McNichols on Ice

What the puck. When it was over, Sylvain Lefebvre could finally replace his lucky shoelaces. The TV producers up in the booth could take a break from the special chocolate-cake ritual they've been into for a month. Sandis Ozolinsh could get through a pre-game meditation without twelve or fourteen teammates stopping by to rub his lucky head. Patrick Roy could think about being a mere fortress again, instead of a god with 400 career wins under his pads.

The Colorado Avalanche's amazing twelve-game winning streak, including four straight on the road, slipped and fell on home ice last week against the lowly Calgary Flames, and it's probably a good thing. As the fellows who work in the next building could tell the Avs, winning, say, thirteen games in a row can be a huge psychological burden. Once it's lifted, you can put yourself back in gear and take care of business. Or try to: Since returning home in triumph, the Avs have lost to the Flames, gone down 4-1 to the Phoenix Coyotes and scratched out a 4-4 tie against Philadelphia.

Not to worry. Colorado's 1996 Stanley Cup champions are clearly back on their game, authentic contenders once more, a team no one wants to face come the playoffs. That awful start, during which they chalked up just one win in their first seven games and brought the obituary writers out in droves, is a dim memory now that they have vaulted to the top of their division with a 29-21-5 record. Even spiky general manager Pierre Lacroix, once thought to be the destroyer of a potential dynasty, is suddenly walking the halls of McNichols Sports Arena with a smile on his face and a halo around his head.

And that guy in the grimy overalls, sweeping up the spilled stardust in Lacroix's wake? Nobody knows his name. But he's probably a forward for the Denver Nuggets.

Let us count the ways that Charlie Lyons's two playthings continue to grow apart:

One: In early February, the Colorado Avalanche went to Boston, Buffalo, Detroit and Dallas and won all four games by a combined score of 14-6; in early February, the Denver Nuggets presumably introduced themselves to each other at a team mixer and promptly lost the first four games of the season by an average of twelve points. For the third time in the last four years, the club started 0-3.

Two: A glance at NHL statistics shows that Avalanche stars Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic rank fifth and ninth, respectively, in league scoring and that well-chosen rookies Chris Drury and Milan Hejduk rank second and sixth among their young NHL classmates; a glance at the NBA statistics shows that, previous to their win over the Dallas Mavericks, the Nuggets had held a lead for exactly 34 seconds in this truncated season and had so far surrendered a league-high 107 points per game. After Saturday night's 105-92 road loss to the SuperSonics, the Nugs had to look themselves in the mirror and realize they'd won just one of their last 21 regular-season games in Seattle.

Three: The Avs play on ice; the Nuggets still stink on ice. After blowing a 19-point lead to Phoenix Monday night, the local hoopsters were a sorry 1-6, with no relief in sight. Just five players from last year's gruesome 11-71 team remain on the roster, but the 1999 squad--"led" by homeboy Chauncey Billups, reluctant point guard Nick Van Exel and prodigal son Antonio McDyess--haven't exactly been burning the arenas down. It's unlikely that any future collection of Nuggets could be as godawful as the bumblers GM Allan Bristow and coach Bill Hanzlik threw together last season, but the new guys aren't about to slip into the playoff picture anytime soon.

New general manager Dan Issel may be a local legend and the hardest-working man in basketball, but lifting his troops out of the doldrums will be like trying to wake up a graveyard: This franchise is so used to losing that it's benumbed. When, for example, the Nugs fell at home February 10 to the Los Angeles Lakers, it was their ninth straight loss to Shaquille O'Neal and company, dating back almost three years.

"I don't know what I'm doing here," fan Jeffrey Wilder said as the Lakers game slipped away at the end of the first half. "This is where we all came in, isn't it? Between last year's team and the lockout, these guys have an awful lot to prove. At least to me. But it's my own fault for being here. I could be home baking cookies or something."

