January 22, 2013
DENVER — When the NHL puck finally dropped again in Colorado and I looked around Pepsi Center, there was something unusual about the crowd.
Avalanche fans weren't cruising around in search of a last-minute beer. The aisles were empty, the seats nearly full. The crowd was already in its seats, or standing in front of them.
“I didn’t know if we were surprised (at the fan turnout),” Avs captain Gabriel Landeskog said after a 3-1 win against the Kings, “But I was definitely overwhelmed.”
If there was any sort of residual impact from the NHL lockout, it was not evident Tuesday.
Pepsi Center filled up quicker than a can of pop after a good shake.
Colorado announced a sellout crowd of 18,007. It wasn’t that full, but the fans' jerseys of Forsberg and Sakic and Landeskog and Varlamov jammed in and made it 80 percent of capacity, at the least.
The home opener offered a solid turnout by any measure. But the razzed-up audience was more profound considering the 113-day penalty the NHL had slapped on its devoted fandom.
One lesson learned: You can take the hockey away from the fan, but you can’t keep the hockey fan away.
“We’ve got to do something for them,” Matt Duchene said. “That’s put a good product on the ice every night.”
Relatively speaking, an NHL lockout won’t impact interest or attendance as severely as a stoppage in Major League Baseball or the NBA would.
After previous work stoppages, NHL attendance actually increased the following year.
Honestly speaking, if you weren’t a tried-and-true follower of the NHL before the lockout, you weren’t transforming into one unless the Avs make a playoff run. And if you were a fan before the lockout, the grudge will be short-lived, if there is one at all.
NHL fans need their game like Landeskog needs a fake ID.
"We all know hockey has a certain following,” coach Joe Sacco said.
With a bargaining agreement in place, now the Avs must hold up their end of the bargain.
So far, so so.
Colorado is 1-1 and unbeaten at home, where the locals hooted and hollered as if they had waited nine months to hoot and holler.
Through two periods against the Kings, the Avs looked very much like the team we saw before the lockout — the one that missed the playoffs. Colorado was too aggressive, if that’s possible, and Los Angeles chose its attacking spots. The Kings led, 1-0.
It didn't last. Over 1:35 early in the third quarter, the Avs played smarter. First, Landeskog, the 20-year-old captain, slammed in a rebound to tie the scoreboard at 1. Then, David Jones lined up from straightaway and thumped the net for a 2-1 lead.
Beating the Kings was no surprise for the Avs. Last season Colorado put a 4-0 sweep on the eventual Stanley Cup champions, a testament to the capable talent on the roster.
When goalie Semyon Varlamov sets up shop and stops 28 shots, the Avs are plenty gifted enough to return to the playoffs. This is a 48-game schedule. A productive start is critical.
Another sign hockey is back: Duchene stood tall in the locker room with blood dripping from his chin. The gash required 8-10 stitches, he predicted over a smile.
“I’d take a scar for every win,” he said.
With a 3-1 lead and 1 minute ticking from the clock, the hockey-starved building rose to its feet and counted down. The Avs won the game, the fans won the night.
"They were waiting for something good to happen," Sacco said.
Or just something to happen at all.
Commissioner Gary Bettman delivered an apology for the lockout.
"I'm sorry," he said when the stoppage was stopped.
But this was the only apology Avalanche fans wanted: A rockin’, rowdy return to the ice and a win by the good guys.