Colorado History

Denver Went Bonkers the First Time the Avs Won the Stanley Cup

The Avs want to lift the Stanley Cup another time.
The Avs want to lift the Stanley Cup another time. YouTube
The Colorado Avalanche is four victories away from nabbing its third Stanley Cup since the team arrived in Denver from Quebec City in the mid-1990s and was transformed from the Nordiques into the Avs. It's been over six years since one of Denver's big four sports teams has won a championship, so anticipation is high. But even so, a 2022 Stanley Cup celebration is unlikely to match the outburst of joy that came when the Avs brought the Mile High City its first major championship.

In its first season in Denver, led by Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg and Patrick Roy, the Avalanche made it to the Stanley Cup finals and went into Game 4 at Miami Arena on June 10, 1996, with a commanding 3-0 lead over the Florida Panthers. With Roy saving 63 shots, the two teams moved into a third overtime with a 0-0 score until German defenseman Uwe Krupp scored the game-winning goal for the Avs, giving Denver its first-ever championship from an NHL, NBA, NFL or MLB team.

"The place went absolutely nuts. ...There was so much pent-up energy and angst about this town and state not having won any major sports championship that people just exploded when the Avs won," recalls David Oliver, who was 25 at the time and watching the game with friends at Jackson's in LoDo. "It was pretty much just people bouncing off the walls, but some jumped onto tables and then started swinging from the exposed beams/pipes. When we got outside, people were congregating in the middle of the streets and climbing light poles. And that's when we decided to just split. I remember the feeling that things were going to get worse."

Oliver had it right: As people poured into the streets of downtown Denver, chaos followed.

"The party took an ugly turn around 1:15 a.m. when police used tear gas, Mace and batons to disperse about 3,000 unruly revelers who set fire to newspapers, climbed lampposts and overturned benches. Police Detective John Wyckoff said 15 arrests were made. Three people were hospitalized with minor injuries," the Associated Press reported at the time. "Hundreds of police in riot helmets broke up thousands of out-of-control fans who threw rocks and bottles through bar and store windows along the 16th Street pedestrian mall and near Larimer Street."

Westword had to move its newspaper racks after drunk Avs fans decided to use the paper as fuel for bonfires.

In a video, British television news network ITV depicted the madness of that night. "Unable to hold back the surging mob, police tried to seal off the downtown area. But there are too many people and not enough cops," the narrator says as the video shows fires and cops in riot gear.
The clip then takes a comically absurd turn, as the narrator notes that "in a flash, the crowd turns violent" — while the video shows a totem pole of people who have climbed a traffic sign pole at 15th and Larimer streets. But then the violence becomes more serious. "Fights break out," the narrator says, before the clip shows a cop in riot gear saying, "It got way out of hand."

Cops ultimately chucked tear gas canisters to disperse crowd members.

Charlie Brennan, then a general assignment reporter for the Rocky Mountain News, went out to report on the celebration. "The thing about that riot is nobody really saw it coming. I certainly didn't anticipate it. I don’t remember any conversations that day that we should expect it," Brennan says.

"What I remember is that suddenly there was this pincer movement going on. The Denver PD had a flank of cops going up from 15th Street and the mall. All the rioters in that area fled, which I should have done. But I wasn’t rioting, so I didn't flee. As the cops closed in coming from both directions, I had in one hand a cell phone and in the other hand a notepad, and I raised both my hands up holding the notepad and the cell phone, and I was yelling, 'Press, press!'" Brennan recalls. A cop then came right up to Brennan and blasted him in the face with pepper spray from ten inches away.

"I was immediately and completely disabled. I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t see," Brennan says. "I still remember that as the most physically uncomfortable I've ever been in my adult life."

Although Denver sports fans had finally seen a victory, they weren't done with post-championship craziness.

After the Broncos won their first Super Bowl in 1998, fans went absolutely berserk in downtown Denver in what was the city's worst sports riot. A year later, the city saw its second-worst sports riot after the Broncos won again.

And in June 2001, when the Avs won a second championship by defeating the Devils — the hockey franchise that left Denver as the Colorado Rockies in the 1980s to move to New Jersey — fans again went wild in the streets. "Sixty-three people were arrested and 50 were taken to detoxification centers. Most face charges of vandalism and disturbing the peace. The crowd was estimated at about 5,000," the AP reported.

Tiffany Caudill was sixteen at the time of that Avs victory. "I was in high school and went downtown with a group of friends. We ended up in the middle of the rioters who surrounded the police and started throwing water bottles. I was pushed from behind, and a cop turned and sprayed me directly in the face," says Caudill, now a candidate for Denver City Council District 2. "My first experience in a bar was me being carried into the bar while strangers poured milk all over my face."
click to enlarge Can the Avs add one more banner to the rafters? - CHRISTA BURNS/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
Can the Avs add one more banner to the rafters?
Christa Burns/Wikimedia Commons
When the Broncos won the franchise's third Super Bowl in 2016, the fans were relatively tame. But will that good behavior hold if the Avs win a third championship?

We'll know soon. And in the meantime, the City of Denver just released its plan to handle any Avs' celebrations. The Denver Office of Emergency Management has already set up an "Emergency Preparedness Action Plan" with other city agencies, the Avalanche, Visit Denver and regional partners "in preparation for a Stanley Cup Win" and "any post-victory celebrations," it reports.

No mention of greasing up those light poles.

Go, Avs!
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.