Mile High Magic: Avs add title city to Denver on ice

By Pat Graham, Associated Press

DENVER (AP) — How’s that for a hat trick: The Mile High City is now home to the Stanley CupNCAA and national high school hockey champions.

There must be something in the (frozen) water around Denver, right?

“More elevation than water,” said University of Denver coach David Carlwhose program won their ninth national title in April.

Detroit may be known as “Hockeytown,” but Denver (elevation: 5,280 feet) has currently taken over at center ice. Colorado avalanche became the latest City team to join in the fun with a 2-1 win over Tampa Bay on Sunday in Game 6 to end the Lightning’s two-year reign. He secured Colorado’s third Stanley Cup title since moving to town from Quebec prior to the 1995-96 season.

These days there have been a lot of celebrations for the region’s hockey teams. East Denver High School got the puck rolling by winning a national title three months ago in Texasand the Pioneers followed suit by beating Minnesota State in Boston for the NCAA crown.

Now Cale Makar, Nathan MacKinnon and the rest of the Avalanche will take a victory skate, this time with a parade through the streets of Denver on Thursday.

“We’re in another renaissance,” Denver East coach John Kopperud said of the trickle-down effect of the Avalanche’s success. “You get the best athletes at a young age who want to play hockey – and that’s a great thing to see.”

The Pioneers and Avalanche have teamed up for a rare achievement: an NCAA Division I champion hockey team and an NHL Stanley Cup winning team hailing from the same city in the same season. Boston was the last to do so – 50 years ago, in 1972 (Boston University and the Bruins). In 1998, teams from the same state (University of Michigan and Detroit Red Wings) won titles.

“It’s definitely a historic achievement,” said Carle, the 32-year-old Pioneers coach who retired after being diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. He was selected by Tampa Bay in the seventh round of the 2008 draft. “It’s a really exciting time.”

If history is any indication, this Avalanche run is only going to increase the interest of young players across the region.

There were 16,513 players registered through USA Hockey in the Rockies region in 1994-95, the year before the Avalanche moved to Denver. Colorado hoisted its first Cup in 1996 and the following year the total rose to 20,286 players, according to USA Hockey figures.

After the Avalanche won the No. 2 Cup in 2001, there were 34,393 registered players – more than doubling in six years – in the region, which includes Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Idaho, Texas and Utah.

Last season, a record 3,077 8-and-under players played hockey in Colorado, with girls being the fastest growing segment, doubling over the past five years to nearly 600 players.

It could also be just the tip of the iceberg. During the Lightning’s three-year run to the Stanley Cup Finals, Tampa saw youth hockey grow overall by 32%.

Translation: The next number 8 (Makar) or number 29 (MacKinnon) might just take the ice.

“So now you have all these star players in Denver and that’s really going to push things over the top,” said Kevin Erlenbach, assistant executive director of membership for USA Hockey.

The cold, hard truth: it takes more rinks to accommodate even more growth. There are 14 facilities in the Denver metro, with 25 ice pads. Statewide, there are 33 facilities and 49 listings.

“Municipalities and even private investors won’t build rinks unless they know there’s a demand and a growing population too,” Erlenbach explained. “We have a bit of both. I imagine there are many people who will advance on new patches of ice.

The Avalanche have been steadily moving toward that title since 2016-17, when coach Jared Bednar took over and they posted a dismal 48-point season. They quickly turned things around and won the Presidents’ Trophy (best record) last year, only to be knocked out in the second round. It made them even hungrier this time around. They went 16-4 on their way to the Cup, including sweeps of Nashville and Edmonton, before dethroning the Lightning.

“People don’t realize what an amazing sports city Denver is,” Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog said. “We got support from everywhere.”

The same goes for the Pioneers, who won their second national title in six years. Avalanche forward Logan O’Connor was part of Denver’s 2017 championship team.

“Both groups have a special bond, a hard-to-find camaraderie, and I think it comes down to good people willing to sacrifice for each other,” O’Connor said after winning the Cup. “Organizations and programs deserve it.”

Only once did Carle watch a replay of his team’s comeback victory for the NCAA title. His attention turned to next season as the Pioneers bid for back-to-back titles like the team did in 2004 and 2005. Carle recently went out to dinner with his staff – and they brought the trophy.

“You get (celebrations) at different times, and we’re always going to enjoy it,” Carle said.

Same with Denver East, who beat the Northport (New York) Huntington Tigers 4-2 for the Division II crown at the Chipotle-USA Hockey High School Championships in Plano, Texas. The title has received even more buzz since the Pioneers and Avalanche followed Denver East’s lead.

“It’s cool for Denver to have all three teams win it all,” said Kopperud, who is also a realtor. “It’s something they’re going to talk about for the rest of their lives.”

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