The buzz is back.
Banished since the amazing 112-point season under Patrick Roy in 2013-14 — an accomplishment diminished by the first-round playoff collapse against the Wild — the excitement, the energy and the rush to get back aboard the Avalanche bandwagon all have returned in Colorado.
Not that it really matters, but more media members are talking about the NHL team in town, or even showing up at games, and they’re not even asking the Avalanche players what prospect the Broncos should claim with the fifth pick of the draft. (Well, maybe they are, but I haven’t been within earshot.)
The Avalanche’s ninth consecutive win, a 3-1 victory over the Rangers Saturday afternoon, came in front of an SRO crowd, albeit with many of the fans wearing Rangers jerseys — even if the closest they ever have been to Madison Square Garden is Manhattan, Kansas.
It was the Avalanche’s fifth sellout of the season, and the third in three weeks. The Pepsi Center average of 15,118 still ranks 27th in the 31-team NHL — ahead of only Florida, Arizona, Carolina and the New York Islanders — but the box-office momentum is evident.
As genius songwriter J.D. Souther once opined, “Everybody loves a winner, but when you lose, you lose alone.”
Relatively speaking, of course.
“It was a fun game to play,” captain Gabe Landeskog said. “The Rangers are in town only once a year, and we knew they had a a big following out here and really anywhere they go.”
The box office effects, too, can lag behind the on-ice progress, and that’s showing up in the Nuggets’ lackluster attendance despite their fits and spurts of competence.
Also, even in that stunning 2013-14 season, the Avalanche’s average of 16,295 was 22nd in the 30-team league, and part of that was that Colorado was dreadful the season before…as is the case this time, too. (Besides, because of arena capacities, the the Avalanche could sell out every game and be only about 15th in the league in home attendance.)
With the Avalanche now, it’s not skepticism as much as it is pragmatism and the reality of ticket prices and advance planning. The point is, the Avalanche is recapturing the attention and affection of this market, and beyond. That is manifested in conversations at the copying machine (which, of course, is out of toner, allowing for discussion), at Starbucks (if you can find seats among those camped out with laptops), at the sports bar, with the Uber driver … and more.
Frankly, it’s fun. I’ve never had a problem with admitting that, regardless of what sport I’ve been covering. It’s much more enjoyable to be around folks in good moods, to be chronicling winning teams, to be writing for and communicating with not just the specific sport-first fans, but also a burgeoning general sports fan audience paying more attention.
It’s what we took for granted in the Avalanche Glory Years, during what at least officially was the 11-year sellout streak, spanning the final years at McNichols Sports Arena and the first seasons in the Pepsi Center.
The electric All in Line — Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Landeskog — is dominating.
“It’s been a long time,” MacKinnon said of the atmosphere. “Maybe it’s just because I’ve been here longer, but I feel like it’s a lot more than my first year (2013-14) when we won the division. I just feel like with the youth we have and the guys coming up, there’s a lot of excitement around this team. Another thing, too, is there was no expectations for us. Obviously, it’s easy to please people. . . It’s been a lot of fun.”
Erik Johnson had a goal and assist against the Rangers.
“I take a lot of pride in that,” the veteran defenseman said of the buzz. “When I think back, I got here when I was 22 years old and it seems very bizarre to me. I was a kid. Now I’m almost 30, and the years go by like that. It’s fun to see the light at the end of the tunnel and see where this team is going. I’m happy to be a part of it and want to be a part of it.”
As of Sunday morning, the Avalanche, at 26-16-3, was sitting in the second Western Conference wild card spot in a crazy season in which an expansion team — the Vegas Golden Knights — is atop the West and has the second-best record in the league.
I’m among those who have been certain the Golden Knights and Marc-Andre Fleury would come back to earth at any moment … but it hasn’t happened.
I’ve been similarly certain that, whether in this upcoming stretch of nine on the road in the next 10 games, or beyond, the Avalanche — which still has holes and is getting terrific coaching from Jared Bednar and his staff in minimizing the deficiencies — will hit a wall.
But I also was thinking that nine games ago, when the Avalanche already had established that this would be a turnaround season if the second half was anything other than a completely embarrassing collapse or relapse. In those nine games (eight at home and one at Dallas), the Avs outscored opponents 37-15 and never trailed.
“I think that’s the third, fourth really big crowd that we’ve won in front of this year and we’re seeing a little but of excitement around our team here locally,” Bednar said after the win over the Rangers. “I think our guys have earned that. Not just the fact that we’re winning, but I like the way we’re playing. We’re playing with a little pace, we’re an exciting team, we’re scoring some goals.
“Winning’s the most important thing, but I also like the energy and the speed that our team plays with. Some of these guys, they’re young and they’re still coming. There’s guys that I think our fans can attach themselves to over the next couple of years that are still going to grow and become really good players in this league, if they’re not already.”
With the opener of the three-game trip in advance of the All-Star break at Toronto Monday night, arguably the league’s media center and in talent-rich Ontario, I was going to say that it’s a case of an additional litmus test or especially significant night for the Avalanche. But that’s another against-the-grain thing about this team. The Avalanche has more players from California, Illinois, Connecticut, and Massachusetts (one from each) than from Ontario (zero).
* * *
Denver-based journalist Terry Frei writes two commentaries a week about the Avalanche for Mile High Sports. He has been named a state’s sports writer of the year seven times, four times in Colorado (including for 2016) and three times in Oregon. He’s the author of seven books, including the fact-based novel “Olympic Affair” about Colorado’s Glenn Morris, the 1936 Olympic decathlon champion; and “Third Down and a War to Go,” about the 1942 football national champion Wisconsin Badgers and the players’ subsequent World War II heroism. His web site is terryfrei.com and his additional “On the Colorado Scene” commentaries are at terryfrei/oncolorado.
E-mail: [email protected]
Terry Frei’s MHS Commentary Archive: