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Confidence Runs Mile-High for the New Team in Town

Some credit Canadian skaters, some point to coach, but all Denver expects Stanley Cup for Avalanche

In the land of rodeos and Broncos, they are suddenly learning to appreciate a good body check and how to pronounce French-Canadian surnames.

Feeding Denver's newfound passion for ice hockey is a sense that the Mile-High City may be on the cusp of bringing home its first professional sports championship.

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True, the football Bronco's have come close - reaching the Super Bowl - but they have lost time and time again. Those dashed hopes have been revived by a hockey team that only arrived last year.

"I've never been this passionate about a local team," shouts Holly McVey above the roar of a crowd watching Wednesday night's televised, series-clinching 4-to-1 win over Detroit. "This is the first team here in a long time that people believe in. We know we can win the Stanley Cup ... there's no doubt."

Denverites are among the most ardent sports fans in the nation, but that devotion has, so far, been based more on expectations than a tradition of trophy-winning seasons.

Like the football Broncos, the Denver Nuggets of the National Basketball Association are a perennial doormat and have never really come close to the NBA finals. The only team enjoying recent success has been baseball's Colorado Rockies, a team that made it to the playoffs last season in just its third year of existence.

Now, the fans are pinning their hopes on the high-flying Avalanche, which has become the hottest sports franchise around, both in terms of performance and its marketing appeal.

According to Rick Dudley, president of NHL Enterprises, the Avalanche rank in the top five when it comes to National Hockey League merchandise sales. "We are gratified at the reaction the Avalanche have had in their market, being so new," he says.

But performance is the key. When the former Quebec Nordiques announced last year they had sold the team and it was being moved to Denver, most season tickets here were gobbled up quickly.

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Hockey hasn't always worked here. The last experiment with an NHL team in Denver failed miserably. But this time around expectations were high, since last year the Nordiques finished with the best regular season in the NHL (although they flopped in the playoffs). This year, there has been no playoff failure. With the key acquisitions of Claude Lemieux and legendary goaltender Patrick Roy from Montreal, the Avalanche ensured themselves a playoff-savvy team.

So far, with series victories over Vancouver, Chicago, and now Detroit, those moves have paid off. But many fans credit coach Marc Crawford, one of the youngest in the league, as having played a crucial role.

"Coach got his players to peak for the playoffs," explained fan Mark Johnston after game 6 against Detroit. "The Red Wings played great during the regular season.... But when they got to the playoffs they ran out of gas. Crawford's team ... turned it on this month, and that's when it counts."

Most fans say the difference between last year's Rockies and this year's Avalanche can be summed up in one word: confidence.

"We know the Stanley Cup is coming to Denver," says Trisha DeScenna. "This team's going all the way."

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