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Thursday, February 22
Colorado makes royal proclamation with trade

By Terry Frei
Special to

On the surface, the Colorado Avalanche's trade for Rob Blake seems part of a familiar pattern. Theo Fleury, 1999. Ray Bourque, 2000. Rob Blake, 2001.

Same song, third verse?


But in terms of tying the Avalanche's magnitude of risk to the musical analogy, it's as if two solo singers quietly took turns on the first two verses (Fleury and Bourque), and then the Edwin Hawkins Singers and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir jumped in for the crescendo of a third (Blake) verse that threatens to blow the roof off the concert hall and raises hair on end.

The Blake trade is exponentially more risky than either the Fleury or Bourque transactions the past two years.

General manager Pierre Lacroix knows that – more than any of us.

That's why he deserves credit for being willing to take the leap.

The trade – Blake and rookie center Steve Reinprecht for winger Adam Deadmarsh, defenseman Aaron Miller, a first-round 2001 draft choice, a prospect to be named later and a conditional draft choice – leaves Colorado with three elite defensemen. Bourque and Blake were partners on the 1998 Canadian Olympic team, and they immediately will be paired with the Avs. A power play with Bourque and Blake on the points, plus the talent up front, is scary. Yet when Adam Foote, one of the league's underrated players and an in-your-face force, returns from a shoulder injury in about two weeks, the pleasant problem for Colorado coach Bob Hartley will be where to plug him back in. Most likely, the three marquee defensemen can be rotated in the top pairing, especially because it can keep the 40-year-old Bourque's minutes from getting into diminishing-returns territory.

But the deal represents a tinkering with team chemistry that could blow up in the Avs' faces. Deadmarsh and Miller, the outspoken team man who climbed up through the organizational ranks and overachieved after leaving the University of Vermont, were popular among their teammates. Deadmarsh and Peter Forsberg were close friends, going far beyond what we usually see in pro sports. Deadmarsh's wife recently gave birth to twin girls after a difficult and highly risky pregnancy that understandably affected Deadmarsh's mental state, and his teammates weren't oblivious.

The Avs like to talk about their family atmosphere, and the truth is that it isn't hot air. It is one of the classier organizations in pro sports. But this is a reminder that the business of sports is winning, and it can overwhelm all personal considerations.

A Cup run can be about kismet and intangibles as much as talent in pivotal moments, and adding Blake – at the immediate cost of two popular players – is perilous in that sense.

Beyond that, the cost could turn out to be staggering if Blake is only a Hertz defenseman, akin to turning in the rental car after a day, having the counter agent hand you the receipt for a $22,256 charge, and responding to your consternation with, "Hey, you initialed the rate!"

Know why it's obvious this deal was by far the best offer the Kings had on the table? Not only does it send Blake to a Western Conference rival for at least the rest of the season, but Kings owner Phil Anschutz lives in Denver. He felt betrayed by the original Avalanche ownership when the franchise was moved from Quebec, because he was frozen out of a share of the team that he thought he had been offered. Ownership since has changed, but the feeling is that if there had been two comparable offers for Blake out there, the Avalanche would have lost out.

(And by the way, though Blake virtually scoffed at the Kings' $40-million, five-year offer because it wasn't "Pronger money," Coloradans can attest to the unfairness of the the loose chat about Anschutz not being willing to spend the "necessary" money. The unwillingness to soothe Blake's ego might have been counterproductive both financially and artistically in the long run for the Kings and is a debatable issue, but the Anschutz Centers for Advanced Medicine recently opened at the University of Colorado Hospital in suburban Denver. Why the name? The Anschutz Foundation donated $25 million to the project. Yes, that Anschutz is quite a cheapskate.)

The Avs like to talk about their family atmosphere, and the truth is that it isn't hot air. It is one of the classier organizations in pro sports. But this is a reminder that the business of sports is winning, and it can overwhelm all personal considerations.
On the Avalanche front, the trade underscores several things about the organization. The foremost: Colorado, with Lacroix at the forefront, is willing not only to accept others raising the bar of expectations and standards of success to Cup-or-failure levels, it operates as if any other approach is a dereliction of professional responsibility and an intolerable lack of ambition.

"The way this season will end is probably the way it's going to dictate how we're going to manage our contract situation, with not only Rob Blake, but with Joe Sakic, Patrick (Roy) and Ray Bourque," Lacroix said at the late Wednesday night news conference after the trade was announced.

In other words: It's the Cup – or bust.

Bust up the core.

Even before this, some of the talk about the Avalanche's short-term ambition in the pre-deadline periods has been woefully off-base because it overlooks the crucial ancillary realities. Colorado has been able to make the deals so tied to immediate Cup ambitions because, more than anyone else in the league, it can afford to.

And that doesn't mean money. It means organizational resources.

To rent Fleury in 1999, Colorado gave up defenseman Robyn Regehr; utility forward Rene Corbet, now with the Penguins, and washout defenseman Wade Belak, now with Toronto. Realistically, Colorado would have had a hard time working in the two young defensemen, Regehr and Martin Skoula, at the same time, and the deal has to be measured as Regehr for Fleury.

The Avs took a shot. It didn't work. It will look worse if Regehr overcomes his injury problems and develops into an elite defenseman, which is entirely possible, and Skoula's second year is more indicative of his potential than his standout rookie season. But none of that retroactively makes the deal stupid.

The Bourque trade? It turned out that the "key" player in the deal with the Bruins, Sami Pahlsson, was (suspiciously) overhyped. The Bruins already have passed him along to the Mighty Ducks. Brian Rolston remains his mercurial self.

So it's ludicrous to talk about the Avs as if they mortgaged their future with the deals for Fleury and Bourque.

A team with Milan Hejduk, Chris Drury, Alex Tanguay and even Skoula has dealt away its future? The prospect to be named later likely will be one of their top 2000 draft choices, Czech center Vaclav Nedorost or Kamloops center Jared Aulin.

An organization with Sakic and Forsberg, plus natural centers Drury and Tanguay on the wings to move into the middle if Sakic leaves, can afford to trade Nedorost or Aulin – or both.

But Blake's contract situation, while similar to Fleury's and Bourque's at the time of the earlier trades, has to be considered as part of a different overall picture this time around. When Fleury and Bourque came to Colorado, they were determined to test free agency; and in Bourque's case, he was disappointed and seemed determined to end up with a quality team in the east. He was won over, and he re-signed. Fleury wanted to stay; the Avs, disillusioned with his playoff performance and with off-ice issues, allowed him to leave without making a serious offer.

Now, with Sakic – who is having an MVP season – and Roy on the verge of unrestricted free agency, the Avs' situation is different than in the past two years. In 1999 and 2000, the Avs could shrug and say they'd worry about those potential free agents down the road, but that in the short term, everybody was heeding the "all-for-one, one-for-all" philosophy espoused by renowned hockey strategist Alexandre Dumas.

This time, with two of their longtime stars on the verge of free agency, adding a third star in the same position, even as a rental, could increase the potential volatility in the postseason. And if the Avs try to convince Blake to be more than a rental defenseman, it affects the payroll picture for the others. The Avs' best-case scenario is that Blake wins over his teammates; the team and the market win over Blake; Colorado wins the Stanley Cup, triggering the satisfied Bourque's retirement; and Blake re-signs with Colorado. Roy wants to stay. Sakic does, too, all things being equal. The financial challenges would be myriad for Lacroix and owner Stan Kroenke, but the hangover of a post-Cup celebration would increase the chances of everyone getting together on new deals.

But even the Avs are saying: If they don't win the championship, the season was a waste.

Terry Frei of The Denver Post is a regular contributor to His feedback email address is

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