league playoffs, Colorado’s players knew they would have two weeks to rest up for the regional—or, to put it another way, their season would be extended at least two weeks if they accepted the bid. These were mostly the same fellows who the previous year had traveled by train cross-country to play in the first national invitation tournament, and then made another trip to New York in December. Would they be up for more travel, first to San Francisco, then possibly to Chicago? For a new tournament?


The Buffaloes’ decision was announced Tuesday.

 

 

No, thanks.

 

 

Colorado’s athletic committee said that it had consulted with Coach Frosty Cox and the players, and the decision was based on the fact that the Buffaloes were banged up, tired, and even sick. CU’s star center, Jack Harvey, was hospitalized three times during the season and missed the final three games because of illness, and two other starters had spent time in the hospital, also. Without naming the national invitation tournament, the committee said CU wouldn’t consider taking part in any other tournament, either. The Buffaloes were going to stay home.


The next day, the head of the NCAA Tournament’s Rocky Mountain district selection committee, Wyoming coach Dutch Witte, said his group had recommended to Harold Olsen that Big 7 runner-up Utah State—coached by the respected Dick Romney, a former multiple-sport star himself and a member of a prominent Utah family— get the NCAA bid.

 

 

Harold Olsen went along with that, and Utah State’s athletic council quickly accepted the invitation.   

 

 

* .  * .  *

 

If the Buffs win two more games, beating Norfolk State and then the Xavier-Texas winner, they'll make the NIT's Final Four in Madison Square Garden.  

 

 

 

 

March 10, 2019

Catching up with Tad Boyle:

About then and now

TadFeatured-1024x934.jpg

Read it here 

 

 

 

March 7, 2017

Trying -- and failing -- to

make a case for keeping Keenum

 

Read it here

 

 

 

 

February 27, 2019

Two young Israelis

in Colorado ...

playing hockey 

 

NoCoEaglesIsraelis-GDT-022619.jpg

Read it here 

 

 

 

February 13, 2019

On the Broncos'

acquisition of Flacco

 

Read it here 

 

 

 

 

 

February 2019

Two columns

on the late, great

Irv Brown 

 

IrvPatCar.jpg

On Irv's death

On Irv and Pat

 

 

February 7, 2019

 

Sakic support of Bednar

seems genuine -- and it's

the right thing to do 

Bednar5.jpg

 

 

The Avalanche is reeling. 

 

After a 4-3 overtime loss at Washington Thursday, the Avs had lost five in a row and were 5-15-4 in their last 24. Yes, only five wins in their past 24, or since they were 17-7-5 after a December 6 win at Florida.

  

Especially in hockey, I've always felt that it's unseemly to be among the first to broach the issue of whether a coaching change is imminent, and/or needed. That's because it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I'm not saying a single writer or media member bringing it up makes a change inevitable, but once the speculation starts, it can gather momentum.

 

This is a league in which general managers -- some of them former coaches -- have championed the scapegoating phenomenon, deflecting the blame for on-ice problems from the front office to the bench. And it goes beyond that. If players "tune out" coaches, it's often because they've gotten the impression they can or are expected to -- and can get away with it.

 

So Joe Sakic's decisive statement that he's not considering firing Jared Bednar is a bit refreshing. It's also fairly convincing because Sakic already has shown he will defy NHL convention, as evidenced when he stuck with Bednar after the horrendous 48-point 2016-17 season, the worst bang-for-the-buck season in NHL history. It would have been embarrassing to fire Bednar after only one season, but it also wouldn't have been all that surprising. Sakic was convinced that Patrick Roy's August resignation put Bednar in a difficult position, but he still could have taken the easy way out and made another change.           

