John Branch once covered the Colorado Avalanche for the Colorado Springs Gazette, so the shots he took last week at the club’s foray into the past were not ill-informed, even if he now works for The New York Times.
Branch looked at the spate of hirings of former star players by Denver pro sports franchises — John Elway with the Broncos, Walt Weiss and Dante Bichette with the Rockies, Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy with the Avs — and concluded Colorado is now mired in nostalgia, an instinct that is seldom rewarded in pro sports.
He wrote in part:
It would be like trying to channel the overlapping heydays of the Mets, the Jets and the Knicks by hiring Tom Seaver, Joe Namath and Phil Jackson. (A few years ago, the Rangers hired Mark Messier, the captain of the 1994 Stanley Cup team, as a “special assistant to the president,” hoping his mojo would be contagious. So far, it has not.)
Picture the Bay Area in 2030 if its teams hired Buster Posey, Joe Thornton and Stephen Curry.
That would be preposterous. But not in Colorado, the sports recycling capital of the nation. Around Denver, old athletes do not fade away; they return to remind everyone what probably will not happen again.
Memo to my old friend John: This might not be just a Denver thing. The Kansas City Royals announced just today that George Brett is joining the club as hitting coach.
It is true, of course, that the roster of legendary players who have tried unsuccessfully to recapture the magic of their playing days as coaches or front office executives is long and familiar:
Bart Starr was a two-time Super Bowl winner as the Packers’ quarterback, but went 52-76-3 as the team’s coach.
Magic Johnson was one of the best basketball players in history, leading the Lakers to five NBA championships, but he lasted only 16 games as their coach before throwing up his hands in frustration.
Ted Williams was one of the best hitters in baseball history, but over four seasons as manager of the Washington Senators/Texas Rangers, he went 273-364.
Isiah Thomas was the heart of the Bad Boys’ back-to-back NBA championships in Detroit, but he was 55-108 in two seasons as head coach of the Knicks.
And, of course, there was Wayne Gretzky, the Great One, the best hockey player ever, who was decidedly not the best hockey coach ever. He went 141-161-24 in four seasons as a coach in Phoenix.
Attempts by great players to bring back their glory days from offices in the executive suite have generally not gone much better. Thomas, Michael Jordan, Kevin McHale, Bobby Clarke and Elgin Baylor are among those who have taken swings from the front office with limited success.
Elway has so far proved an exception to this latter pattern, and it was arguably his success that got Denver’s other franchises on their current nostalgic roll.
Elway took over the Broncos’ front office a little more than two years ago. In 29 months, he has remade the roster, attracting top free agents such as Peyton Manning and Wes Welker and giving the Broncos their best chance to contend for a Super Bowl since he retired as a player in 1999.
Following the Broncos’ 13-3 campaign last season, the Rockies dipped into their own brief history, hiring Weiss, their former shortstop, as manager, and Bichette, one of the original Blake Street Bombers, as their hitting coach. Now it’s the Avs’ turn, naming Sakic to run the front office and Roy to coach the team — Hall of Famers who owned the town during the Avs’ glory days, which included Stanley Cup championships in 1996 and 2001.
Only the NBA’s Nuggets have so far escaped F. Scott Fitzgerald’s assessment at the end of “The Great Gatsby” that “we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Branch finished his essay in the Times by suggesting they’re next. With Chauncey Billups’ playing career winding down, how long can it be before the best basketball player to come out of Colorado assumes a navigational role with his hometown team?
So I asked Roy about this charge that he’s the latest resort in a trip down memory lane.
“I read that article,” he said.
“It’s very simple. I don’t think I’m here because I’m an ex-Avalanche. Just think about it: Those years in Quebec (as coach and general manager of the Quebec Remparts, a junior hockey franchise), if I was just Patrick Roy the player, I wouldn’t have lasted eight years.
“At first, yes, the player’s going to look at you and he’s going to say, ‘Wow, it’s our coach.’ But that doesn’t last very long. Eventually, you have to show them that, ‘Hey, he’s got the solution, he’s got ideas, he’s getting us going.’ At the end, they’re not going to see me as former Avalanche goaltender Patrick Roy. They’re going to see me as their coach.
“Yes, the past is part of the Broncos, the Avalanche, could be the Nuggets and all the team sports here in Denver. But I’m not looking at the past. I’m not going to go in the dressing room and say to the players, ‘Oh, yeah, in my time, we were doing this and that. It was like this.’
“No. I’m going to go say, ‘Hey, guys, this is what I think we should do to become a better team. It’s your time, it’s your opportunity to be difference-makers in this town and have fun coming to the rink.’ The excitement’s going to be back; no doubt about it. And you know what? I want to bring that passion. That’s probably my biggest challenge.”
As Branch pointed out, earlier forays into the past have not worked out that well for Colorado sports teams, whether it was Dan Issel as coach and general manager of the Nuggets or Bill McCartney protege Jon Embree as coach of the University of Colorado football team.
But Branch’s brush is a bit broad. Weiss and Bichette were good baseball players, but they are not Hall-of-Famers, so they don’t face the same daunting history as Elway, Sakic and Roy. Lots of former players have played the roles they’re playing now for the Rockies, many of them successfully.
Among the Hall-of-Famers, Elway is off to an auspicious start with the Broncos, and Sakic and Roy have a few things going for them as they take over operations for the Avs. For one thing, the team has nowhere to go but up. It has missed the playoffs four out of the past five seasons and competed with Florida last season for title of worst team in the NHL.
For another, the NHL draft on June 30 will provide the Avs with their third top-three draft pick in five years.
As Roy pointed out, he is not trying his hand at coaching for the first time, as Gretzky was when he took over the Coyotes. Roy cut his teeth at the junior level for eight years. He knows the job, he likes it, and he was good at it working with players from 16 to 20 years old. Now he’ll have to see how he does with grown-ups.
Is his hiring in part an attempt to take advantage of his popularity and name recognition? Certainly. The Avs need the buzz, and nobody creates buzz around hockey in Colorado like Patrick Roy. But it’s hardly out of left field. In fact, of all the nostalgic hires in Denver over the past three years, Roy has paid the most dues to earn his opportunity.
History makes it easy to be cynical about the move, and it’s certainly possible that it won’t succeed. But the fact remains that Roy and Sakic can’t do any worse than the men they’re replacing. If the question is why, the answer is, why not?