The story of the NHL's first foray into Denver is a bit of a twisted one. In June 1974, Ivan Mullenix, owner of the Central Hockey League's Denver Spurs, was awarded a conditional expansion franchise that was to begin play, along with Seattle, during the 1976-77 NHL season. With the 16,061 seat McNichols Sports Arena already completed in 1975, Mullenix pushed to get into the league a year early. Instead of adding two more teams to the bloated hockey landscape, the NHL tried to broker a deal that would see Mullenix acquire the California Golden Seals and move them to Denver while the other group that had been awarded an expansion franchise for Seattle would purchase and relocate the troubled Pittsburgh Penguins.
When the deal fell through the NHL decided to pull the plug on Denver and Seattle and stand pat at 18 teams. A frustrated Mullenix took the Spurs to the WHA instead. After expecting an NHL team, fans in Denver did not turn out for the WHA version of the Spurs. With rumors of an impending relocation of the Golden Seals or the Kansas City Scouts in the air, Mullenix tried to sell the team to a group in Ottawa instead of keeping the Spurs in Denver to compete with the NHL head to head. The club became the Ottawa Civics for a short time but the sale was not fully completed and the franchise ended up folding halfway through the 1975-76 WHA season. As originally planned, Denver would get into the NHL in time for the following season, just not under Mullenix and not via expansion. The Golden Seals ended up moving to Cleveland while a group led by Jack Vickers purchased the Kansas City Scouts and brought them to the Mile High City where they would be renamed the Colorado Rockies. This was the first time since 1934 that the NHL would see franchise relocation.
The move to Colorado brought many changes in the offseason. After the sale, GM Sid Abel was replaced by Ray Miron and Johnny Wilson took over for Eddie Burns as the team's coach. On August 7th, the Pittsburgh Penguins signed away free agent G Denis Herron and sent the Rockies former Scouts Michel Plasse and Simon Nolet as compensation. Nolet would be named team captain for a second time. On September 1st, 1976, the Rockies lost free agent Guy Charron to the Washington but signed free agent C Nelson Pyatt from the Capitals and received D Colin Campbell's services for the season on loan from the Penguins. Two weeks later, the club finally upgraded its backup goaltender spot by trading for Doug Favell with cash going back to the Toronto Maple Leafs. On September 13th, Montreal sent C Ron Andruff and LW Sean Shanahan to Colorado and the teams swapped first round picks in the 1981 draft. The Rockies also signed free agent D Tracy Pratt and LW Guy Delparte before the start of the regular season. In the amateur draft held back in June, still selecting as the Kansas City Scouts, the team picked four players including first rounder Paul Gardner. After a short stint with Rhode Island of the AHL, Gardner would be called up to the Rockies and have a fine rookie campaign. Defenseman Mike Kitchen, chosen in the third round and sixth round choice center Larry Skinner would also crack the Rockies roster during the season. After a one year stint in the WHA, first round selection in 1975, Barry Dean would join the club to provide a boost to the offense.
The Rockies played their first game, in Denver, on October 5th, 1976. They defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-2 with Wilf Paiement tallying a goal and two assists. Rookie Larry Skinner scored the franchise's first goal in Colorado and Doug Favell made 39 saves to secure the win. Three days later the team picked up its first home loss, 5-3 to the New York Rangers and then dropped their first on the road to the Minnesota North Stars by a 4-1 count. A 3-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks on November 7th, snapped a four losing streak but a 2-1 loss to the horrid Cleveland Barons the next time out raised the ire of GM Ray Miron. He demoted three regulars and recalled three players from AHL Rhode Island to replace them, including rookies Paul Gardner and (future Panthers defensive coach) Mike Kitchen. Gardner would score five goals in his first four NHL games while Kitchen would provide an upgrade defensively. A few weeks later the Rockies acquired D John Van Boxmeer from the Montreal Canadiens for a 3rd pick in 1979 in an effort to further stabilize the defensive zone. The team continued to struggle until seven weeks of strong play between December 29th and February 20h vaulted them into playoff contention. A 5-2 win over the Rangers on February 1st, with Michel Plasse stopping 48 of 50 shots, gave the third place Rockies a four point lead on division rivals Minnesota and Vancouver for the final playoff spot in the Smythe. An 8-6 win over the North Stars in Minnesota on February 9th pushed their cushion to five points. After another win against the North Stars eleven days later, a 2-1 loss to the New York Islanders on February 22nd broke the spell and the team would miss out on its first playoff appearance by going on an 18 game winless skid. The Rockies snapped finally the skid with a 6-3 win in Vancouver before losing their season finale at home, 6-4, to the Los Angeles Kings. Colorado finished in last place in the Smythe Division with a record of 20-46-14, only nine points out of a playoff spot. Wilf Paiement blossomed in his third pro season, scoring 41 goals and adding 40 assists to lead the team in scoring. Rookie Paul Gardner impressed by tallying 30 goals and 59 points in only 60 games while Gary Croteau and Nelson Pyatt each broke the 20 goal barrier. The goon tactics of Steve Durbano sparked a few wins in his 19 games on the roster. Michel Plasse picked up 12 wins in goal with Doug Favell getting the other 8, as both tried their best to offset a porous defense.