 

This is not an unconditional, blind endorsement of Bednar's work. The coach must be accountable, too, and if Sakic concludes after the season that something must be done, fair enough. But now? It would be panic, it would be making Bednar accountable for having awful goaltending and a roster with other deficiencies being exposed. Bad goaltending is deflating and demoralizing, and it affects everything. But this also is a team still without enough scoring depth beyond the top line -- when it's together -- and with two smallish defensmenen among its top six. Yes, Tyson Barrie and Samuel Girard are adept puck-handlers and offensive threats, but it's playing with fire in the defensive zone. (Plus, Girard hasn't been as productive offensively as he needs to be.)          

 

It's this simple. It really is. If either goalie, Semyon Varlamov or Philipp Grubauer, gets his act together, the other issues suddenly will seem less significant and debilitating.  The question is how soon, or even if, that will happen. The most amazing thing of all is that the Avalanche hasn't fallen completely out of playoff contention. The Avs can get back in the hunt -- that's a tribute to Irv Brown -- with one good run. 

 

A coaching change now, or in the foreseeable future, isn't the answer.   


February 4, 2019

Colorado-connected

WWII vets and French

Legion of Honor Medal

 

POW-GDT-020119-Powell1.jpg POW-GDT-020119-Daily.jpgHarryHome.jpg

This is the piece on the ceremony

Within that is an info box with links to

individual pieces on the recipients

 

 

January 26, 2019

Is it time to try the

confectionary store

clerk in the Avs' net? 

 

Hardy2.jpg 

 

At the arrival of the All-Star break and then its bye period, the Avalanche had gone 5-13-3 in its previous 21 games.

 

The biggest shock of all is that Colorado still is hanging on to what would be the second wild card playoff spot in the Western Conference by its fingernails. Seven teams, including the Avalanche, are within three points of one another in the race for the two spots. Yes, the Avs, thought to be on the rise after last year's 95-point season, seems to have been reduced to shooting for a wildcard spot again.     

 

I'll concede this:  The Avalanche is not perfectly constructed.

 

The Avs need more secondary scoring, beyong the NordiCanadian Line of Nathan MacKinnon centering Gabe Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen. 

 

They every once in a while falls victim to the perills of having two undersized, if speedy and crafty, defensmen among the top six. Neither Tyson Barrie nor Sam Girard are capable of physically intimidating work in front of the Colorado net. Or anywhere else. And as a group, the Avs' "D" has been no better than mediocre.  

 

But let's be real. 

 

The major problem here is the goaltending.   

 
The lack of faith in the men is in the net is debilitating for any team, and one of the reasons is that it becomes a rationalization. . . or a self-fulfilling prophecy. Teammates become tight, overly concerned that a single mistake too often can lead to a puck in the back of the (wrong) net. And on the rare nights when the goaltending is major-league and larcenous -- in other words, on the nights when the Colorado goalie has done his job -- the post-game narrative is a condescending overreaction, as if Semyon Varlamov or Philipp Grubauer has reprised Patrick Roy or Dominik Hasek in their primes and the game video should be sent to the Hall of Fame in Toronto.

 

With 32 games remaining, of course, it's possible that one or the other could snap out of this and give the Avalanche competent work in the net. But for now, this is just flat-ut unacceptable: Varlamov has a goals-against average of 2.82, only 25th among NHL qualifiers, and a save percentage of .908. In his contract year, while attempting to prove that he can stay healthy, the issue of whether he again can do elite work moving forward in the net has reappeared. Grubauer's goals-against of 3.38 is awful, 46th among the 50 qualifiers, and his save percentage of .891 is below what I tend to call the Astrom Line for a reason.

            

Flashing back to the 1979-80 season -- yes, nearly 40 years ago -- the outspoken and snappily-attired Don Cherry passed through to coach the lowly Colorado Rockies for one season.

 

 

Cherry hated his goaltenders. The goaltending indeed was bad, but in retrospect, I probably concurred too easily with Cherry’s position that Hardy Astrom, who was acquired from the New York Rangers and making decent money, was the worst NHL goalie of all time. That team had a lot of problems beyond its own crease.

