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Breaking the Niche: Avalanche fans should welcome the bandwagon

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May 23, 2021; St. Louis, Missouri, USA; Colorado Avalanche right wing Mikko Rantanen (96) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal against the St. Louis Blues in the third period in game four of the first round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Enterprise Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Le-USA TODAY Sports

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mile High Sports Magazine contributing writer and author Terry Frei has covered the Avalanche since its 1995 arrival in Denver. He will be writing commentaries during Colorado’s 2021 playoff run for the MHS site.    

The Avalanche has swept the Blues and gone through the handshake line in what remains one of the top rituals in pro sports.

Colorado is waiting for its next opponent, most likely the Vegas Golden Knights.

The hockey world and the wing of the national media that pays attention to the NHL is playing up the Avalanche as, well, must-see TV.

Get ready for Avalanche bandwagon to become more crowded around here.

If the Nuggets’ Game 1 loss to Portland is a harbinger rather than a wakeup call, the Denver postseason focus soon might be exclusively on the Avalanche.

I’ve pleaded with hockey-first fans virtually from the day I started covering the NHL — which was a long time ago.

Stop being so proprietary about your sport.

Be an ambassador for it.

Share it.

Welcome casual new fans, those who are unlikely to become immersed but enjoy the game, to the fold.

Embrace the NHL trying to broaden its appeal to include more of the intelligent general sports fan base.

Don’t be disdainful of fans that candidly admit they’re climbing aboard the bandwagon of a winning team, or of the sport itself, without necessarily having any idea which defenseman played major junior for the Windsor Spitfires, which recent NHL stars were from Ornskoldsvik and how to interpret a ridiculous analytics graph about puck possession.

Or, in this case, knowing:

— Who’s stepping into the void created by Avalanche center Nazem Kadri’s eight-game suspension.

— Which wings Mikko Rantanen and Gabe Landeskog play on each side of Nathan MacKinnon.

— Where Calgary native Cale Makar, now the top hybrid defenseman in the game, played his college hockey.

— Which Avalanche winger twice has played for Stanley Cup champions, is from Pittsburgh and probably puts French fries in his sandwiches to salute Primanti Brothers.

It’s almost as if to get in to the arena, you traditionally have needed more than a ticket, whether on your phone or in your hand. Or to even go to watch parties, too, or join an online discussion, you have to know the password.

Always try “Swordfish” first. Then “Gretzky.”

Hockey fans’ “it’s-our-sport” attitudes are a common phenomenon everywhere, of course, even outside of NHL markets.

In Denver, which has been a pro and college hockey hotbed now for many years; and in Colorado, one of the top youth hockey territories in the nation, that’s still true a stunning amount of the time.

One thing I’ve always known: Those hockey-first fans tend to be especially savvy and knowledgeable. More recently, the information explosion has highlighted that, with so many outlets for expression.

The negative for hockey writing, especially on this side of the border, is the increasing specialized and myopic nature of the wider coverage, straying from storytelling, profiling and even quick-turnaround craftsmanship to focus on analytics, minutiae and lists. The limitations of Zoom-only availabilities during the pandemic encouraged those trends.

But that’s our problem.

Not yours.

Hearing a deeply knowledgeable hockey fan explaining offside, icing and the trapezoid and the significance of the Cole Harbour on a first date can be aggravating if you’re within earshot in the bar or arena.

But she’s trying to get the poor guy up to speed. (Yes, I’m convinced the majority of deeply knowledgeable hockey fans are women.)

In no other sport do you encounter this kind of snobbery. It doesn’t happen in football, basketball and baseball, where it’s accepted that knowledge of the sports themselves can and will run the gamut from encyclopedic to minimal. For hockey’s proponents, it’s a bit defensive. It’s a reaction to a perceived lack of “respect” – there’s that word, sorry – from the media and general sports fandom. But it also creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It leans right into the punch, the image of the NHL as the most “niche” of the major leagues.

The contradiction is that when many members of the media, ranging from sports talk hosts to influential columnists to sports anchors, try to jump in and discuss the NHL, while admitting they’re more conversant about football, basketball or baseball, they’re challenged: What the hell do you know? Where have you been? Go back to talking about the tight ends!

The truth is, though that intimidates some in the media (you’re right … poor babies), hockey is nowhere near as complicated as some its proponents want to make it. It really isn’t. And we’re finally getting past the other plague of hockey in the past. That’s when the tenets of the NHL’s “Code” were challenged as archaic or downright stupid – as in the aftermath of the infamous Todd Bertuzzi attack on Steve Moore in 2004 – the reflexive response from many clinging to tradition was: If you disagree with me, you don’t know the game!

So is that image accurate? Is hockey a niche sport?

Of course it is.

After going from rabbit ears and two stations 70 years ago to literally hundreds of choices today, even among sporting events alone, everything popular in 21st century America is at best a “niche” – well, except maybe when “Game of Thrones” is in its first run.

Hockey-first fans. It’s a great sport. You have chosen wisely. But stop blocking the doorway. Welcome and let the general sports fan in on the fun – literally and figuratively.

Terry Frei is a seven-time winner of a state’s sportswriter of the year award. Among his seven books are “Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming,” “Third Down and a War to Go,” “’77: Denver, the Broncos, and a Coming of Age,” and “Olympic Affair.” Info is available on terryfrei.com