Doug Ward | NHL.com correspondent
Jan 27, 2007, 12:00 PM EST
Curtis Leschyshyn remembers a dinner he had with longtime friend Joe Sakic on the night of June 9, 1996. Sakic had been drafted by the Quebec Nordiques in 1987, a year before the team selected Leschyshyn, and the two had grown close while coming of age together in the NHL.
Now, after moving with the franchise when it was relocated to Colorado in 1995, they could see the light. One more win would bring the Stanley Cup to Denver in the first season of what was probably the city's last chance with the NHL.
The Avs were leading the Florida Panthers, 3-0, in their seven-game series, and Sakic was feeling very good about the prospect of a sweep. Leschyshyn and Sakic had shared countless dinners over the course of their careers. They even lived with the same billet family as NHL rookies in Quebec City in 1988-89, but this dinner was like no other.
Sakic looked across the table and made a promise. "When I get that Cup tomorrow night," Sakic told Leschyshyn, "you'll be the first one I give it to."
Over a decade later, the reassuring words of a confident teammate are Leschyshyn's most vivid memory of a remarkable postseason run that culminated with the game he'll never forget.
A night later, at the Miami Arena, John Vanbiesbrouck and the Panthers put Sakic's best-laid plans on ice. After three periods of regulation, Vanbiesbrouck was pitching a shutout.
At the other end of the ice, however, stood Hall of Famer goaltender Patrick Roy, and he was equal to the task.
"When you've got probably the greatest goaltender to play the game on your side," Leschyshyn says, "it makes things easier, that's for sure. I also think that series is when everybody really started to take notice of Joe Sakic, and really began to understand how good he is. He was just outstanding that entire series."
Two overtime periods came and went. Monday turned to Tuesday. The two teams headed to a third overtime session, and Sakic continued to turn into a household name.
Sakic began the play that would end the game by winning a faceoff. The puck ended up on the stick of Colorado defenseman Uwe Krupp, who wound up and let fly with a slap shot. The puck found the back of the net at 4:31 of the third overtime.
At 1:05 a.m. EDT, the Avs became the first Denver-based professional franchise to win a championship.
"I can remember having a perfect sightline from the bench, right behind Uwe," Leschyshyn, a defenseman who played 16 NHL seasons, says. "It was a straight line to the net, and I could see the puck go in. I had a perfect view of it, and that goal will be one I'll remember forever."
Vanbiesbrouck was not so lucky. He'll never be able to forget it. And, with Sakic creating a screen, he never got much of a look at the goal that gave Colorado a 1-0 win and a series sweep. Leschyshyn and his fatigued teammates were suddenly skating on air.
"After I saw it go in, I remember getting on the ice as quickly as I could to get in the middle of a mad celebration with sticks flying all over," Leschyshyn says. "It was the most unbelievable feeling I've ever had, that's for sure."
It was only the beginning.
After order was restored, the Avs and Panthers participated in the ceremonial post-series handshake. Then Leschyshyn stood and watched as NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman presented the Stanley Cup to Sakic, the Avs' captain.
Leschyshyn wasn't a spectator for long.
"Sure enough," Leschyshyn says, "the first person Joe passed it to was me. You can't actually believe that you are holding it. It's the most shiny thing you've seen in your life. Even though it has some weight behind it, it's weightless when you've just won it. It's indescribable."
So was the reaction to goals that were scored in Miami during that year's playoffs.
Earlier that season, the Panthers' Scott Mellanby had used his stick to kill a rat in the Panther locker room. The South Florida fans responded to the news of this event by showering the ice with plastic rats whenever the Panthers scored.
"You didn't want to get hit," Leschyshyn says of the hard plastic rodents. "I remember getting hit from behind; coming down from the top rafters, those things hurt. It was quite a sight to see the entire ice littered with those little black plastic rats immediately after they scored a goal."
A few of the plastic rats found their way to the ice during the Avs' celebration, so Leschyshyn picked one up. He still has it, part of his personal collection of Stanley Cup memorabilia, right along with his replica Cup and ring. Funny how the outcome of the series and the passing time have conspired to turn those rats into a fond memory for the Avs, and a bittersweet one for the Panthers.
By the time Leschyshyn and his teammates had skated through the plastic rat-infested ice with the Cup, posed for pictures and showered, it after 2 a.m. on the East Coast. That's when they headed to Miami International Airport for their charter. When their plane touched down at Denver's futuristic new Airport, which is 25 miles from downtown, at 8 a.m ., the team was shocked to find there were a couple thousand fans on hand to greet them. Two days later, Denverites celebrated their new status as residents of a city of champions, crowding the parade route that wound through the city's downtown before ending up at City Hall. Leschyshyn remembers riding on the back of a fire truck, overwhelmed by the turnout.
"That was probably the most unbelievable feeling of all," he says of the turnout. "You win and you celebrate, and then you have a number of parties. But until we actually saw the number of people that came out for the parade, we would have never believed it. They said it was in excess of 400,000 people. We made a turn down the street and all of a sudden you could just see everyone lining the streets. It was an unbelievable event."
When Leschyshyn and his teammates first saw the Stanley Cup after it came back from the engraver, they all took a moment to make they had been included, and that their names had been spelled correctly.
Leschyshyn was relieved to find that his name was on it, and it has been spelled right. Colorado winger Adam Deadmarsh was shocked to find that hisname had been incorrectly spelled, "Deadmarch."
It has since been corrected, but at the time Deadmarsh was so devastated that there was only one thing Leschyshyn and the rest of the Avs could do:"We gave him a good ribbing about it."
When you're on top and you're a close-knit team, one man's tragedy is another's comedy. But the feeling wouldn't last. Like so many other things in a professional athlete's life, the Stanley Cup afterglow was fleeting, and Leschyshyn crashed hard. The following November, Leschyshyn was traded for the first time in his career, shipped by the defending Cup champs to the Washington Capitals, where he played two games before then being sent to Hartford.
"Winning the Cup was the highest point of my career," Leschyshyn says. "Then I went to the lowest point, which was being traded."
By then, Leschyshyn had grown attached to Colorado. He and his wife, Laura, bought a home there because they liked the outdoor activities the area had to offer, and never left. While the Thompson, Manitoba, native went on to play in Carolina, Minnesota, and Ottawa, Denver remained his home base. With the couple's kids involved in youth hockey and soccer in the area, the Leschyshyns are now deep-rooted Coloradoans.
After the lockout of 2004-05, Leschyshyn re-signed with the Avs, excited to finish his career in his adopted hometown, but announced his retirement before the season began. Eager to remain in hockey, he accepted the Avs' offer to become a member of their broadcast team.
"The Avalanche has been great helping me find something in the game," he says.
This season, he's taken on the fulltime radio analyst's gig, working alongside Norm Jones, the team's talented play-by-play man.