Now that the NHL has all but returned for a shortened – yet no less potentially exciting – season in 2013, local hockey fans are left wondering how to feel about the other local team downtown in the Pepsi big house. Before the 48- to 50-game campaign gets underway, there are a few things that the Colorado Avalanche need to do to get back in the good graces of those in the 5280.
First, sign Ryan O’Reilly to a contract. The longer this “drama” drags on, the more concerned (read: turned off) fans are going to be. O’Reilly was arguably the best player on the club last season, tallying 18 goals and 37 assists to lead the club with 55 points across 81 games. His line was the top line, featuring rookie Gabriel Landeskog and Dan Winnik for the majority of the season, with Steve Downie replacing Winnik after the trade deadline. This trio was responsible on defense, lethal on offense and even-keeled for everything else.
O’Reilly deserves, at minimum, a two-year contract and, at most, a four-year deal allowing him to comfortably develop into the No. 1 or 2 talent on the entire roster. His commitment and off-ice work ethic is something not only to encourage but to hold as a shining beacon of exemplary behavior for the rest of the team to see, as well.
Second, get the gears going on a ruthless training camp. Speculation is that camps across the league will fire up on Sunday following a CBA ratification vote from the NHLPA. A handful of players – those currently in town – have already been skating together at Family Sports, looking to start forming the all important chemical bonds of a successful team.
There will be no preseason games this year, so the only preparation the Avs will have is roughly six days of skates, scrimmages, drills and, hopefully, camaraderie. Throw three new faces into the mix – John Mitchell, P.A. Parenteau, and Greg Zanon – and the work won’t be easy.
Obviously these guys have been active in some capacity during the downtime, but those who played abroad – Matt Duchene, Landeskog, Semyon Varlamov, Paul Stastny, etc. – will have a distinct advantage come opening night. Also, as essentially every game will be a playoff game, there will be little room for error or “not starting on time.”
Third, apologize to the fans. Gary Bettman did it. Jeremy Jacobs did it. A variety of others around the league have done it. Just do it.
The Avs have been notoriously, though not unexpectedly, silent during the entire labor stoppage and now is not the time to be overly prideful. Everyone knows that the Avs are on the lower end of the attendance spectrum, not so far down as to require assistance but not even close to high enough to have to share revenue, either. That means that the lockout hit them the hardest.
The casual fan in Denver is peeved at best and many diehards may have been turned away for at least a stretch of time. The Denver Broncos will be done either way by Feb. 3, so it is never too early to start winning back anyone who will pay.
Apologize about the lockout. Give fans the spiel about how words don’t change what has happened but promise to make it up to every single Avalanche fan out there. The gesture is a start.
Fourth, back that apology up with deeds. While the big names of Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Adam Foote and Patrick Roy once helped to easily sell a winning team to a town that was crazy for hockey, those glory days are long gone. Now, marketing will need to be done. More than billboards, 10-game pack commercials and the ilk will be required to win back those who once frequented the frosty halls of Pepsi Center.
Think fan carnivals, fantasy camps, immersive experiences, etc. Make opening night an event. Obviously, it won’t be a retirement ceremony, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a must-attend social gathering. Throw a party in front of the Can.
Have sponsors, radio stations, games, giveaways, mascots and fun before attendees ever crack the gates and find their seats. Celebrate the game, but more importantly, celebrate those willing to give you another chance after being scorned for the third time in the last 20 years.
Fifth, commit to winning. Before camp starts, before players return, before whistles are blown, tickets are bought, season ticket holders demand concessions, reiterate the desire to win. Sports teams are businesses and, like any other business, they need to earn money to maintain. Winning championships will bring in more moolah. It will also show fans that the bottom line isn’t the only thing that matters.
I’m not saying go out and spend to the cap. That would be silly. The Avs sit in a pretty place to pilfer the free agent market next season amidst waves of amnesty buyouts and a talent-filled landscape brought to you by overspending from the previous years.
Still, now is a year for the Avalanche to make a splash as the shortened season will offer anyone a chance. Even the Toronto Maple Leafs could make the playoffs.
The items on this list give Colorado the best chance at quickly reining in lost fandom and should be carried out as soon as possible to minimize damage from the most recent lockout.
Hockey’s back. Time to get to work.
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