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Look Out!

Make the odds eight to five that the only decent team playing at the Pepsi Center next season will be armed with those funny sticks with the nets on the end.

In its first season, the Colorado Mammoth proved to be a tough-as-nails contender in the indoor lacrosse wars, and there's every reason to believe Gary Gait and company will kick it up again next year. For the building's other occupants, there are a couple of problems. The hopeless Denver Nuggets haven't had a sniff of post-season play since it snowed on Mount Mutombo, and no high school kid from Ohio -- should he be unfortunate enough to wind up in Nuggets colors -- is about to reverse their sorry fortunes. Meanwhile, rookie owner and CEO John Elway's new, and exceptionally incompetent, arena football team stands at 2-12. The Colorado Crush hasn't even won at home yet, so you probably won't hear much cheering next year for that bunch, either.

That leaves Denver with the one pro team it's been able to count on -- not just for a respectable showing, but for a championship run. The Rockies may crumble and the Broncos may bumble, but local sports fans have for nearly a decade been able to point at the Colorado Avalanche bench, puff out their chests and crow: "See those guys? They have a shot at the Stanley Cup every year."

But now comes the first real crisis of faith for a franchise that won the division championship in each of its eight seasons here, played in six Western Conference finals and took home the Cup in 1996 and 2001. As if by magic, the former Quebec Nordiques brought instant NHL glory to Denver in 1995. Only now has the spell worn off. The immediate cause of disillusionment is something called the Minnesota Wild, a 6-1 series underdog that sent the Avalanche to its doom in the first round of this year's NHL playoffs.

The Avs looked listless while blowing a three-games-to-one lead, and many who follow the game closely say the Avs' rookie coach, Tony Granato, on the job only a few months, was outsmarted on a grand scale by the Wild's Jacques Lemaire. Some also believe it was a major mistake for the Avs to have traded playoff-tough center Chris Drury before the post-season.

That's only the beginning of the worried speculation. As any puckhead can tell you, the Avs' amazing dynasty may be coming to an end because one of the greatest goaltenders in the history of the league has reached his twilight, and because a brilliant player still in his prime is thinking about taking his stick and going home. If Larry Walker and Todd Helton were to suddenly defect from the Rox, it would be no more serious than what may happen on the Pepsi Center ice next year in the absence of Patrick Roy and Peter Forsberg. When Elway and Shannon Sharpe both vanished from the Broncos roster in the wake of a second Super Bowl win, it dealt their team no more stunning a blow than the probable losses of Saint Patrick and Peter the Great will mean to theirs.

Get ready for a tumble, Avalanche fans. After partying hard for eight years, it may soon be hangover time.

To say that Roy has been the heart and soul of the Avs since playing his first game for the team on December 7, 1995, is to understate the case. He holds the NHL records for regular-season and playoff wins, owns four Stanley Cup rings and has put a total of ten Conn Smythe, Vezina and William Jennings trophies behind glass. In nineteen seasons, he's played in ten All-Star games, and his playoff record is peerless. He leads, all-time, in games, minutes and shutouts. Little wonder that Robert Picarello, lead columnist for the NHL's Web site, picked Roy as the goalie on his six-player, best-of-all-time team. Roy's teammates in this fantasy endeavor? Wayne Gretzky at center, Doug Harvey and Bobby Orr on defense, Bobby Hull and Gordie Howe on the wings.

For eight years in Denver, Roy stopped more rubber than the wall at the Indy 500, leading the Avs to an NHL-record sixteen playoff-series wins. But he will turn 38 on October 5, and the wear and tear -- especially on his painfully injured hips -- has become ever more evident. Last season, Roy was humiliated in a 7-0 drubbing by the hated Detroit Red Wings in game seven of the Western Conference playoff, and this year's early exit at the hands of the Wild may have been the final blow. Roy's Littleton home is for sale, and his former Montreal Canadiens coach, Jacques Demers, a close friend, says the goalie will not return next season.  

