An Avalanche Of Opportunity

The NHL is perilously close to officially canceling its season — a season that many haven’t yet realized is missing.

The millionaires and the billionaires have dug their trenches so deep, chances are they’ll strike oil before they strike a new collective bargaining agreement. Soon, arenas across North America will be free to stock up on motocross, rodeos and monster truck shows. They can leave the dirt down on the venue floors all winter and save on the refrigeration bills.

It’s an appropriate metaphor, really. The owners and players have been kicking dirt on each other and the fans for months now, so there should be piles of it left over to put to good use.

But one of life’s inescapable truisms also applies here — that one hockey league’s loss is another’s gain. In this case, it’s the WCHA and, more specifically, the conference’s two Colorado schools.

Gabe Gauthier gives Mile High hockey fans something to cheer about, absent the Avalanche (photo: Pedro Cancel).

Gabe Gauthier gives Mile High hockey fans something to cheer about, absent the Avalanche (photo: Pedro Cancel).

Both Denver and Colorado College are sitting pretty. They are both well within the boundaries of the passionate fan base that supports the Colorado Avalanche, and the Rocky Mountain region is a puck lover’s paradise. The Avalanche sell out every home game and are a major player on a major-league sports landscape. Youth hockey and adult recreational leagues flourish on the Front Range. High school teams there are breeding grounds for future stars.

And with no Avalanche right now, that leaves the Pioneers and the Tigers as two of the top cats in town.

As far as the Denver sports hierarchy goes, you can make the case that only the Broncos rank higher at the moment. They are the perennial top draw in the area and everyone else, even the Avs, are a distant second. However, the Broncos have proven to be nothing more than a mediocre team in recent seasons. And football will always leave some of the spotlight for others, since games are only played once a week and the season only overlaps half of the hockey schedule.

That only leaves the Denver Nuggets as significant winter competition, but the NBA is an acquired taste for many and the league’s recent image problems haven’t helped it draw new fans. If anything, the NBA is driving away current ones.

So for a good portion of this fertile sports area’s fans, DU and CC hockey are the place to be in these winter months. They are capitalizing on the void left by the popular Avalanche like Patrick Roy would’ve pounced on a loose puck in his day.

It always helps to get the breaks, and a confluence of circumstances have fallen just so to give center stage to these two deserving hockey programs. In Denver and Colorado College, you have two top 10-teams who are contenders for the title in arguably college hockey’s toughest conference.

Denver is the defending national champion and coming off one of the most remarkable runs to an NCAA tournament championship in recent memory. The Pioneers have rarely had such momentum coming into a season, which makes it the ideal time for stars like Gabe Gauthier and Matt Carle to shine without competition from Sakic and Forsberg. The Pioneers also play in a beautiful on-campus facility that is accommodating to students and outside fans alike.

In the ’50s and ’60s, DU hockey games were the place to see and be seen on the Denver social circuit. Women wore evening gowns and men dressed out in suits for what was considered a high society event. Times have changed, but the ingredients are as good as they might get for a resurgence of mainstream interest in the Denver hockey program.

CC's Brett Sterling keys a potent offense for one of the nation's top teams (photo: Jason Waldowski).

CC’s Brett Sterling keys a potent offense for one of the nation’s top teams (photo: Jason Waldowski).

Down I-25 in Colorado Springs, the Tigers are giving people a reason other than Pike’s Peak to make the one-hour drive south. Their home, the World Arena, is another great hockey building and CC hockey is the main attraction in the area with NHL draft picks like Mark Stuart and Brett Sterling playing against the gorgeous backdrop of Cheyenne Mountain.

What’s more, the Tigers’ rivalry with Denver is getting more attention these days, blossoming into something with real staying power. Sensing the opportunities, the Tigers are seizing the moment and enjoying as fine a first half of a season as they’ve had in some time.

For those missing the marquee names and the skillful, physical hockey that is the trademark of the Avalanche, maybe no conference in college hockey personifies those qualities better than the WCHA.

Through the season’s first two months, WCHA teams have monopolized the top positions in the national polls due in part to the individual stars that comprise the storied teams within the conference. Some of the college game’s great teams and many of the NHL’s future players have, and will continue to display their wares in Colorado this season.

It may not be an Avs/Red Wings duel, but I’ll take a Saturday night at Magness Arena watching the Pioneers battle the Fighting Sioux — or gladly kick off my weekend down in the Springs by taking in a CC matchup against those Gophers from Minnesota.

Fans of college hockey knows there is an appeal here that should be recognized by a much larger audience. While the pro game will always offer the biggest box-office attractions and thus cater to a wider fan base, college hockey delivers a passionate product rooted in the strength of its traditions. It’ll pick its spots and showcase itself wherever and whenever that wider audience is ready to listen.

It just so happens that right now in the Rockies, Colorado sports fans are all ears.