DENVER — Joe Sakic knows what winning the Stanley Cup in Denver looks like.
He captained the Colorado Avalanche in both of the franchise’s championship seasons – 1996 and 2001 – and has spent the past 11 years working in the front office, including nine as general manager.
So what did the most prominent figure in franchise history do when his team punched its ticket to the 2022 Stanley Cup Final by sweeping the Edmonton Oilers in the Western Conference final?
He reached out to Charlotte Grahame, his former vice president of hockey administration and one of the only people with a similar depth of history with the organization, and asked for an assist.
SPORTS NEWSLETTER: Sign up now for daily updates sent to your inbox
“Joe called me after Edmonton and said, ‘Listen, there might be one other person that was here in 2001 and we just haven’t been through the finals yet. Would you come back and help us out?’” Grahame told USA TODAY Sports.
Of course she said yes. How could she not? Grahame worked for the Avalanche from the day the franchise arrived in Denver in 1995 until officially retiring on Jan. 1, 2022. Six months later, here she is for a couple of weeks as the Avs lead the series against the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1, pitching in where she can on logistics and imparting wisdom and guidance along the way.
“It’s pretty exciting,” she said. “I said to some of the staff that I saw that I hope you get to have the great experiences and great memories that I got to have. We kind of went around the group and we talked about what they’re looking forward to and I said, ‘This is honestly what I want for all of you is the ability to have the great memories and the great relationships that I got to have.’
“It’s a grind, it’s a huge grind, but it’s pretty remarkable and worth it all.”
Charlotte began her career in sports working for the Denver Nuggets in the early 1990s, but was part of the team that helped Pierre Lacroix, the president and general manager of the Quebec Nordiques, navigate the process of moving the franchise to Colorado.
She spotted an opportunity.
“I’m really not a basketball person,” she said. “At the time, I knew of Pierre and he knew of me, so when he came in, the first day I said, ‘Mr. Lacroix, I’m really better suited in hockey, do you need any help?’ And he looked at me and he was really, he was like, ‘Hmmm, let me think about that.’ He said he wanted to hire someone locally.
“He hired me that day, on the spot, and the rest is history.”
Grahame wasn’t just better suited for hockey, she was already essentially fully immersed in the sport.
In May 1974, she married Ron Grahame, after he wrapped up a decorated collegiate goaltending career for the University of Denver. Ron began his professional career in the World Hockey Association, where the couple forged a close friendship with Houston Aeros teammate Gordie Howe, who is considered one of hockey's greats.
“So Gordie Howe and Colleen Howe and the Howe family, they’re the ones that taught us how to be professionals, how to respect the game,” Charlotte said. “For that, that was the greatest thrill of our lives.”
Ron logged four years in the WHA and four more in the NHL and then the couple settled in Denver after his playing days ended. He returned to his alma mater in 1982 for roles on the coaching staff, administration and athletic director before retiring in 2020.
Along the way, the Grahames raised a pair of goaltenders in sons John and Jason while leaving their marks on their respective hockey organizations. DU won three national titles while Ron was in administration and just added another in April. Charlotte was on the Avalanche's staff for both championships.
“They’re super impactful, almost titans in a sense, of hockey in this community given the success that both organizations have had during their time with them,” said David Carle, DU’s fourth-year head coach and former Pioneers player. “They’re very humble people, will not take any credit at all, but there’s no doubt they’ve helped shape what hockey looks like in this city and in the state of Colorado based on what they’ve given in their lives to both the University of Denver and the Colorado Avalanche.
“You look to foundational people and key cogs to make the current experience what it is for players with the Avalanche and players at DU, you don’t have to look much further than the Grahames.”
‘This will be history’
Charlotte Grahame says one of her favorite parts about her job was that she got to work with virtually every part of the organization. She sat with Lacroix on a nightly basis and still marvels at the way he saw the game, but she also touched the business side and the marketing staff and everybody in between.
“Her intelligence and experience from all aspects of the hockey world and being the glue for the organization as she spent more time there and got more responsibility, she just kind of exudes that confidence and business acumen and people really like being around her,” said John Grahame, who was playing for the Boston Bruins when Colorado won the championship in 2001. “We always say, we have some pretty athletic individuals in our family and my mom would say she’s the least athletic, but probably the most successful in the sports world from the business side and the management side.
“It’s something to be really looked at as an impressive, impressive feat.”
That summer, Charlotte was in the process of finalizing the list of players and executives to be engraved on the Stanley Cup when Lacroix told her that that one was missing: Hers.
“Oh, I’m not a crier, but I know I did,” she said.
She became the 10th woman to have her name etched on the Cup, a group that has grown but still numbers only 17.
“In 1996, I did not have my name on the Cup and I hadn’t earned that. There was nothing about it that I earned,” she said, explaining the swell of emotion in 2001. “It wasn’t about the fact that (there aren’t many) women were on the Cup, it was more about the fact that (Lacroix) included me on it.”
In 2004, John’s turn arrived as a backup goaltender for the Lightning. Charlotte had been through the rigors and stress of a title run as a team executive, but not as a mom.
“It’s entirely different to be on the parent side of it and be sitting in the stands and it’s Game 7,” she said.
After the Lightning beat Calgary 2-1 in the deciding game, Charlotte headed down to rink level and ran into Phil Pritchard, the Hockey Hall of Fame employee known as the Keeper of the Cup.
“Phil looked at me and said, ‘This will be history,’” she said.
Charlotte and John became the first – and still only – mother/son duo, where the son is a player, to have their names adorn the Cup together.
“It’s something I’m so proud of, in part because my husband, Ron, worked so hard in the game,” Charlotte said. “It’s timing, it’s all the things, I’m so fortunate and privileged. The Grahame family name is on the Cup. It doesn’t matter which first name it is.
“We’re just fortunate that the Grahame family name is on the Cup.”
‘Avs through and through’
John Grahame settled in Denver with his wife, Niki, after his own playing career ended. They have sons aged 8, 7 and 5 who, despite best efforts, are already gravitating toward the net.
“We joke about it that, the last thing we want is another goalie,” he said.
He and Jason coach youth hockey in town and he’s the co-founder of Denver-based TriSearch, a recruiting firm.
He’s a Colorado guy, raised here and now raising kids here.
But he won the Cup with the Lightning, the franchise standing between the Avalanche and a return to glory.
So, who is he rooting for? Tampa or mom?
“We’ve been having a good time at my house talking about that,” he said with a laugh. “My mom’s connection and just being born in Denver and knowing what the Avalanche have done for the sport of hockey here in Colorado, you have to cheer for that. That’s definitely something that we’re doing, but in the same turn, you always have the allegiance (to the team) that you had success with.
“I’m quietly rooting for both, but being able to see that three-peat and the team you had success with, there’s always a special place in your heart, for sure.”
There is no such split loyalty for Charlotte.
“She’s Avs through and through,” John said.
“I’ll tell you what, I think that Pierre will be smiling down and Joe (Sakic), I’d be thrilled for the staff,” Charlotte said. “I remember (New York Islanders general manager) Lou Lamoriello said to us one year, ‘It’s just our turn now.’
“And I think that’s it. It’s our turn now.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Avalanche's Stanley Cup Final run installs old friend for guidance