One recent night when Broncomania was raging at a feverish peak in Denver, rookie Defenseman Barry Beck of the Colorado Rockies went out for a drink—a beer, of course, not some silly Orange Crush—at a local pub. Being only 20 years old in a state where the legal drinking age is 21 can be a problem, unless like Beck one stands 6'3", weighs 218 pounds, looks 28 years old and glares a lot. "Aren't you one of the Broncos?" asked the girl at the door. She never even asked for Beck's I.D.
In Denver, to look as if one might be a Bronco is better than being Barry (Bubba) Beck. Oh, sure, as of last week Beck was the leading goal-scoring defenseman in the NHL after tallying No. 16 in Colorado's stunning 6-4 triumph over the Philadelphia Flyers, and he had just played in the All-Star Game. And one of his teammates, 21-year-old Center Paul Gardner, was sixth in the NHL with 30 goals. But out there where houses are painted orange and the Denver Post has printed letters to the editor castigating the city for its failure to paint the streets orange, there has been little interest in Beck, Gardner and what has been promoted as "Rocky Hockey."
However, now that the Dallas Cowboys have temporarily stilled the Broncomaniacs, the people of Denver may well be starting a whole new craze called Rockymania. When the Rockies skated out for their Saturday night game against the Flyers in the McNichols Sports Arena, they must have thought they were across the road in Mile High Stadium. Accustomed to silent crowds of 7,500, the Rockies were cheered wildly by a madcap gathering of 13,549. The enthusiasm was so catching that the Rockies played their best game of the season.
Beck and his defense partner, John Van Boxmeer, scored the Colorado goals as the teams, miles apart in the standings—Philadelphia sharing the Patrick Division lead with the New York Islanders and Colorado holding down third place in the sickly Smythe Division—battled to a 2-2 stalemate through two periods. Philadelphia roared out in the third period and scored twice within five minutes to take a 4-2 lead. Colorado normally turns 4-2 third-period deficits into 8-2 defeats, but not this night.
Rookie Randy Pierce and Wilf Paiement scored to pull the Rockies even at 4-4 midway through the period. Then, with slightly less than six minutes to play, the already aroused Rockies became enraged when Philadelphia's Bob Dailey rammed Gardner into the boards, and the Colorado player had to be helped off the ice. Gardner suffered a fracture of his transverse process and will be sidelined for a month.
Responding to the crowd's screams, the Rockies set up light housekeeping in the Flyers' end and peppered Goaltender Wayne Stephenson with a barrage of shots. At 15:16 Pierce beat Stephenson again after taking a neat pass from rookie Joe Contini, and two minutes later Paiement added still another goal to complete the Rockies' four-goal rally. It was the first time Philadelphia had ever lost to Colorado, and the defeat knocked the Flyers out of first place.
All season long the pressure on Beck, Gardner and Paiement, the Rockies' 22-year-old captain, has been heavy. Colorado owner Jack Vickers lost some $2.5 million on the team last season, and he has told the NHL that he will not continue to underwrite a disaster. The Rockies are well acquainted with bankruptcy, too, having experienced such a fate in 1976 when they were known as the Kansas City Scouts.
"Most teams rely on their veterans to provide leadership," says General Manager Ray Miron. "We can't. So we're asking these three kids to try to do it. Especially Beck. No other rookie is being asked to shoulder what he's shouldering. He's an all-star already, and he still hasn't begun to realize how good he is."
After seeing Beck lead New Westminster, British Columbia to Canada's Memorial Cup Junior Championship last April, Miron chose him in the draft ahead of several better-known junior defensemen. Miron already has turned down a $1 million offer for Beck from the Toronto Maple Leafs. "There never was any doubt about drafting him," says Miron, "and there's no doubt now that we made the right decision."
Although his steady accumulation of goals and his run at Denis Potvin's 54-point scoring record for rookie defense-men helped Beck gain all-star status, he is not an offensive defenseman in the style of Bobby Orr. He seldom rushes the puck, choosing to stay back while Van Boxmeer tries his Orr imitations.