NHL has gone dark, but hockey lives on in Colorado
ENGLEWOOD – As always, there was hockey in Denver on Wednesday. Pickup hockey, college hockey practice, peewee hockey games – all going strong in large part because of a hockey boom the Colorado Avalanche spurred when it came to town a decade ago. For the rest of this season, though, there will be no Avalanche – no sellouts at the Pepsi Center, no run for another Stanley Cup and no NHL team for this city’s growing group of hockey lovers to cheer for.Not surprisingly, fans are unhappy with both sides in the league’s labor dispute, especially now that the season has been canceled.”Kind of a shame,” said Don Cameron, before he climbed over the wall to take his next shift in a lunchtime pickup game at the rink where the Avalanche used to practice. “When they come back, it’s not going to be as easy to pay for a $90 season ticket for 42 games.”Cameron and about 15 others were playing at the Family Sports Center, one of four large ice-skating facilities in the Denver area. It was built about six years ago in a city that, 20 years earlier, had pretty much run out of the need for recreational ice.Dwindling attendance helped force the Colorado Rockies – the NHL Rockies – out of town in 1982. In years following, Denver University continued to field a somewhat successful but sparsely attended program, and minor league hockey came and went in many forms.
Frank Xavier’s family sold its ice rink in south Denver in the late 1970s due in part to dwindling business. Now, Xavier is general manager of the Family Sports Center, which opened in 1999 – four years after the Quebec Nordiques relocated to Denver and ignited Colorado’s love affair with hockey.Even without the steady business Avalanche practices provided, the center’s two ice sheets are booked solid with peewee and adult leagues as well as the almost daily pickup games.”It had a huge impact,” Xavier said of the Avalanche, which has won two Cups since arriving in Denver. “There are probably 20 kids on the ice 4 or 5 years old who are playing right now.”While grass-roots hockey thrives in Denver, it’s hard to know if the NHL will be embraced when it comes back.On one hand, the Avalanche has sold out every home game it has played since arriving. Aside from Canadian markets, there is no more solid fan base.”Hockey will survive because it’s a beautiful game,” Avalanche general manager Pierre Lacroix said. “It’s one of the greatest games to watch. But I’m concerned we’re going to lose interest if this drags on.”
It is a valid concern.For instance, pickup hockey player Bill Myrick said his 9-year-old son is an avid fan – the walls of his bedroom are covered with Avalanche red and blue – and is understandably upset about the cancelation. But really, having the NHL on ice has been good on Myrick’s pocketbook. He takes his kid to watch Denver University, the defending NCAA champions, for about $20 a ticket – a far less expensive outing than the what he spends for seats at Avalanche games.”The DU games seem like a better product for the price,” Myrick said.Both DU and Colorado College, down the highway in Colorado Springs, have enjoyed slight attendance increases this year – in part due to the lockout, and in part due to their own successes. Up the road in Loveland, the Colorado Eagles of the Central Hockey League sell out their arena for every home game.Cameron played at DU in the 1960s and remembers a time when college players hoped to make $20,000 playing in the pros. These days, the average salary is nearly 20 times that.”It’s a lot of money,” he said. “They have problems on both sides and it doesn’t seem like anyone wants to reach out and fix it.”
Alex Nikolayevsky, who works at the rink, said the flurry of negotiations between the players and union as the deadline approached seemed hollow to him. Why did they have to wait until the last minute to get serious about dealing?”I’ve considered not watching” when the league returns, Nikolayevsky said. “But I will. I’m a hard-core Avs fan. As for going, though, I don’t know. It costs a lot of money and it might be better for me to just watch on TV.”Avalanche tickets have always been hard to come by, even at their high prices. Thanks in part to big corporate accounts, and in part because the Avalanche always puts a good product on the ice, the team has never had to worry about selling tickets.On Wednesday, the Avalanche offered season-ticket holders a 10 percent discount on next season’s tickets if they kept their 2004-05 money on deposit with the team.That is, of course, assuming there is a next season.”I was looking forward to being part of our 10th anniversary in a much different way,” Lacroix said. “There is no way to describe the disappointment.”
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