 

A handful of others in the league who played twenty or more games that season had worse goals-against averages than his 3.75, and there were even a couple who played more than half their teams’ games—Hartford’s John Garrett and Los Angeles’s Mario Lessard. Regardless, Cherry held his nose long enough to use Astrom in 49 games, while also trying Bill McKenzie, Michel Plasse, and Bill Oleschuk in the net.

 

It came to a head in February, when the Rockies had to settle for a 4–4 tie at Hartford when Plasse had only 17 saves.

 

Cherry had let loose many times, but he got into high gear that night. “Our goaltending was horse—-,” he said, standing a few feet from the trailer where I had done a between-periods interview with a fledgling Connecticut-based cable operation called ESPN. “Let’s face it. Come on. Let’s be honest. We’re not going to go anywhere until we get a goalie. I’ve tried everyone except the guy who works in the confectionary store.”  

 

Jared Bednar's code word for substandard goaltending is "OK." As in, "He was OK." He hasn't tried to insult anyone by letting the goalies off the hook, but he hadn't let loose, a la Cherry, either.


It's that simple. If the Avalanche doesn't big-time goaltending, from someone, down the stretch, this season will be both regression and a huge disappointment, wasting the magical work of the top line. 

 

 

       

January 20, 2019

Can Kroenke

Sports Empire

Stay on a Roll? 

Court.jpg

After the Avalanche routed the Los Angeles Kings Saturday, workers put the finishing tuuches on installing the floor for what turned out to be the Nuggets' romp over the Cleveland Cavaliers.

 

The Los Angeles Rams are going to the Super Bowl. And they're just part of the Stan Kroenke sports empire that also includes the Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche, Colorado Rapids, Colorado Mammoth, and Arsenal FC.

 

Could this just be the start? 

 

An audacious thought, I know, but the Kroenke portfolio mostly was struggling mightily on the field, court, ice and pitch not all that long ago and this already represents a turnaround.

 

So...

 

The Sean McVay-coached Rams obviously have a bona fide chance of giving Kroenke an opportunity to accept the Vince Lombardi Trophy -- which is no Stanley Cup -- after Super Bowl LII in Atlanta in two weeks.  

 

Can that be just the start of a big year for the Kroenke empire?

 

The question, of course, is what would qualify.   

 

I'd say on this side of the pond, it would be the Nuggets and the Avalanche both at least reaching their Western Conference finals, the Rapids returning to respectabiity in Major League soccer after a dreadful 2018, and indoor lacrosse's Mammoth recovering from a slow start to make the National Lacrosse League playoffs.   

 

And on the other side of the Atlantic, it would mean Arsenal -- currently embroiled in controversy and mediocrity at best on the pitch in the English Premier League -- at least do well enough to convince the rabid and critical soccer fandom that the Kroenke ownership isn't incompetent at the real football. Kroenke has been involved in ownership since 2007 and has been sole owner since last August.  

  

The Nuggets, with Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray leading the way, are a half-game behind the Warriors in the Western Conference going into Monday's games are are the top candidates to make a deep playoff run. The problems are that last Tuesday's Warriors rout of the Nuggets in Denver was remindful that Golden State is meandering through the regular season and capable of flipping the switch at any time -- and on any night. A title? If -- and that's a big if  -- the Nuggets get past the Warriors to reach the NBA Finals, they've had problems with Milwaukee, the most likely finalist from the East.

 

The Avalanche has been maddening, mercurial and underachieving and the biggest favor anyone can do for them is to stop making excuses. They aren't playing Hall of Fame goalies every night, their puck luck isn't always bad, and any team with three linemates headed to the All-Star Game should be held to a higher standard now that residing on the playoff bubble.

