Colorado's in Its Cups

Wonder if Timothy McVeigh has one of those $240 Colorado Avalanche jerseys yet? Everyone else within fifty miles of McNichols Arena now wears one, and to hear people talk, they've all been dedicated hockey fans since the Eskimos made the first ice cube and Gordie Howe was in diapers. In the last month or so, otherwise well-balanced Homo sapiens Coloradiens have taken to saying "eh," cross-checking their visiting mothers-in-law into the kitchen sink and talking about "The Cup" in the same knowing tones as the hardware-store owner in Moose Jaw or the lord mayor of Saskatoon.

Over at Coors Field, Rockies outfielder Larry Walker has been so absorbed with the NHL playoffs that his teammates can barely pry him loose from the clubhouse TV in time for the national anthem out on the diamond. Of course, Larry has a better excuse than most: He was born in Maple Ridge, British Columbia, grew up as a hard-nosed goaltender. These nights, Babe Ruth's sleepy old game must feel like a real drag to him--despite flirting with a major-league record last week with six consecutive extra-base hits.

It could be worse: Larry could be a Detroit Dead Thing.
Unless the puck gods suddenly change their minds, the Avs are going to the Stanley Cup final. And if there's anybody more shocked than local throngs of instant hockey fans, many of whom didn't know a slap shot from a crap shoot last year at this time, it must be the Detroit Red Wings. They have struggled against the Avalanche, and no one who follows this kind of thing knows why--except that the Things ran into a superior club. In the regular season, the Motowners beat the Avs three games to one--just about the same ratio they laid on the rest of the league. Go figure.

You can say that the best team in the NHL this year (62 wins) blew its wad in a long, hard series with the St. Louis Blues. You can say that they had the heart taken out of them when team captain Steve Yzerman went down before game two of the Avalanche series with a groin injury. You can say that the guys from Detroit are snakebit: As favorites to win the Cup last year, they were swept in four games by the New Jersey Devils after an enervating conference final against Chicago. In fact, they haven't won the Cup since 1955--the same year most Denverites started sharpening up their skates and dreaming of Lord Stanley.

Or something like that. Something...
Isn't this weird?!
Those who remain of the 18,372 AFL fans who were sitting in the bleachers at Bears Stadium on October 2, 1960, when Frank Filchock's Denver Broncos beat the Oakland Raiders 31-14 in the first-ever Denver home game, are still waiting for their club to win a world championship. Zero for four in the Super Bowl has a solemn ring to it, and John Elway is beginning to get that goodbye look. Does anyone even remember the grace of the Morton-to-Moses connection? Who can still see bow-legged Floyd Little standing out there in his red shirt?

Hoop folk who haunted the dusty halls of the Auditorium Arena in, say, 1970 to beg the autographs of Denver Rockets Byron Beck, Julius Keye or Marvin Webster--"The Human Eraser"--are still waiting in vain for basketball glory to come to the Mile High City. That first-round miracle the Nuggets pulled off two years ago against Seattle (Dikembe on the floor! Hugging the ball!) now seems as remote and jokey as Nebraska. By the latest estimate, your Nuggs are firmly planted back in lottery country.

Colorado Rockies fans with three entire seasons under their belts savor 1995, but they have also come to understand how hard it will be for this team to get to a World Series, much less win one. For one thing, the club will need a couple of pitchers who can keep their ERAs smaller than their hat sizes. For another, they'll need someone to poison the Atlanta Braves at the hotel buffet in Pittsburgh.

So. Isn't this weird?!
Nine months after moving here--from another country, for crying out loud--the Colorado Avalanche stands on the verge of accomplishing what no other major-league sports franchise--the Denver Racquets of Team Tennis don't count, do they?--has ever done in this city.

Win it all.
It's a well-worn astonishment by now--this looming possibility--but who can absorb the ironies? Can you? In light of what may happen between now and the end of June, the Puritan schoolmaster inside many of us tugs at the conscience and harshly whispers: "You did nothing to earn this. You didn't suffer, and you never had your heart broken late in the third period of a crucial seventh game of anything. You are unworthy recipients, sir and madame. Get thee to thy knees."

In another, even glummer region of the soul, the dark existentialist starts poking around. "See this, you corny halfwit? You spend your entire life hoping for the best--for your family, for Biff, for B. Bickerstaff--and what happens? Fate dumps glory in your lap when you least expect it and, what's more, when you may not even be ready for it. Care for a lesson, fool? Simple. God is dead. The world is absurd. And you don't have anything to say about it. Pal."

Meanwhile, the fan inside most of us is as bewildered as he/she is delighted. Just about the time we skiers and snowboarders and long-suffering Donkeyphiles figured out the difference between high-sticking and coq au vin, this miracle was thrust upon us--some of the most enthusiastic pro-sports fans this side of the South American soccer riots. Like devotees of the Buffalo Bills, with whom no one here cares to bond, we have learned to swallow failure on Sunday afternoon in late January. Like the glum connoisseurs of near-miss in Cleveland or San Antonio, we have come to understand why the layup drifts off the rim and the star point guard loses his mind. We have some considerable ground to cover, diamond-wise, to equal the agonies of Cubdom or the tears that wash Landsdowne Street. But a hardening of the fan arteries and a narrowing of the collective vision is bound to set in when we Coloradans figure out just how easy it is, for some, to miss a skinny stick of wood with a hunk of horsehide.

So. Isn't this weird?! After sixteen seasons in eastern Canada, one of the best teams in big-league hockey drops into our collective brain waves and immediately puts a kink into them. Is this real? Have we had time to launder those high-priced jerseys even once? Do we have a story about striving and redemption to tell our grandchildren? Are we ready for ready-made glory?

You figure it out, because I can't. In the meantime, Bonsoir, Quebec. For your sake (and ours), this American is hoping that everything doesn't happen at once or too soon. Most of us here are willing to wait for a while...until game seven of the finals, anyway.

Those dueling 500-mile Indy-car races last Sunday produced results more bizarre than even any regular STP-drinker could have imagined.

At chill, cloudy Indianapolis, the assorted rookies and farm-teamers of Tony George's new Indy Racing League were still smarting from the death of pole-sitter Scott Brayton in a practice session last week and showed admirable caution most of the day. A lot of the IRL's used cars broke down, and there was a horrendous three-racer smash-up on the final lap. But the winner was a guy to cheer: Vail's own Buddy Lazier, who just two months ago suffered sixteen fractures in his back in a Phoenix crash. Strapped into a custom-designed support seat to lessen his pain, he survived ten yellow caution flags and flashed into the lead in the final laps.

A tainted victory? Perhaps, but probably not when you've got 25 bone fragments floating around in your back. Buddy Lazier looked great in the winner's circle with his garland of flowers and his bottle of milk.

Up in Brooklyn, Michigan, meanwhile, the vastly more experienced and better-known competitors in the first-ever, anti-Indy U.S. 500 managed to wreck twelve cars in a scary mass shunt before the green flag ever fell. The hapless perpetrator, pole-sitter Jimmy Vasser, abruptly turned right (on cold tires) in front of the field, fomenting sheer chaos behind.

During an embarrassing halt of the proceedings, CART IndyCar officials allowed harried crews to rebuild smashed race cars or to pull back-up cars out of the garage. Then the green finally came out.

Shopping for irony? The aforementioned Mr. Vasser won, driving his No. 2 car. But in the Michigan winner's circle, the man displayed neither modesty nor regret for the trouble he'd caused earlier in the day. Instead, he took time out to sneer at the traditional race down south.

"Who needs milk?" Vasser asked, just before making off with the $1 million winner's check.

May your gas line freeze up, pal.

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