Rookie Nuggets coach Mike D'Antoni could be in Milan sauteeing veal cutlets. Before coming to Denver, Issel's choice as head coach won five championships in the Italian Professional Basketball League and was twice named coach of the year. But there are no Karl Malones or Scottie Pippins playing in the Italian league, and in the Italian league, slender 6-11 rookie centers from Kansas have a chance of prevailing in the paint. In the NBA they probably don't, and the burden first-round draft pick Raef LaFrentz bears this winter and spring will be huge. For the Nuggets' rookie coach and their rookie center, fifty ballgames could be an eternity.

That's not all, of course. Ex-Laker Van Exel, a five-year NBA veteran playing among children, waited exactly five minutes after the first loss (Minnesota 110, Denver 92) before he started pointing fingers at teammates, naming names and demanding the ball. Whether he becomes an inspiration or a pain in the ass as the losses mount remains to be seen. But keep the children out of earshot.

As if the start of the shortened season weren't gloomy enough, the Nuggets head to Portland this week (where they are 9-40 all-time) and Utah (where they are 12-45), and in early March, they trek off to Indiana, Miami, Boston and Houston, where the season's doom may lie.

It's still hard to believe that the Nuggets share a lame-duck arena, and the Ascent Entertainment Group logo, with such a good hockey team. And that the Avs' coach, too, is a rookie. When Bob Hartley came to Denver from the team's top farm club in Hershey, Pennsylvania, and got off to a shaky start, doomsayers charged that Lacroix had made a grave error in forcing out Stanley Cup winner Marc Crawford.

But Hartley and Lacroix have produced. In the course of the Avs' twelve-game streak, no fewer than fifteen Avs scored a goal. In the last ten games of The Streak, goaltender Roy gave up just 1.64 goals per game and had three shutouts. Sakic scored ten goals, Forsberg had four goals and twelve assists. Scott Parker, a 6-4, 235-pound winger who was recalled from Hershey November 28, let opponents know that law enforcement had returned to the Mile High City. Maybe he should play center for the Nuggets.

And once defenseman Ozolinsh was finally signed to a new contract January 5, the team remained unbeaten for more than a month.

"I don't believe in luck," the big Latvian protested. But his teammates apparently do. They mauled Ozolinsh so mercilessly for luck in the locker room that he relented, acknowledging that he was the charm. Along with countless pairs of unwashed socks, several unshaven faces and Lefebvre's threadbare shoelaces, which he wouldn't have changed for all the ice in Quebec. Now he's got a new pair in his skates, and he hopes to wear them out, too, in the course of the next streak.

So. What night are you bound for Big Mac? Doesn't matter, except that you should be looking for ice, not hardwood.

When sportswriter Todd Phipers died last week after a long bout with cancer, his many friends began recalling his generosity, his devotion to craft and his love of golf--a love the golf course rarely returned in kind. They talked about the longtime Denver Post sportwriter's timely wit, his bottomless loyalty, and the way he could enlighten a dark saloon with a few well-chosen words. They talked about his son Gus, killed at age ten in a mountain cabin fire, and his son Nick, a young man who's grown up to be as fine and sturdy as his father.

Here's another Todd Phipers story. Post colleagues at the time, we were in Houston together to cover a Saturday-night football game at the Astrodome. Next morning we left at dawn for the airport, boarded our flight home and napped, on and off, most of the way back to Denver. But just as we were about to touch down at Stapleton Airport, we were jolted awake by a sudden lurch and a scream of engine noise. Face plastered to a side window, I could suddenly see, in startling closeup, the upturned, gape-jawed faces of patrons in the airport coffee shop.

Todd and I looked at each other in wide-eyed alarm as we slid past this vision of breakfast disturbed.

Somehow, the pilot righted the jet, circled round, landed normally and parked at the gate. Shaken, we gathered ourselves and our luggage and walked up the aisle just as the crew emerged from the flight deck. Neither the wit nor the darkness in Todd could be denied. "Next time," he calmly said to the captain, "how about a discount if we bring on our own dental records?

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