In the 1977 amateur draft, Colorado selected defenseman Barry Beck with the second overall pick. Beck was also selected second overall in the WHA draft by the Calgary Cowboys but opted to play in the NHL for the Rockies where he would make quite an impact. In August, Colorado gave up on former first rounder Barry Dean, dealing him to Philadelphia for D Mark Suzor. Pat Kelly would step in to replace the departed Johnny Wilson as head coach and Wilf Paiement would become the team's captain after Simon Nolet retired. Colorado opened the 1977-78 campaign with two ties and then two losses before beating Chicago 3-0 in Denver. The team would go 4-1-1 in their next six games to get off to establish a good start to the season. The Rockies would lose three in a row before hammering the Cleveland Barons 7-2 at home to get back in the win column. The win didn't have much of a positive effect as the team promptly went on a nine game winless skid before posting home wins over the Buffalo Sabres and Minnesota North Stars. The Rockies followed up the brief winning streak by going 1-10-4 before getting a solid 5-2 win over the Los Angeles Kings on January 20th. After the victory, Colorado stood at a 10-22-10, finding themselves in serious danger of missing the playoffs yet again. An embarrassing 9-4 defeat to the Barons in Cleveland in their next game out didn't help matters but the Rockies, led by Doug Favell's stellar goaltending, were able to mix in just enough wins and especially ties to stay in the race going forward. With eleven games left on the schedule Colorado shook off a 0-5-5 run to win three games in a row over Vancouver, Detroit and Pittsburgh. After going 2-4 in their next six games, the Rockies managed a 4-4 tie against the Smythe Division leading Blackhawks in Chicago and then posted a huge 5-2 win over St. Louis in the season finale in Denver. The two points gained in the win against the Blues allowed the Rockies to slip past the Canucks in the standings and into the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. The NHL changed the playoff format that season, guaranteeing spots to the top two finishers in each division and then the next four teams with the highest point totals. Despite finishing with a record of 19-40-21, the Rockies automatically qualified by virtue of finishing in second place in the woeful Smythe Divison. Pittsburgh, who had finished with nine more points than Colorado, was left on the outside looking in.
The 12-seed Rockies would meet the 4-seed Philadelphia Flyers in the best of three preliminary round. In game one, the Rockies would fall behind 1-0 in the first period before LW Denis Dupere scored the club's first ever playoff goal on the power play with assists going to Barry Beck and John Van Boxmeer. A Bobby Clarke goal in the second gave the Flyers the lead until a Dave Hudson goal early in the third period tied the game at 2-2. Mel Bridgman would give the Flyers the win only 23 seconds into overtime. Doug Favell was named first star in a losing effort for making 41 saves as the Rockies were outshot 44-18 in the game. The series shifted to Denver for game two where the Rockies drew an overflow crowd of 16,399 fans. Reggie Leach would give the Flyers an early 1-0 advantage before defenseman Dave Owchar tied the game on assists from Fred Ahern and Dave Hudson. Favell kept the besieged Rockies in the game until the Flyers broke things open in the third on goals from Don Saleski and Bob Kelly. Mel Bridgman set up both goals as the Flyers advanced with the 3-1 victory. This would be the only time the club made the playoffs during it's time in Colorado. Wilf Paiement led the team in regular season scoring with a career high 87 points to go along with 114 PIM while rookie defenseman Barry Beck scored 22 goals and 60 points. John Van Boxmeer added 54 points to go with a -12 rating and Paul Gardner posted his second straight 30 goal season. Doug Favell went 13-20-11 in goal with a respectable 3.58 GAA considering the amount of rubber he was facing. Following the season Tom Vickers sold the struggling franchise to Arthur Imperatore, Sr. after requests for an improved lease at McNichols Sports Arena were denied by the city of Denver. Imperatore wanted to move the club to the New Jersey Meadowlands but with Brendan Byrne Arena still under construction, the NHL nixed the plan as there was no suitable temporary home for the Rockies in the Garden State.
