Are you ready for some … hockey?! |

Are you ready for some … hockey?!

Devon O'Neil

The last NHL game was played June 7, 2004. Or in other words, well before the Red Sox broke their Curse. Well before Bode Miller sped to the top of ski racing. And well before we shook our heads in disgust at the first canceled season in North America’s professional sports history.Tampa Bay beat Calgary on that early June night nearly 16 months ago, sending Lord Stanley’s Cup to the home of baseball’s Devil Rays. It was Game 7 of the Cup finals, the most exciting moment of the year for a hockey fan.The most exciting moment of this year arrives on Wednesday, five days from now. That’s when the NHL returns from its lockout-imposed hiatus. It is also when hockey fans across the world will get their first glimpse at meaningful NHL games since they disappeared in a swirl of business’ bottom lines.Don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to it. I think we need it. Not like we need drinking water, but more like we do dogs. They’re fun to have around, fun to watch chase each other. So are NHL players.

I don’t expect everyone to open their arms for hockey’s return. That would underestimate the stain left by the lockout. But I think we’ll be surprised at how few of the game’s fans abandoned it during the absence. In fact, talking to some of our local hockey fans, the lockout doesn’t seem to have had much of an effect at all.”I think everyone’s pretty excited about it,” said Ian Hamilton, an avid rec league player and one of a number of Summit residents who hold season tickets for the Avalanche. “I haven’t heard anyone say, ‘Screw that, I’m not going back.'”Hamilton said he was irritated by the lockout in the beginning, but has forgiven those responsible (which, for the record, includes the players and the owners). “I just kinda have pent-up hockey-watching desire,” Hamilton said.He’s not alone. And now that Altitude is in the mix, Avalanche fans will have ample opportunity. The Denver-based cable channel is scheduled to broadcast 70 of the Avs’ 82 games this season. The other 12 will be split between OLN (eight) and NBC (four).

Their first game is Wednesday at Edmonton, with the home opener slated for Oct. 10, against the defending Western Conference champion Calgary Flames. And while we’re at it, if Colorado wants to make a push for the Cup this year, it has to improve its record at home. In the 2003-04 season, only four Western Conference teams had fewer home victories than the Avs’ 19.One thing on the minds of everyone I talked to this week was the significant rule changes implemented by the league over the extended offseason. From penalty shootouts replacing ties to the increased focus on obstruction penalties, it looks like we’re in for a more exciting game – or, as Breckenridge rink manager Kevin Zygulski put it, “A better product.”Zygulski, an Avs fan since 1996, is 36 years old. He has been following hockey for 32 of those years. While he said he harbors no bitter feelings toward the NHL, he pointed out perhaps the lockout’s most startling effect.In Summit alone, the youth hockey program is 30 kids short of last year’s enrollment. Much of that disparity comes in the lowest rungs, among kids ages 6-9. Zygulski attributes this drop, as well as similar ones on the Front Range, to the NHL’s absence last winter.

“The kids that we’re trying to get started into hockey, they’re not seeing it on TV, there’s not that excitement from their parents,” he said of last season. “We’ve seen drops in almost every rink.”This is where the lockout hurt the sport. And come Wednesday, when we welcome the NHL’s return, don’t forget why the lockout is to be forgiven, but not forgotten.Devon O’Neil can be contacted at (970) 668-3998, ext. 231, or at

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