THE NHL / HELENE ELLIOTT : They're Prospecting in Denver Again

When the Kansas City Scouts moved to Denver in 1976, the team urged fans to come out and see "Rocky hockey." For its owners, it was a rocky venture, indeed.

The Colorado Rockies went through three owners and millions of dollars before being sold and moved to New Jersey after the 1981-82 season. Armand Pohan, part of the second group, told the Denver Post that Denver "is still a small-market city" and warned prospective purchasers, "I would suggest that they take a long and hard look before they go into it."

COMSAT Entertainment Group looked and took the leap last week, when it bought the Quebec Nordiques for $75 million. COMSAT believes hockey will make it this time because Denver has grown since 1982, as have the NHL's TV and merchandising revenues. (Pohan said his club's TV revenue one year was $20,000 and its losses were $5 million). Also, Pohan--like Jack Vickers before him and Peter Gilbert after him--had a bad arena lease. That won't be the case for the soon-to-be-renamed Nordiques because COMSAT owns the NBA's Denver Nuggets and will finance the new arena the teams are to share starting in the 1997-98 season. The teams can also split marketing and administrative costs.

COMSAT might be correct. But regardless of the baseball Rockies' success, Denver is still a boom-bust town, and if the economy sours, hockey tickets will be the first luxury to go. There's also little corporate support to fill luxury boxes and cushion the effects of a financial pinch.

Western Conference clubs aren't happy about the move, even though slotting Denver in the West and moving the Toronto Maple Leafs to the East will cut travel time and costs. They fear the level of competition will rise, delaying the playoff timetables of teams such as the Mighty Ducks and Edmonton Oilers. The Leafs are on the decline and might have been passed for a playoff spot next season, but the young, high-scoring Nordiques are only a defenseman away from joining Detroit as the class of the conference. The playoff wanna-bes could make things interesting if they react by acquiring better players, but they'll make fans pay for bigger payrolls by raising ticket prices.

The NHL keeps Winnipeg, loses picturesque Quebec City and gains Denver, which has a history of NHL failure and a misbegotten, out-of-the-way airport. Not even King General Manager Sam McMaster would make that deal.

GRIN AND BEAR IT

The biggest losers in Denver are the International Hockey League's Grizzlies. Already second to the Nuggets in the pecking order for dates at McNichols Arena, they could fall to third behind the Nuggets and the Nordiques--or they might be forced out. They're in the first year of a five-year lease that's renewable every July 1 at the city's option, and the city might decide two hockey teams in one building is one too many.

The Grizzlies, who lead Kansas City, 2-0, in the best-of-seven IHL finals, drew about 12,000 fans per game this season thanks to ticket prices that averaged about $11. NHL prices averaged more than $33 last season.

"In a way, we think the NHL coming here is a tribute to what our franchise in Denver has accomplished and what the league has accomplished," said Tim Bryant, the IHL's vice president of communications. "When you look at how well the Grizzlies have been received, it tells you people would rather take their family to a game for a total of $40 than have one person go for $40."

BE CAREFUL

During the clincher of the New York Rangers' first-round victory over the Nordiques, fans at Madison Square Garden chanted, "We want Hextall!" They got Ron Hextall in the East semifinals, but they're sorry they did.

They forgot to specify they wanted the Hextall who impersonated a sieve with the Islanders last spring and had a 6.08 goals-against average in three games against the Rangers. The Hextall they got was confident and aggressive in leading the Philadelphia Flyers to a sweep of the defending Stanley Cup champion Rangers. "He was the MVP of the series," Philadelphia Coach Terry Murray said.

After pulling together to upset the Nordiques in the first round, the Rangers fell back into their regular-season doldrums. The Flyers' pounding took Brian Leetch and other finesse players off their games, and Mike Richter's spotty goaltending kept New York from stealing even one victory. The Flyers' second and third lines (yes, they have other lines besides Eric Lindros-John LeClair-Mikael Renberg) outplayed their Ranger counterparts, leaving the champions ripe for a loss.

ACE FOR THE DEUCE

Former King Coach Barry Melrose, a studio analyst for ESPN2, was surprised the Chicago Blackhawks steam-rolled the Vancouver Canucks in a series that featured tight defense.

"I thought it would be aggressive and hard-hitting with a lot of 5-4 and 4-3 games, and it wasn't what I expected," he said. "I think for Vancouver, beating St. Louis and beating Mike Keenan [who beat them in last year's finals as coach of the Rangers] was such a big thing for them in the previous round, they haven't been able to recover. That was a bitter series."

But Melrose wasn't shocked by the Rangers' loss. "People didn't know the Flyers and underestimated Ron Hextall," he said, "and they have a solid defense. It's not a skilled defense--they don't have a Sergei Zubov or a Brian Leetch--but guys like Kevin Haller and Eric Desjardins have done the job."

Melrose talked to the Islanders about their coaching job but is in no rush to make a move. No need to hurry, because other positions with better prospects (such as Pittsburgh and Calgary) will open after the playoffs.

SLAP SHOTS

Neutral-site games, canceled by the lockout this season, won't be revived. Teams will play 82-game schedules next season, down from 84 the previous two seasons. . . . Funny that last year's Cup finalists, the Canucks and Rangers, were swept in the conference semifinals. Both got little help from their big guns: Pavel Bure was scoreless against Chicago, and Mark Messier had one goal against the Flyers. . . . The Red Wings outshot the Sharks, 147-61, and outscored them, 24-6, in sweeping San Jose in the Western semifinals. But Detroit will have a tougher time against Chicago in the conference finals. Blackhawk defenseman Chris Chelios and goalie Ed Belfour were superb against Vancouver, and Jeremy Roenick's return gives the Blackhawks depth up front.

Hot rumors: The Penguins, in need of major restructuring after their five-game loss to New Jersey, will fire Coach Ed Johnston and replace him with Toronto Coach Pat Burns. The Maple Leafs will then hire Quebec Coach Marc Crawford, whose contract has a clause allowing him to discuss a Toronto coaching vacancy. Also, Ranger GM Neil Smith will replace John Muckler as GM in Buffalo. . . . Devil right wing Claude Lemieux had six goals in 45 games this season but has eight in 10 playoff games. Lemieux has come through in the clutch before, having scored 10 goals for Montreal in the Canadiens' 1986 Cup victory. . . . Finalists for NHL trophies will be announced today.

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