In the summer of 1996 I found myself in Palm Springs meeting with Pierre LaCroix the General Manager of the Colorado Avalanche. It was their inaugural season and they had just won the 1996 Stanley Cup championship a week before. I was talking to Pierre because my company was a new contender in the making of championship rings. Having made the previous Stanley Cup rings for the New Jersey Devils and the Super Bowl rings for the Dallas Cowboys we were trying to extend our winning streak to include a ring for the Colorado Avalanche. As I spoke to Mr. LaCroix I was immediately struck maybe for the first time, what it felt like, the true after-glow of not only a job well done but perfection. The Avalanche had achieved what no inaugural NHL hockey team had ever done, won the Stanley Cup championship and in sweeping fashion no less. I asked Pierre what was his most exciting moment and he told me that it was when he raised that cup above his head and then realized Rene Angelil, his best friend and husband to Celine Dion had snuck in the building to be there for his buddy. Win or lose he wanted to be there. True friendship can’t be replaced for a million dollars!
Subsequently, we were awarded our second Stanley Cup ring account. At the time of the closing I told Pierre that I was moved by what his friend had done and promised that when he found himself in a similar position to win the Stanley Cup I would be in that arena to watch him raise the cup over his head.
Flash forward to Thursday night June 7, 2001. The Avalanche have just staved off elimination and forced the New Jersey Devils to game seven back in Denver. I frantically confirmed all my reservations to make sure there weren’t any foul ups and went to bed. It would be my last good night’s sleep for 63 hours.
Friday, 6:00AM I got up, exercised and headed off to work. I was trying to get caught up on all my paperwork because our General Manager and I had 6:30AM flights on Frontier Airlines out of Houston Saturday morning. By 10:00AM I had contacted Charlotte, Pierre LaCroix’s assistant to confirm tickets to the seventh game. “Hi Charlotte, this is Fred.” “You going to make it?”, Charlotte asked. “Of course, I gave Pierre my word. I’m going to be there no matter what, I don’t care if I have to go through hell and high water but I’m going to be there.” (I had no idea how those words would come back to haunt me.) “Don’t worry.” Charlotte said, “I don’t know how I’m going to pull it off but you’ll have two tickets at will call. I have to go, have a safe trip.”
The Quest Begins
I left my office around 7:00PM, went to Luby’s for a quick bite and home to pack. On my way home I noticed some dark clouds out in the distance. I paid them no heed. Once home, I relaxed and was upset that my favorite shows on ABC kept being interrupted for thunderstorm warnings. My satellite signal kept breaking up and I was forced to go to local reception. The rain kept falling 8:00, 9:00, 10:00, 11:00. The weatherman said that the remnants of tropical storm Allison, which had gone through Houston on Tuesday, had stalled and slipped so quietly, back over Houston and was getting fed by feeder bands from the Gulf of Mexico. The rain was not expected to stop any time soon. Road closings were beginning to show up at the bottom of my television screen. I dialed up Rick Antona, our General Manager. “Rick, this is Fred, this rain is starting to look serious.” “Yeah maybe”, he replied “But it will have long stopped by the time we need to head off at 4:00AM.” “Yeah maybe you’re right.” “Look Fred I need to catch a few winks.” “Alright, alright, I’ll see you in the morning.”
Sleep sounded pretty good to me. It was approaching midnight and I would need to be up in three hours anyway so I turned off the light and the TV. Crash!! No sooner had I turned off my bedside light when a great roar of thunder made me sit straight up in bed. My heart was racing and I knew I was in trouble. My street was starting to flood and the minute I turned on the TV, I heard reports of not only roads being closed, but major highways. I called Rick again but now he was up too. “My God Fred have you seen this? It’s a mess! We might not be able to go to Denver.” “What! Are you kidding me!! We are going to Denver! It’s just we’re going to have to leave a lot earlier than we expected. If this keeps going on, we are leaving at 2:00AM.” You’re nuts Fred!” “No, I’m not! You be ready, I’ll leave to come pick you up at two.
