DENVER - Before the first altitude-aided home run sailed out of a major-league baseball stadium in Denver, before the Colorado Rockies captured the fancy of Denver sports fans, there was Rocky Hockey.
Transplanted from Kansas City to the Mile High City in 1976, the original Rockies were a monument to ineptitude, too awful to be lovable except to a faithful few. They wobbled through six seasons and three owners before they were sold and moved to New Jersey, leaving behind only a memorable logo - a blue "C" encircling a yellow sun in front of a jagged mountain - and a fan club that refused to die.
The Rockies were the most notable in a series of Denver hockey experiments that began in 1950 with the Falcons of the United States Hockey League. Clubs sprang up every few years but few lasted; the Spurs of the World Hockey Association went on the road in January 1976 and never came back.
But the National Hockey League came back to Denver this season after Comsat - a multimedia conglomerate that also owns the National Basketball Association's Denver Nuggets - purchased the Quebec Nordiques for $75 million and moved them to Colorado. The Colorado Avalanche is Denver's eighth pro hockey club since the Falcons, but it's the first with the money, business sense and marketing savvy to take root and flourish.
"I guarantee that this team is going to do well, and it's not going to be just one of those morning-glory franchises that do well for three or four years and then drop off," said Don Cherry, the colorful coach who was a local icon and lured an average of nearly 10,000 fans to Rockies' games in 1979-80, his lone season behind their bench.
"When I was there, everything was against that hockey club. They had an owner (Arthur Imperatore) who said, `I'm only going to keep the team here two years and then move it to New Jersey,' and then they had a disaster of a general manager, Ray Miron, and a bad lease. They got no revenues from parking, concessions or advertising.
"But the fans who came were the most enthusiastic 10,000 hockey fans I've ever seen. My last game, there were 12,500 people in a bad snowstorm. This team, they've got everything going for them - a great lease, a good team and good owners. I wish I had part of the club. It's a mint to print money."
Original Rockie owner James Vickers was an oilman who went bust when the market failed and couldn't get financial aid from the city to keep the club going. Joe Starkey, the team's first play-by-play announcer, said Vickers also lost fans' support during the Rockies' second season.
"They had gotten to the playoffs in 1977-78 and were playing Philly, and the town was really turned on by it all. Their advance sales were great and everybody was talking about them," Starkey said. "Vickers asked me if he could come on the broadcast between the second and third periods of a game, and I thought he wanted to thank the fans or talk about the excitement the team was generating.
"He came on and told an audience that was hockey-crazy, `This is nice, but if you don't buy more tickets, we're moving.' He couldn't have picked a worse moment to defuse the excitement. People got really angry. Attendance was in the 10-12,000 range, but he thought they couldn't make it without sellouts every game. After that, people stopped coming."
In 1978, Vickers sold the club to Imperatore, a New Jersey trucking-company executive who announced he would move the Rockies to his home state when a new arena was built. Alienated again, fans stayed away. Three years later, before he could move them, Imperatore sold them to Peter Gilbert, a cable-TV magnate from Buffalo, N.Y. Gilbert, citing overwhelming losses, sold the club in 1982 to John McMullen, who moved them to New Jersey and renamed them the Devils.
Comsat has the resources to build its own arena, planned for the 1998-99 season, and the foresight to avoid pitfalls that doomed the Rockies.
Unlike the Rockies, the Avalanche gets a cut of parking and concession revenues at city-owned McNichols Arena. In addition, the Avalanche shares its business and marketing operations with the Nuggets, which saves money and allows it to capitalize on the Nuggets' knowledge of the area.
"The Avalanche will succeed, basically for one big, big reason. It's called the golden rules - whoever has the gold rules," said Art Caldwell, a local hockey historian and longtime member of the Colorado Blueliners, a fan club that has supported Denver's various hockey ventures.
"Comsat has billions and billions of dollars, and when they speak, everyone listens, especially politicians," said Caldwell, the Avalanche's first season-ticket buyer. "Denver will bend over backward for this. If the (city) administration gave this kind of support or anywhere near it to Jack Vickers, the Colorado Rockies would still be here."
Within six weeks of its move, before it had a name or a logo, the Avalanche had sold 12,000 season tickets. It might have sold all 16,061 seats, but club executives decided to leave the remaining tickets for single-game purchase. Four games have been sellouts and, on three other occasions, the crowd fell short by fewer than 700. Prices range from $100 for the row of seats that rings the ice surface to a low of $10, and the average of $30.61 ranks 20th among the NHL's 26 teams. Forty percent were sold to corporations.
Keeping prices relatively low was a smart move. The previous hockey tenant at McNichols was the Denver Grizzlies of the International Hockey League, who averaged 12,094 fans last season with a peak price of $13. Charging premium NHL prices might have driven those fans away, but the Avalanche instead courted and won many of them.
"We got spoiled with the Grizzlies because their ticket prices were so low. They were a lot of fun, but a lot of people were rooting for fights," said Tracy Tiedman of Denver, who has Avalanche season tickets with her husband, Paul. "The quality of play in the NHL is much better . . . I think the Avalanche will succeed. Denver loves professional sports, as we've seen with the (baseball) Rockies."