The NHL would open the 1978-79 season down a team for the first time since 1942 as the Cleveland Barons merged with the Minnesota North Stars. The Rockies lost the North Stars as a division rival when Minnesota moved into the Barons old spot in the Adams Division. At the June 15th amateur draft, Colorado selected LW Mike Gillis, C Merlin Malinowski and C Paul Messier (Mark's big brother) in the first three rounds with each of the trio spending at least a little time on the roster during the upcoming season. Also during the offseason, the team signed free agent center Ray Comeau from the Atlanta Flames and acquired D Joe Watson from the Flyers for cash. The Rockies began the season on a four game road trip. The first game was an 8-2 blowout loss to the Vancouver Canucks on October 11th. On the same day the team flipped minor leaguer Mark Suzor to Boston for forward Clayton Pachal. The trip continued with 3 goal losses to the Canadiens and Rangers before ending with another 8-2 beating, this time courtesy of the Atlanta Flames. After seeing his team score only seven goals during the first four games, GM Ray Miron sent a 2nd round pick in 1981 to Toronto for C Jack Valiquette. The Rockies got their first points of the season with a 5-5 draw against St. Louis on home ice followed by 4-3 win over the Blues on the road a night later. The Rockies would only win once in their next twelve games and Miron would try to plug the team's leaky defense with the acquisitions of defensemen Don Awry from the Rangers for cash and Nick Beverley from the Kings for a 4th round pick in 1982. The moves did little and the team found itself with only eight wins at the halfway point of the schedule. Game 41 saw the Rockies pick up a nice 4-1 win in St. Louis but the team dropped the next five games. The high point of the season was 3-0-2 run in January capped off by a 5-4 win over the Rangers in Denver. After that, the bottom fell out as the Rockies dropped nine straight before beating the Bruins 4-2 in Boston. The team would only win two of its final 18 games to finish the season a league worst 15-53-12. Wilf Paiement missed 15 games but still led the team in scoring with 60 points. Early season acquisition Jack Valiquette finished with 57 points but posted a ghastly -42 rating. Barry Beck had a nice sophomore season with 14 goals and 28 assists while Paul Gardner added 23 goals before being dealt to Toronto in March. Doug Favell would go winless in goal, only appearing in 7 games. Michel Plasse and Bill Oleschuk ended up splitting the starting duties in his absence.