16 Hours Before Game
My dad had made fun of me when I had bought my Range Rover saying that it was too much machine for a city fella who had no intentions of climbing mountains or going to the outback, but now I felt vindicated. This was going to be my ticket through the rain to the airport, to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup Finals. I was off.
Our general manager lived in a low-lying area of Houston near Memorial Park. There were two ways to get to him Loop 610 to I-10 or down Memorial road. When I left I had no idea I-10 had been closed in both directions off of Loop 610 and Memorial road was 30 feet under water in some sections! After six hours, two rescues of other passengers that were stranded I still didn’t have my GM and my telephone portable was running out of juice. I made two phone calls before it died. One to my GM to tell him I was going at it alone and one call to my father. He told me to be careful, to please be very careful.
Since the rain had started Northwest of Houston and moved Southeast through the night, I felt my best bet at getting to the airport was to stay on Loop 610 (the highest road around in most places) then move on to the Hardy Toll road (also high elevation) to Bush Intercontinental airport. My plan seemed to work flawlessly. The feeder roads and access roads were closed but the loop was clear sailing (no pun intended). Then traffic suddenly stopped at Market Street and Loop 610. There had been an accident and now my highway to heaven was shut down.
As I sat in my truck knowing it could be hours before it would clear up and seeing perfectly unused highway on the other side I looked to my right, at a small river which used to be called Market Street. Light bulb! I’ve got it! I’ll slide off the overpass, cross Market Street, jump back on the hill of the overpass and ride up. I could be on the other side of this traffic. The only question was how deep was the water? (I should take a moment to point out that there is a fine line between clever and insane. I was about to find out what side of that line I was on.)
As I made my way down the overpass and into the water I kept reminding myself of the sales pitch the salesman at Land Rover had told me, “You can climb Mount Everest, cross the Panama Canal and the Sahara Desert all without batting an eye.” We were about to see how right he was. When the hood of my car was under water and I was still moving swiftly along, I felt a sense of exhilaration. Wow! This thing is a tank! I can go anywhere! I can do anything! I can … that’s when I saw it, a Range Rover 4.6 floating 20 feet ahead of me!! I panicked!! The other side of Market Street was 10 feet away and so too was the hill to the other side of the overpass. I turned my truck slightly and headed for higher ground. Ten seconds later I made it, two minutes later I was on the other side of Loop 610 East heading unimpeded to the Hardy Toll road.
Smooth sailing again till I got to almost exact the situation I had just bypassed. Traffic accident at Loop 610 and I-45. I was one mile from the Hardy Toll road according to “James” my in-house Global Positioning system. (At no time did James ever lose his composure.) To continue I would have to repeat my little maneuver but this water looked deeper. I was terrified. On the radio I was already hearing of reported deaths. There would later be twenty-two. I had to ask myself, “Is a silly seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals, a promise made half a decade ago worth losing my life?” “Hell yeah!” and I was off!
When I got off Loop 610 and stared at almost two football fields of water I began to have second thoughts. Just then an 18-wheeler came barreling through like a bat out of hell! As he parted the water I saw land created behind him in his wake. This was my chance!! I tucked in behind him and we were moving. About thirty feet shy of the edge of the overpass that I would need to climb, the 18-wheeler stalled out! His wake slowly but surely began overtaking me and my green little Range Rover. Within seconds I was almost entirely under water. I swerved left and headed for the overpass; time stopped but my Range Rover didn’t!! I made it to the overpass and back on to Loop 610 to the Hardy Toll road. I had cheated the flood gods a second time.
As I rolled down a relatively dry Hardy Toll road, “James” in his distinct English accent informed me that we would soon be exiting the motorway. I was just a few miles from the airport. I had two choices; leave the Hardy Toll road for a quicker entrance down Beltway 8 or stay on the Hardy Toll road and take the back entrance. I decided to take the short cut. In my mind I had waited long enough and needed to get to the airport.