 

But we all know the way this league works. In some ways, I'm convinced the Avalanche has a better chance of making its league finals than does the Nuggets. I'm not saying it will happen. I'm saying it could. That's because there's no Warriors here and if Semyon Varlamov stands on his head from the second he arrives at the rink to the time he leaves, the whole dynamic changes. Plus, this now is a talented -- talented, not deep -- enough team to pull it off in a wide-open league. 


Beyond the Nuggets and Avs, the Mammoth needs a bunch of sock tricks, the Rapids need to stop collecting ties, and the Rams need to continue to have the guys in stripes let 'em play. 

    

 

January 14, 2019

Here's why Colorado 

nurse was with Supreme

Court in Rotunda 

 

Read it here

 

 

 

January 13, 2019

 

Alex English was both

smooth and breathtaking

 .  

alex3.jpg

 Alex English at the Nuggets' game against Portland Sunday night. 

 

  

On Sunday night, the Nuggets commemorated "Skyline" night by wearing their retro jerseys -- which look like someone put the original skyline jerseys in the washing machine with way too much bleach -- against Portland and honored former smooth-as-silk forward Alex English.

  

I went to say hi and be a part of English's pre-game media availability.

 

The previous time we visited was at the Nuggets' home opener last season, against Sacramento in October 2017. The Nuggets honored a handful of former players that night, including English, David Thompson, Dan Issel, Byron Beck and Dikembe Mutombo.


This time, the spotlight was on English ... alone.

 

Although his number (2) was retired in 1992, when the Nuggets still played in McNichols Sports Arena, and it now hangs in the Pepsi Center, English for many years felt a disconnect with the Nuggets after his trade to Dallas and then during his working career as an assistant coach and scout. He wasn't shunned; it was more apathy. Now, in part thanks to vice president of basketball operations Lisa Johnson, a treasure trove of institutional knowledge, the Nuggets have done a better job of re-embracing their past.         

 

"I feel much better," English said. "If you look at most teams that are successful, they're successful because they have a history that is part of their success. You look at the Lakers, you always see Kareem and Magic and Kobe talk about that being their team. And the Celtics as well. So I think history is vey important. I can compliment them on reaching out to all of their former players and bringing them back and making them feel like they are a part of what they have been, what they've built." 

   

He said of his reacton when he returns: "Of course, it's a different arena. But it's always great to come back, especially now that they're doing so well, and to see the fans come out to support them ... I have fond memories of being here in Denver and playing for Doug Moe and playing for the teammates I had. I had a wonderful time."

 

I joked with him about having fond memories of the irascible Moe, whose verbal prodding made English a better player -- and whose passing-game, relentless-movement offense made English a star.


"To you guys, he was probably like a big mean, ol' bad boy," English said. "But he was a big baby. You get him off the court, get him out of the environment, he's just a big baby."   

 

After the hockey Rockies moved to New Jersey in 1982, I was switched to the Nuggets beat.

 

Alex was aready there.

 

Because of the convivial atmosphere in McNichols Sports Arena in those days, with media wandering through both offices, I didn't feel as if I was starting from scratch, and I knew a lot of folks in the Nuggets' organization. Moe already was calling me "Dip----," as he did with everyone he liked (or, in some cases didn't like).

 

One of my first assignments on the beat was to cover the then-troubled Thompson's trade to Seattle, and all the dramatic subplots surrounding it. (He never got to wear the skyline jersey.)

 

Thompson's departure nudged English a bit more to the Nuggets' forefront, and that was the silver lining.

 

English was the sneakiest, sleekest, smoothest big-time scorer in NBA history, always moving in the passing game. He was not made for SportsCenter highlights; what he did was maneuver, glide, float ... and score. His nickname -- "Pink Panther" -- was apt.

 

At the end of the night, if you weren't tracking it, you'd go: "He had how many points?" And they all counted.

 

He was a great player who didn't get enough credit because of his low-key personality and a game that took paying attention to, to truly appreciate. The Nuggets were his third stop, after Milwaukee and Indiana, and we hadn't seen this coming.