The 1979-80 NHL season would see four former WHA clubs join the NHL as expansion teams. The end of the war between the leagues led to a busy offseason. In an effort to improve the club and increase attendance the Rockies hired colorful Don Cherry away from the Bruins to replace Pat Kelly. Personnel moves began in April as Colorado acquired C Bobby Sheehan from the AHL New Haven Nighthawks for Larry Skinner and Dennis Owchar. With the first overall pick in the newly named entry draft, the Rockies selected defenseman Rob Ramage. Ramage already had a year of professional experience under his belt, having played for the WHA Birmingham Bulls in 1978-79. On June 1st, the Rockies signed free agent D Kevin Morrison. A month later they lost free agent Clayton Pachal to the Edmonton Oilers. On July 2nd, Colorado acquired G Hardy Astrom from the New York Rangers for Bill Lochead to help offset the loss of Doug Favell to retirement. In September, the team signed free agent C Barry Smith, resigned Nick Beverley and on October 5th, less than a week before the start of the season, traded John Van Boxmeer for Buffalo Sabres RW Rene Robert. The Rockies first game of the season was a 3-3 tie against the St. Louis Blues in Denver. They lost their next game 2-1 to Toronto, before falling to new expansion teams, Winnipeg and Quebec. Colorado finally picked up its first win of the season by beating the Jets 4-1 on home ice. The Rockies would go 0-4-1 over the next five games prompting GM Miron to pull off a huge deal on November 2nd. Colorado traded star defenseman Barry Beck to the New York Rangers for C Lucien Deblois, LW Pat Hickey, D Mike McEwen, D Dean Turner and future considerations in an effort to strengthen the club by increasing its overall depth. Fittingly enough, the first game after the trade was against the Rangers, in Denver, with the Rockies winning a 7-2 laugher. Unfortunately, the team dropped five of their next six as the new players tried to blend in. A 3-3 tie against Washington triggered a 5-3-1 run which was Colorado's best spell of play during the season. The successful stint was capped off by a stunning 7-5 victory over the powerful Canadiens in Montreal on December 9th. On December 29th, Miron pulled off another big trade, this time dealing Wilf Paiement and Pat Hickey to Toronto for RW Lanny McDonald and Joel Quenneville. The Rockies beat Detroit 5-3 in the first game after the trade but went on a nine game winless skid afterwards to end any hopes of a playoff berth. They would win only seven out of their remaining thirty five games to finish last in the league again with a 19-48-13 record. New Rockie Rene Robert led the team in scoring with 63 points. Mike McEwen contributed 51 points in 67 games with Colorado to help fill the void left by the Barry Beck. Lanny McDonald added 45 points in his 46 games with the Rockies while Jack Valiquette scored 25 goals and posted a respectable -7 rating. Rookie D Rob Ramage picked up 28 points to go along with a team leading 135 PIM and also helped Billy Smith get credited with the first goal scored by a goaltender in NHL history as he sent a blind pass into his own empty net with Smith being the last Islander to touch the puck. Hardy Astrom and Bill McKenzie each picked up nine wins in goal. Don Cherry would leave the Rockies after the final game of the regular season and be replaced by Bill MacMillian.
The next offseason would be a quiet one. Colorado could have had the first pick in the 1980 entry draft, instead, by virtue of a trade with Montreal in 1976, they selected 19th overall. The Rockies took LW Paul Gagné from the Windsor Spitfires with the pick and he would make an immediate impact as a rookie. The team picked up G Al Smith in a trade with the Hartford Whalers for cash, RW Bobby Crawford as the future considerations from the Rangers in the Barry Beck deal and claimed RW Yvon Vautour off waivers from the New York Islanders. The Rockies began the 1980-81 season by winning three straight over Calgary, Edmonton and Quebec before tying the Minnesota North Stars. A three game road losing streak followed before the Rockies got back over .500 with a 5-3 win against the Chicago Blackhawks. The team continued to play well until late November, beating Edmonton 4-3 at home on the 25th to maintain a winning record. Three days later, a 7-4 loss to the Flyers sent the team on a downward spiral it would never really recover from. The Rockies bounced back from a 3-11-2 skid to post consecutive wins over the Rangers and Bruins before getting hammered 7-3 by the Canucks at home to close out the first half of the schedule. The second half would be an utter disaster as wins came few and far between. Out of the playoff race, the Rockies dealt Rene Robert to Toronto for a 3rd round pick in the 1981 entry draft on January 30th. A 6-0 blowout loss in Montreal on February 26th capped off an ugly seven game losing streak. The Rockies would beat Edmonton and Hartford for a modest two game winning streak after the Montreal game but would drop eight of their next nine contests. On March 10th, at the trading deadline, the Rockies sent Mike McEwen and G Jari Kaarela to the Islanders for C Steve Tambellini and G Glenn "Chico" Resch. Tambellini would pick up 18 points in his 13 games with Colorado. The Rockies ended the season on a decent note, going 2-2-3 in their final seven games to finish the season with a 22-45-13 record, fourteen points short of the final playoff berth but an improvement over the previous season. Lanny McDonald led the team in scoring with 81 points, playing in all 80 games. Third year pro Merlin Malinowski blossomed under MacMillan scoring 62 points in 69 games and rookie Paul Gagné scored 25 goals. Rob Ramage notched 20 goals and added 42 assists while posting a -46 rating. The Rockies used five different goaltenders with Al Smith leading the team with 9 wins.