Meanwhile, Avalanche management seems oddly unprepared for the inevitable: Second-string goalie David Aebischer and minor-league prospect Phil Sauve (who happens to be the son of Roy's agent) are the only bullets in the gun, and if Roy does retire, the team will likely have to hire a free agent to stop the gap.

L'Affaire Roy stirs up uncertainty in the bloodied Avalanche psyche, but an even scarier notion has arisen: Eligible to become a restricted free agent on July 1, Forsberg may return to Sweden to play for MoDo of the Swedish Elite League. Not only is the team located in his home town of Örnsköldsvik, but it's coached by Forsberg's father, Kent. If anything, his loss would be even more detrimental than Roy's. One of the best playmakers in the game, he led the NHL in scoring this year with 106 points, and he is again a finalist for the league's Pearson Award -- given by players' ballot to the outstanding player of the year.

The 29-year-old star's agent says his decision to stay in Denver or go home will not come until the World Hockey Championships, now under way in Finland, which will conclude on May 11. But there's already a hint in the wind. If the Avs lose their goalie to age and infirmity, they may lose their playmaker to homesickness and a finely tuned sense of aesthetics: After playing for eight years in the bruising NHL and losing the entire 2001-02 season to a gruesome injury that cost him his spleen, Forsberg has increasingly complained about what he sees as the crude, smashmouth brand of hockey played in North America.

Clearly, Roy and Forsberg have also considered the very real possibility of a labor impasse between NHL players and team owners come 2004-05 -- the kind of crisis that brought baseball low nine years ago.

Whatever happens with the two stars, some hard-core Avs fans are already talking about their team in the past tense, asking pointed questions about how history will regard the supremely talented lineups of the last eight years.

Was this group -- truth be told -- capable of one, maybe even two more Stanley Cup wins? Given their talent, did these Avs actually underachieve? What now for Joe Sakic, Milan Hejduk and a coterie of younger players who have not lived up to their early promise? And maybe the toughest question of all: In the end, doesn't every avalanche wind up at the bottom of the mountain?

While we ponder, there's always lacrosse.


The eminent sports columnist Jim Murray once wrote that a racetrack crowd "comprises the greatest floating fund of misinformation this side of Pravda, the last virgin stand of optimism in our century."

That certainly applied to the 148,530 bourbon-soaked gentry, low-thinking wiseguys and slender women in picture hats who gathered Saturday afternoon at Churchill Downs. For the 23rd time in the 25 years since Triple Crown winner Affirmed won the Derby (as the second choice), the betting favorite failed to win the big race. Empire Maker may yet have the makings of a champion, but he and jockey Jerry Bailey simply got hot and sweaty while running a desperate second.

Meanwhile, the winner of the roses confirmed Jim Murray's suspicions in spades. To start with, 12-1 long shot Funnycide is a New York-bred, and no New York-bred has ever won the Derby. Horses from Kentucky win the Derby, sometimes a horse from California. Not only that, but the winner landed in Lousville just hours before the race, having never set a hoof on Churchill's storied surface. The last Derby winner not to race or work under the Twin Spires was Bold Forbes, in 1976.

Most shocking of all -- at least to the thousands of reeling Kentucky colonels in the stands -- Funnycide is a gelding, which means that he has been relieved of his male parts. No similarly under-equipped three-year-old has won the Derby since 1929, the year of the big stock crash.

None of this mattered to Funnycide (who ran a close second to Empire Maker in the Wood Memorial), or to the admirable, hard-riding Chilean jockey Jose Santos, who won his first Derby after six unsuccessful tries.

The principals at Sackatoba Stable, which owns Funnycide, may now go hunting for their charge's discarded testicles -- and a staple gun. But they might do better to keep their horse on the track for a few years, where everyone can get to know him better. The breeding shed is one thing, a rare star who sticks around quite another. The greatest geldings in history -- Kelso, Forego and John Henry -- raced until they were ten or eleven years old, and the game was better for it.


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