As I exited to Beltway 8, I saw waters similar to what I had encountered on the feeder roads so I though nothing of it when I slowly began to go under. Fifty feet ahead I saw something floating on the water. It was the traffic lights. I stopped immediately, got back up on the Hardy Toll road and on to the airport. Not knowing if more rain was coming I parked on the roof. I had slipped by the flood gods a third time on this fateful day.
At the terminal all I saw was red cancelled notices next to flight after flight on the departure boards. The agent at Frontier informed me that the flight crew had not shown up for my flight so it had been cancelled along with the rest of the day’s flights. “Attention. Attention. Due to the flood, Bush Intercontinental Airport will be closing in 45 minutes.”, the man on the loud speaker informed the stranded passengers at the airport. I couldn’t believe it! No way was this ending here. I asked the agent, “What about Continental? Do they have any flights?” “Nope, sorry buddy you’re not going anywhere, all the flights are cancelled.” As I walked away in disbelief I noticed a long line at American Airlines. Why are they in line? To get a quick answer the back of the line was not the solution. So I got in the first class cabin line.
“May I help you?” the flight agent said with all the smile she could muster. “My name is Fred Cuellar, (I laid out my business card, driver’s license and platinum American Express down in front of her.) I am the jeweler to the Colorado Avalanche and I need to get to Denver for the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals, please help me!” “Sir, we don’t have any direct flights but let’s see if we can get you to Dallas and make a connection there for you to Denver. Yes, that we can do. We have two flights left and I think I can get you on one of them, just give me a second.” Kapow!! All the boards to American Airlines went dead. One by one I heard all the agents say to their passengers, “I’m sorry but we will no longer be able to assist you.” “What, you can’t get me a ticket?” “I’m sorry my board is out.” “Look there has to be something you can do, someone you call, please.” “Wait, call…hmm. I got an idea.” She picked up the phone and dialed another airport and asked can they enter me into their computer? Within ten minutes I am in American Airlines’ database and have a handwritten ticket. “Look”, she tells me, “This isn’t an official ticket but you’re in the system, just show this to the gate agent and you’ll get on.” “Should I wait for your system to come back?” “No” she said, “You have to hurry, they are closing security in five minutes!” I thanked her and ran. When I got to security I was one of the last people allowed through but only after practically a strip search where my belt, phone, watch, keys, pen, money clip, change had be removed because I kept setting off the metal detector. But I got through and on the flight.
Once on the flight the captain told us that clearance for take off was being delayed due to the weather and he would keep us notified but lo and behold an hour later we were up and away. Now, not having a real ticket, I had no idea what time my connecting flight left for Denver. When I got off the plane in Dallas, I saw that my flight was leaving in six minutes and was currently boarding! I ran and I ran. I had 36 gates to cross! As I passed the half way mark I was convinced my heart was going to burst! Sadly, I had not visited Mr. Treadmill enough. Within five minutes I could spot my gate. They were closing the door. All I could think was no, no, no! Wait, don’t leave without me!! When I got to the agent I couldn’t breath much less speak. “Me, plane go, Avalanche, please, help. “I’m sorry, sir we’ve just closed the doors!” “No, me plane, go, Avalanche.” “Okay, calm down.” She called the plane and told them to wait a second that she might have one more passenger. “Can I see your driver’s license and ticket?” I handed her both. “Nope you’re not in the system and this is not a legal ticket.” “What!?” She picked up her little white phone and told the plane to leave! “Look again, I’ve got to be in there! I’ve got to get to the Stanley Cup finals, I’m the jeweler to the Avalanche, I promised Pierre LaCroix five years ago and…” “Oh, here you are I’m sorry, you’ll have a ticket.” “Okay, then, now that’s better.” A few minutes passed, “Alrighty, then you’ll be leaving out of gate 37 in about one hour.” “One hour, what about this flight?” “Oh, I’m sorry sir it’s gone.” “Aghh, when does my next flight get into Denver?” “3:30 Mountain”, she replied. Okay, all right I’m gonna make it. Once I land I’ll still have two-and-a-half hours to game time.
