Mile High Sports’ Sportsperson of the Year for 2022 isn’t a person at all.

It’s Hockey.

Following an illustrious list of individual Colorado-based sports figures to win the award the past five years (starting for 2021 and going backwards, Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Nathan MacKinnon, Kyle Freeland and Martin Truex Jr.), we’re saluting an extraordinary year for a single sport in the state.

Minnesota bills itself as the State of Hockey, including with an obnoxious song of the same name.

“Hockeytown” is a trademark registered by the Detroit Red Wings. Whether it’s still true or not is beside the legal point.

In hockey in 2022, Colorado was the State of Champions.

In late June, the Avalanche won the Stanley Cup, beating the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning in the Final. The Avalanche’s 2-1 Game 6 series-clincher was in Tampa, with MacKinnon and Artturi Lehkonen scoring the goals. Wunderkind Cale Makar won both the Norris Trophy as the best defenseman in the NHL and the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP. Captain Gabriel Landeskog, the Avalanche and their fans – partied into the night and through the [bleeping] public celebration a few days later in a packed Civic Center Park.

In early April, the University of Denver Pioneers won the NCAA championship, defeating Michigan 3-2 in overtime and Minnesota State 5-1 in the Frozen Four at the TD Center in Boston. Carter Savoie had the OT game winner in the semifinals for the Pioneers, who then exploded for five unanswered goals in the third period of the championship game – as Ryan Barrow, Mike Benning, Massimo Rizzo, Brett Stapley and Cameron Wright all scored – to claim the title.

In late March, Denver East High, Colorado’s Class 5A champion and made up of players from various Denver Public Schools, won the Division II national high school tournament championship in the Dallas area. The Angels knocked off the Northport-Huntington (N.Y.) Tigers 4-2 in the title game. This isn’t raining on the parade: Participation in the national tournament isn’t universal for U.S. high school teams. Many top players have left home to be in other programs such as Junior A. But the Angels’ championship was a significant validation of Colorado grassroots hockey, as well as a remarkable story. East completed a progression from a ragtag combined city program to a state power that for at least a season outperformed teams from such private schools as the George Gwozdecky-coached Valor Christian and Regis Jesuit.

(Photo courtesy of Brad Cochi/

Elsewhere on the state hockey scene, Colorado College in Colorado Springs also is playing in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference with DU. The gritty Air Force Falcons are treading water in the Atlantic Hockey Association. The Loveland-based Colorado Eagles morphed into serving as the Avalanche’s American Hockey League affiliate in 2018 after a long run as an independent franchise in the sport’s lower pro minor leagues. Club programs draw surprising levels of participation and interest at state schools, including Colorado, Colorado State, Northern Colorado and MSU Denver.

In 2022, hockey took significant steps upward among the Colorado sports hierarchy.

With interest mainly stoked by the momentum from the Avalanche’s success in the glory years that led to Stanley Cup celebrations in 1996 and 2001, Colorado is a participatory hotbed. That’s in everything from youth hockey to adult beer leagues and lunchtime drop-in games.

The increased popularity long was one of visionary Avalanche executive Pierre Lacroix’s points of pride from the franchise’s arrival in Denver to his 2020 death. He was instrumental in growing the game. Although the sport’s Colorado roots are deeper than sometimes recognized, taking into consideration DU, CC and various pro minor league ventures in Denver that predated the Avalanche, the uptick is apparent.

Chris MacFarland, previously the Avalanche assistant general manager for seven years, in July was elevated to GM as Joe Sakic stepped up to become president of hockey operations.

“Denver’s a great hockey market,” MacFarland said before an early season home game. “DU’s doing so well. Even from the selfish standpoint, we went up the road last night to see the Eagles. So you have minor pro, Division I programs, youth hockey.

“I have a young [son] who has played in a bunch of associations here. He loves it. With what has happened, there’s excitement in the rinks here. Obviously, you want to keep doing that because that’s the base, not just for the Avalanche, but for the game itself.”

USA Hockey, based in Colorado Springs, is the national governing body for the sport. It reports that in 1990-91, which was between the NHL Colorado Rockies’ 1982 departure and the Avalanche’s arrival, a total of 3,854 players at all levels were registered in Colorado. For 2021-22, the figure was 15,547, with the 2022-23 numbers due next May. That, of course, measures participation interest, which only is one component of the exploding public interest in the sport.

Also, many former Avalanche and NHL players have remained in the area and gotten involved in coaching in various minor (youth) hockey programs, most notably the Colorado Thunderbirds.

It was all the backdrop for Colorado’s NHL/NCAA sweep in 2022.

DU’s first five NCAA championships came in 1958, 1960, 1961, 1968 and 1969 — all predating the NHL tenures of the Rockies (1976 to 1982) and Avalanche (1995 on). From the 1995-96 season on, the Avalanche and Pioneers won a combined total of seven championships. This year – 2022 – marked the first time both won championships in the same season.

