DENVER -- When we were last here almost three years ago, the Avalanche were in a situation that could most charitably be described as moribund.
Interest in the team had waned, the team’s performance on the ice was tepid and at the time, we wondered if this was a case where the team’s past was not just haunting its present, but suffocating it.
Now, almost three years later, the question is whether that past can save the team’s future.
Certainly the intervening time has not seen much improvement in the team's fortunes. The Avalanche missed the playoffs last spring for the fifth time in the last six years. They ranked 26th in average attendance with just below 86 percent of seats sold, down from 23rd in 2011-12, the last full season.
It’s a far cry from when rookie head coach Patrick Roy and current head of hockey operations Joe Sakic, both of whom are enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame, made the Avalanche a perennial Stanley Cup contender.
"It’s certainly different," said current Av Alex Tanguay, who was part of those tough Avalanche teams in the late 1990s. "I remember playing to a sellout crowd here for the whole time I was here. Till 2006, they never did not sell out the building and last year I came in with Calgary on a Monday night and I can only guess how many people were in the stands."
During our last visit, we’d talked to marketing guru Paul Swangard, the managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. He suggested the Avs had fallen victim to their own success, that they had not put the effort into keeping the team relevant in its marketing strategy. Then the inevitable drop-off in play happened with the retirement of stars such as Roy and Sakic, and the departure of Peter Forsberg. As a result, the team’s on-ice struggles mirrored its off-ice struggles.
Recently, Swangard said he was optimistic that the team’s changes at the top and the presence of legends Sakic and Roy would help the team regain some of that lost ground. Swangard said a "culture of excellence" is an overused term, but in this case, it applies. For a franchise to right itself, there has to be a belief that it is moving in the right direction. That belief must be held by all the stakeholders, from ownership and management on down through the players and the marketing and sales staff and, ultimately, the fans, who make all the machinery of a pro sports team hum.
Swangard believes there are some parallels to the renaissance that has taken place in Chicago, where the Blackhawks were for many years an afterthought. But with young talent and a reconnection to veteran stars, the team has thrived on every level, winning two Stanley Cups in the past four seasons.
"Steps are clearly being made in Colorado to try and recapture some of that by looking to the past, to try and architect the future," Swangard said.
Will it work?
"That culture of excellence has to be backed up with what’s on the ice," he said.
The players certainly get that.
P.A. Parenteau, who had a terrific season after signing with the Avalanche in the summer of 2012, said the attitude is markedly different in the dressing room.
"It’s as good as it gets so far," Parenteau told ESPN.com. "There were a lot of guys that gave up [last season] and you don’t want to see that at the pro level."
Parenteau's comments echoed criticism raised late last season by veteran netminder J.S. Giguere, who complained that some Avs were more concerned about their end-of-season Las Vegas trip than preparing for NHL competition. But, Parenteau added, the proof of a turnaround in attitude will start to reveal itself once the season starts.
"You can talk as much as you want about it; until you start winning games, you haven’t proven anything," he said.
Tanguay is optimistic that hockey can once again enjoy a place of prominence in the Rockies.
"It’s certainly a great community, great city, great place to live in and hockey’s got its place," he said. "When I was here first, the Avalanche had a great place in the community and I’ve got no doubts that with the young talent, the people will be able to identify themselves to those young kids as they get older. But, certainly, we have a job to do on the ice. Winning brings a whole lot of people and a whole lot of interest and that’s where it starts."
Roy, of course, fully comprehends the challenge that faces him, Sakic and the Avs, and wants nothing more than to be a part of the process that restores the franchise to the lofty heights they had attained when he was playing.
"Yes. Yes," Roy told ESPN.com. "Absolutely, that’s exactly what we’d like to do. Obviously, it might be baby steps at the beginning but we’ll get there."
The biggest challenge might not be in having enough talented people at the top, but in maintaining the patience that will be needed. Roy recalled a conversation he had with new Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin on just such a topic.
"He said sometimes the toughest thing is to be patient, and we will be patient," Roy said. "We’re not going to make moves to try and go faster. We’re just going to give a chance to our young guys to feel comfortable and we’re going to build around them, and I think this is the way for us to get back on the right track."