 

Among the English highlights the Nuggets show of English when they honor him is one that believe sums him up. It was a gliding shot over and past a challenging Maurice Lucas, then with Phoenix. It was nothing flashy, but he simply got the shot with one of the most physical players in the league with his arms up and within, oh, 18 centimeters.

 

That's how Alex scored. averaging 25.9 points in 11 seasons with the Nuggets. He scored in traffic or without flashiness leaned almost imperceptively just far enough to get the shot off -- and in.

 

I asked him how his game would fit in today's league.

 

"Well, you know I'm not a three-point shooter," he said. "I still would be a mid-range game player. There's some room for mid-range. I worked with DeMar DeRozen in Toronto. He's a mid-range player that I love to see play. That's missing in the game today. But it's exciting to see guys come down and if they know how to shoot threes, to make threes. It's exciting to see that. Different style, though. For a minute there everybody was talking about defense and trying to play like the Pistons. And as we evolved and as the Golden State Warriors started playing like the Denver Nuggets of old, everybody said, 'That's how we need to be playing.' Everybody's kind of migrated back to the old ways with the addition of the threes." 

  

He was asked what he thought when seeing James Harden launch 15 three-pointers in a game.

 

"It drives me crazy," he said. "Even though I scored a lot of points, and I shot the ball a lot, I was a team player. I liked getting my teammates involved and letting them be a part of the game as well."

   

But that was the beauty of the passing game, with its constant moving -- of both bodies and ball. By definition and design, everyone was involved, regardless of who scored. Including guard T.R. Dunn, who rarely kept the ball for more than four-tenths of a second.


"I wish I was still coaching," English said. "It's an unstoppable offense. Even if you wanted threes, you still could get threes. But nobody has adapted, or tried to adapt Doug Moe's offense. It was so successful, as you know ... And contrary to what people say about us playing defense, if you look at the teams that forced the most turnovers, blocked the most shots, we were always there. We had three, or four, actually, of the toughest defenders that have played the game in T.R. Dunn, Bill Hanzlik, Elston Turner, and Wayne Cooper's got to be there for shot blocking."   

   

English has been watching this Nuggets team with great interest from afar.

  

"They've got a good vibe going," he said. "They're winning. It helps when the fans come out and support you. And they've got a good coach. Mike Malone's a very good coach. He's done a very good job of bringing them together ... I personally feel they'll be in the Western Conference Finals, if they continue to play like this. They're such a balanced team. Even though (Nikola) Jokic and (Jamal) Murray get a lot of credit, when I watch them I see a lot of different pieces that contribute. I'm glad to see Will Barton back. I feel like he's a major part of their success and once he gets back and gets acclimated to playing, he's going to be a big contributor. And you all haven't had Isaiah Thomas yet. I coached Isaiah Thomas in Sacramento. I think he's going to be a bg plus for this team because he can score. Tough little guy."

   

Sandy Clough of "The Fan" asked him about Jokic, who a little later would have 40 points, 10 rebounds and 8 assists against the Blazers. 

  

"He sees the floor so well, he scores, he shoots threes," English said. "The only other player in the league right now that I feel is comparable to him is DeMarcus Cousins, who I coached in Sacramento. He's got a lot of the same skills and maybe Anthony Davis."  

 

Now, about those skyline jerseys. I've told this story before, but it's appropriate. The Nuggets unveiled the original version at a news conference after holding a fan contest to design them. At the news conference, they said they had brought in a special model, and then Kiki Vandeweghe came out in the new jersey. And we were told that after lengthy negotiations, he had just agreed to a new, long-term contract. They had managed to keep that quiet, and it was a big deal.

 

Shortly thereafter, the winning designer visited me at the newspaper office.


He was mad that the Nuggets hadn't exactly followed his design.   

 

 

 

January 2, 2019

From Flying "The Hump"

to founding turf farm,

Johnson led epic life 

 

Read it here