My flight to Denver boarded right on time. I couldn’t believe it. Everybody was in their seat, no late arrivals everything was perfect. Then… whirr, whirr, whirr, pop! went the engine. “What was that?” I said out loud. The captain came on immediately, “Good afternoon folks, it appears we have a problem with our rear thruster. We’ve asked maintenance to come out and take a look at it. It should take about 30 to 35 minutes. We’ll keep you informed.” “I’m cursed!” I thought to myself. All right don’t panic, if they fix the engine I’ll still get there a little after 4:00. I’ll still have two hours.
“Hello this your captain again, it doesn’t seem like we can fix this rear thruster problem, but as it turns out we don’t need it for take off. So we’re going to just stick a pin in it so it doesn’t come on during flight and we’ll be ready for take off. By the way, since we’ve used up a little bit of our gas sitting here we’ve requested that our tanks be topped off. We should be under way in about 30 minutes.” Thirty minutes! The best we can do is get there by 4:30, I am running out of time. My mind kept racing on the exact time it would take to get to the Adams Mark Hotel, change and get to the Pepsi Center. It can be done in an hour and a half.
Ninety minutes into the flight my mind had finally gone on auto pilot and I was about to get my first minutes sleep when suddenly…check, check “This is your captain speaking, I’ve just gotten a report that they have closed the Denver airport due to some bad weather and funnel clouds, we expect to be re-routed back to Amarillo in a couple of minutes. I’m sorry we are currently 120 miles from Denver.”
“That’s it!” I screamed at the top of my lungs to the rest of the passengers in the cabin. “I’ve had enough!! I can’t believe I’ve come this far to end up in Amarillo! God I’m talking straight to you now, split the skies, do what ever the hell you have to and open up that Denver airport!” “I am the jeweler to the Colorado Avalanche and I have to be at the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals!” Everyone in the plane was silent, you could hear a pin drop when a young man from across the aisle quietly said, “You’ve got tickets to the Stanley Cup finals?” I nodded yes. “Do you have an extra ticket?” I nodded again yes. “Can I go with you?” Before I could respond his wife smacked him. “What are you talking about, we have to drive three and a half hours home once we land, we’ve got no time for you to go traipsing off to a hockey game!” “Honey it’s not just a hockey game it’s the hockey game! Bourque after 22 years can finally raise the cup. Patrick Roy the most winning goalie in history could win his third Con Smythe, the Avalanche for the first time can win the Stanley Cup on home ice!!” “Honey please!” Then there was a whisper between them and he said, “My name is Rusty, this is my wife Kathi. If I did go, my wife doesn’t have anywhere to be.” “Look,” I said “If by some miracle we end up in Denver versus Amarillo your wife can stay in my hotel room.” “See honey it will work out!” They began to whisper again, “Sir” “Call me Fred.” “Fred what do you want for the ticket. We can’t afford very much, I’m a professional skydiver and money’s a little tight.” “Rusty, like I said before, if God will see his way to get us to Denver you can have the ticket, no charge. You’re the type of person that should be at the game, a real fan!” Check, check this is your pilot speaking. “Folks you’re not going to believe this but the storm center has just moved and they’ve reopened Denver airport!” “Rusty promptly threw up from the excitement of the prospect of his first Avalanche hockey game.
By the time we landed I had an hour to make it to the hotel room, shower, change and get to the Pepsi Center. We made it 36 seconds before the Avalanche took the ice. Rusty threw up again from the excitement! Pierre LaCroix had gotten me seats on the 50-yard line (center ice) 13 rows up. It was magic.
At the end of the game when Bourque was skating around the rink with Lord Stanley’s Cup over his head Pierre was just taking the ice. He looked up at me and smiled. A promise made is a promise kept.
by Fred Cuellar the Diamond Guy®
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