After failing in his efforts to move the Rockies to New Jersey, owner Arthur Imperatore sold the franchise to Peter Gilbert in 1981. Bill MacMillian would take over for GM Ray Miron while continuing to coach the team. The team selected D Joe Cirella 5th overall in the 1981 entry draft after trading the 3rd overall pick to the Capitals and gaining Washington's 1st and 2nd round selections. The Rockies had a lot of picks early in the draft and whiffed on most them but they did hit on D Bruce Driver in the sixth round. In July, the Rockies acquired LW Brent Ashton in a three team deal involving the Vancouver Canucks and Winnipeg Jets. On October 1st, again seeking depth, the Rockies traded their first round pick in 1983 to the Islanders for C Dave Cameron and D Bob Lorimer. The Islanders would end up taking Pat LaFontaine with the pick. Colorado began the 1981-82 season with a 4-2 loss in Vancouver before getting beat 7-4 in Edmonton. Their home opener ended in a 2-2 draw with the Islanders. The team's next game was in Los Angeles and the Kings won in a 10-2 rout, a sign of things to come. After a 6-1 loss to the Bruins in Denver, the team finally posted their first win by a 4-3 count over Winnipeg. After a 5-4 upset win over the Oilers in Edmonton on November 7th the season went from bad to worse. The Rockies would go 0-9-2 before getting a 3-2 win over Chicago on December 2nd, just their fourth victory of the season. In the midst of the losing streak, on November 25th, the Rockies traded Lanny McDonald and a 4th round pick in 1983 to Calgary for LW Don Lever and RW Bob McMillan. In December, Colorado managed to put together a respectable 6-6-1 record but they would only win two games in January. The losses continued to pile up in February before the team closed the month with a 5-3 win over Chicago. The Rockies would open March with wins over division rivals Vancouver and Edmonton giving them a rare three game winning streak. This would be the high point of the season as the team went 1-9-2 before winning 3-1 over the Calgary Flames at home in what turned out to be the final Rockies game in history on April 3rd, 1982. Colorado finished with a record of 18-49-13 which was worst in the league. Brent Ashton would lead the team in scoring with 60 points while Steve Tambellini finished one point behind. Don Lever picked up 50 points in 59 games with Colorado. Rob Ramage added 13 goals from the blue line but forwards Merlin Malinowski and Paul Gagné regressed offensively. Chico Resch appeared in 61 games, posting 16 wins and a 4.03 GAA. The Rockies gave up a staggering 362 goals during the season.
After one season of heavy losses, Peter Gilbert got out quick, selling the team to John McMullen and his partners John Whitehead and Brendan Byrne. McMullen would succeed where Arthur Imperatore failed, moving the team to his home state in time for the 1982-82 season and renaming it the New Jersey Devils. Sadly, the Devils choose to make little mention of their past as the Rockies or Scouts
The story of the Rockies in Denver might have had a much happier ending had the club ever had the right ownership. Tom Vickers wanted the team to succeed in Colorado but lacked the resources to overcome the franchise's troubled start in Kansas City and was also saddled with an unfavorable lease. Imperatore would have moved the team to New Jersey much sooner had he been able to while Peter Gilbert was an absentee owner living in Buffalo. Fan support in Denver wasn't great but it wasn't bad either given the circumstances. The team was plagued with constant relocation rumors and the on ice product was simply horrible. Even in the one season the Rockies made the playoffs they did so with a paltry 59 points. Much like the California Golden Seals, the Rockies always had a handful of really good players but never built the proper amount of organizational depth or cured their defensive woes. All of the losing led to a roster in constant flux and GM Ray Miron’s tenure was likely much too long in retrospect. When the Quebec Nordiques came to town in 1995, the time was ripe for NHL hockey in the Denver and the new Avalanche captivated the market in a way the Rockies were never able to.
NHL Seasons: Six
Stanley Cups: None
Notable Players: Wilf Paiement, Lanny McDonald, Barry Beck, Rob Ramage, Rene Robert