Apr 9, 2022; Boston, MA, USA; Denver Pioneers forward Cole Guttman (19) holds up the NCAA National Championship Trophy in front of his teammates after defeating the Minnesota State Mavericks in 2022 Frozen Four college ice hockey national championship game at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

What follows in the next few paragraphs is a look at those title seasons. It gives a hint of how hard the accomplishment was.

I’m including the Loveland based Colorado Eagles in the roll call because of their four minor-league championships in the Central Hockey League and ECHL. Also keep in mind that when Eagles founder Ralph Backstrom, the former Montreal Canadiens center and one-time DU coach, gave me a hardhat tour of the under-construction Budweiser Events Center in early 2003, I was thinking there was no way the Eagles would be a financial and box-office success in the CHL. I had seen too many minor-league franchise failures in the state. He sensed my skepticism. But Backstrom was adamant that it could work both because of Northern Colorado growth and the increasing popularity of hockey in the state, period. He was right. They were virtual automatic sellouts for much of their stay in the CHL and ECHL. COVID forced some reconfiguration at the Budweiser Events Center after the move to the AHL, but the simple way to put it is that the Eagles’ average home attendance of 4,972 in 2021-22 was essentially 100 percent of capacity.

1995-96: The Avalanche won the Stanley Cup; the DU Pioneers lost in the first round of the WCHA playoffs and didn’t advance.

2000-01: The Avalanche won the Stanley Cup; the Pioneers lost in the first round of the WCHA playoffs and didn’t advance.

2003-04: The Pioneers won the NCAA championship; the Avalanche lost to the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference semifinals.

2004-05: The Pioneers claimed a second consecutive NCAA championship; the entire NHL season and playoffs were scrubbed because of a lockout. There was a second title team, though: The Eagles won the Ray Miron President’s Trophy as the CHL’s champions.

2017-18: The Pioneers were NCAA champions; the Avalanche lost to Nashville in the first round of the playoffs. The Eagles won the Kelly Cup as the champions of the ECHL.

2021-22: The Avalanche won the Stanley Cup; the Pioneers won the NCAA championship.

The Eagles’ other two championships came in 2007 (CHL) and 2017 (ECHL). Just an aside: Weirdly, their two championship trophies were named after two former NHL Colorado Rockies figures who returned to minor-league hockey as league founders and executives — Ray Miron, their long-time general manager, and Pat Kelly, their coach for a little more than one season.

DU is using the state and local hockey interest in recruiting.

“We talk about the community this is,” said Pioneers coach David Carle, MHS’ choice as College Coach of the Year. “I think what we see in our support is exceptional. It was a point of emphasis to come out of COVID in a powerful way and I think we were able to do that.

“So were the Avalanche. I think the buzz around the hockey community here is a really special thing. . . We won two championships in the past five years. Even going back to when my brother [2006 Hobey Baker Award winner Matt Carle] was here, they won back-to-back titles and had an unbelievable sellout streak. Obviously, the Avs were down a little bit there, which led to a reclimbing of the mountain. I think we’ve seen a change the last five or six years in the engagement, the growth of the game here. The coverage you see, not only for us, but for the Avalanche, trickles down. I think it’s a really healthy and growing hockey market.”

Carle also brought up the Avalanche’s overall influence. Many Colorado hockey fans were interested in the game – and other NHL teams –when they moved here. But many others didn’t know the color of the blue line until the Avalanche arrived and immediately caught on. Those new fans now are debating who should be on the second power-play unit. They know which Avs played NCAA hockey and which instead played major junior. And even after all these years, they know what to chant about the Red Wings.

“It’s great when the Avs win, and when they won in ‘96 and ‘01,” Carle said. “You just look at the players that were born in that time frame, when interest was especially high, there were some really good hockey players to be born, be exposed to the game and take it up. To be able to say geez, those kids 20 to 23 now grew up watching DU and the Avalanche being great and that’s what got them into hockey.”

The Avalanche’s MacFarland has also learned to appreciate the short trips to scout at DU, where perhaps as many as 12 players in a NCHC game already have been drafted by NHL teams and others will be draft eligible soon or can be signed as undrafted free agents at some point. The Avalanche signed forward Logan O’Connor as an undrafted free agent out of DU.

“Their program’s been good for a long time,” MacFarland said of DU. “I think having them as a strong tie-in program in the western part of the country is awesome. As a young kid you used to have to leave your home to continue to progress, whether to play in college or anywhere you’re going. I don’t think you necessarily will have to do that anymore.”

Colorado-born players in NCAA hockey and also the NHL no longer are rarities. To run through the complete developmental route for all of them would be cumbersome, but this is indisputable: Colorado youth hockey played crucial roles in their careers.

Among the top Colorado-born players in the NHL today are Anaheim Ducks center Troy Terry (24, from Highlands Ranch), who also played on the Pioneers’ 2018 national champions and for the USA in the Winter Olympics that year; plus Bruins defenseman Brandon Carlo (25, from Colorado Springs) and Hurricanes defenseman Jaccob Slavin (28, from Erie, who played at Colorado College). Plus, Denver’s Shore family contributed three sons – Drew, Nick and Quentin – to the DU program before Drew and Nick played in the NHL. A fourth Shore son, Baker, is a Harvard senior.

As of mid-November, there were six active NHL players born in Colorado. The other three included two sons of ex-Avs – Callan Foote of Tampa Bay and Brendan Lemieux of Los Angeles. The sixth is Michael Eyssimont of Winnipeg, another Thunderbirds product.

This season, DU’s second-line center, Aidan Thompson, is a freshman from Fort Collins and this year was the Blackhawks’ third-round draft choice. His path from Fort Collins to DU was circuitous, but not all that unusual for a prodigy. In the area, he played in the Thunderbirds and Rocky Mountain Roughriders programs before playing at a Massachusetts prep school and then with the Junior A Lincoln Lancers. By playing Junior A rather than major junior, he preserved his NCAA eligibility.

In an extensive interview with me in 2018, Troy Terry remembered his first exposure to the game as a youngster. He was 3 when the Avs won the Stanley Cup in 2001, but there was considerable afterglow for the next few years.

“My dad first was just flipping through the channels and stopped on an Avs game for a while and I was drawn to it,” Terry told me. “I was probably 4 or 5, and that’s what got me into roller hockey. I remember my parents brought me to one Avs game, and I got this little plastic Avs stick and I’d play around the house with it. That was kind of where it all began. I used to pick up the programs for the Avs games and my parents would cover up the names and I could name whoever it was, just by their faces. I got super into it. Probably when I was a Squirt, was when I started coming to DU games. You can’t go to too many Avs’ games because of the price and everything. These games were easy to come to, and all my friends went to them, so we all went together. That’s when I started getting season tickets and became a Pioneer.”

The identities of his favorite Avalanche players weren’t surprising: Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg.

“When I was a Mite with the Littleton Hawks, I actually played with Joe Sakic’s kid [Mitchell] during the 04-05 NHL lockout, so he was around a lot,” Terry told me. “He came out on the ice with us a lot and it couldn’t have worked out better. I went over to his house a couple of times. I doubt if he remembers it, but he put goalie pads on and I shot on him in the driveway. It was really cool.”

Jaccob Slavin last season won the NHL’s Lady Byng Trophy for gentlemanly play, a significant accomplishment for a defenseman who plays with grit. He praises both the Thunderbirds – who were run by Angelo Ricci when Slavin played for them – and CC as crucial in his development.

“The travel was a little tough on us,” he told me of his time with the Thunderbirds while he attended Erie High. “But we had quite a few guys who lived up north, so we all had to carpool. I remember my U-12 year with the Thunderbirds, though, we were practicing twice a week at the Air Force Academy. We definitely had some long road trips for practice, I guess you could say.”

And what of the Avalanche box office in their championship season? As many fans remained bitter because of the continuing dispute with Altitude that keeps most televised Avalanche and Nuggets games off the dominant cable system in Colorado, the NHL team was 11th in average home attendance at 17,499 – a little more than 500 under capacity. If it sold out very game, Colorado would have been only sixth because of arena capacities.

On the collegiate level in 2021-22, DU was eighth nationally in home attendance, averaging 5,070 in 6,026-seat Magness Arena. CC was 19th, but sold out, averaging 3,559 in the 3,407-seat Ed Robson Arena. Air Force was 36th, averaging 1,766 in the Falcons’ 2,470-seat arena.

So also including the Eagles, tickets in 2021-22 were hot commodities for Colorado hockey and that hasn’t changed in the early stages of this season.

Did I get off track from the premise of this story? That the Colorado hockey scene in 2022 was deserving of bending the definitions a bit and naming the sport MHS’ Sportsperson of the Year?

Perhaps. But the point is, the planets and pucks were aligned in 2022. The championships will stoke even more interest and young athletes making choices now will be even more prone to get into hockey.

As defending champions, the Avalanche and Pioneers are significant threats to repeat. And hockey interest continues to grow, even to the point of nudging aside serious and numbing debates over the Broncos’ backup safeties and clock management.

For that alone, Colorado Hockey deserves to be honored.

Terry Frei is a Mile High Sports Magazine contributing writer. He is a seven-time winner of state sportswriter of the year honors — four times in Colorado and three times in Oregon — in peer voting conducted by the National Sports Media Association. His seven books include Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming; Third Down and a War to Go; Olympic Affair; and ’77: Denver, the Broncos, and a Coming of Age. Information is available on his web site,

Jun 30, 2022; Denver, Colorado, USA; Members of the Colorado Avalanche team and organization during the Stanley Cup championship celebration at Civic Center Park. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports