Sitting in season tickets shared with two of my lifelong friends this year, I was overcome with emotion ahead of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals. The Colorado Avalanche were five seasons away from their worst season on any team in the salary cap era, while UMass, my beloved alma mater with a career in an NCAA hockey tournament spanning 22 seasons at the Division I, 5th -29- went. 2 in the same season.
Just five years later, UMass two Participating in national championships, winning one, and now the Avalanche hosted the Stanley Cup Finals against the dominant force of the NHL and were just a week away from repeating the Tampa Bay Lightning’s incredible streak of 11 straight wins in the playoffs. to end the series. To make things even more surreal, I watched the ice during the starting lineup announcement as it built into a crescendo toward a modern-day Bobby Orr, who was a central force in both of my rags-to-riches sports stories.
It seems like only yesterday that I watched Cale Makar transform UMass into the so-called sleeping giant that so many Partisans had described for years, and then felt the same emotions I described of myself before Game 1 , when he somberly declared after a National championship loss that he didn’t want to take off his UMass jersey — just days before he would score his first career NHL goal in the playoffs’ melting pot.
Now the greatest college hockey player of all time (in my definitely unbiased opinion) is the first unanimous winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy since they started publishing the votes five years ago, and he’s the first player ever to win the Hobey Baker, Calder, Norris, Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe trophies at any point in his career. Keep in mind that if Cale Makar had been determined to play out his full eligibility at UMass, he could have used his COVID-19 exemption and played in college this season. He’s the best defenseman in the NHL and he’s just getting started.
If you had told me in 2017 what the next five years of my hockey fandom would be like, I would have assumed you were high on bath salts. The dirt these teams had to crawl through was unparalleled in their respective leagues, and conquering the mountain tops in Minnesota-Duluth and Tampa Bay made the experience exponentially more valid.
There’s a lesson for sports fans on these two teams that have the NHL’s first serious contender for Connor McDavid’s throne in common, and that’s that it’s always fun to be a frontrunner who only shows up in the good times and there’s nothing wrong with that (you just lack the credibility that we die-hard athletes deserve on the street) it’s a much more rewarding feeling to weather the frustration and watch your team grow into the champion you always hoped they would be could. A central part of what makes this championship run so special are the depths from which it began, and if you haven’t lived through those you can’t fully grasp the importance of this moment.
There’s no Stanley Cup championship without Nathan Mackinnon deciding to change his game after 48-point season or gut punches against San Jose, Dallas and Las Vegas, and there’s no national championship without going 13-53 UMass’s -6 record is over the two years BM (before Makar) or his humiliation against Duluth the first time with Makar.
Winning is both a process and a goal, and the process is a central part of what makes being a fan so fun. Avalanche Season Passes have been my best purchase in the last year and I’ve made lifelong memories with friends and family over the past nine months. Everyone in the broader Avalanche community experienced a year they will never forget, providing us all with stories to tell for the rest of our lives.
Since I’ve been living halfway in Ball Arena for the past few months, I thought I’d make a thread with cool stuff I’ve seen @Avalanche Play these playoffs, starting with a video that made me walk through multiple walls just before Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals #GoAvsGo pic.twitter.com/jSAK8kBELg
— Jacob Weindling (@Jakeweindling) June 27, 2022
Fandom can be a frustrating experience at times, but those are the moments we live for. People who have nothing in common other than attending games during the 48-point season have a shared lifelong bond that makes those bleak nights five years ago feel like they had all the meaning in the world. In an age of increasing atomization and isolation, sport gives us a much-needed sense of family, and championships give us an opportunity to celebrate our communities. We should not take these moments for granted. Soak it all up, Avs fans.
The sport is riddled with clichés and most of them are generic platitudes that don’t really say much, but when you look at the injuries guys endure Whale Nikhushkin, Andre Burakowski, Andrew Cogliano and Nazem Kadri’s 6-week injury that he turned into a 2-week injury — not to mention the carnage Jon Cooper and Steven Stamkos both alluded to in the Lightning locker room — the Stanley Cup really is the most hardest trophy to win in sport. It’s an NFL-style war of attrition that lasts five times as long as the NFL version — not to mention the humiliation that seems necessary before even reaching the mountaintop.
Pittsburgh needed Detroit. Chicago needed reality checks against Vancouver and Phoenix in the first round after perhaps getting too much too soon. Tampa Bay needed Columbus.
Colorado needed the wily veterans in Nashville and San Jose to teach them how to play playoff hockey before going it alone and falling in the second round as favorites to Dallas and Las Vegas. Another opportunity to lose to another battered, experienced, and tough team came this season, and the Avalanche responded by mostly blowing St. Louis out of the water. Sure, the streak lasted six games, but look at any stat — advanced or not — and it’s obvious that the Blues were the better team in one of those games, which was also the Avalanche’s worst postseason game.
The Avs have weathered every challenge of these playoffs: an opportunity to take lightly a mediocre team with a very dangerous front line, another war against a deep and hated rival with championship experience, the league’s best forward and the modern day dynasty ( I think in the salary cap era, consecutive titles should count as dynasties, that term was coined before the era of serious player movement and the days of the Islanders, Oilers and Canadiens winning 15 out of 16 consecutive cups).
Colorado has passed every single test with flying colors this postseason, making a name for itself alongside some of the most dominant championship teams in NHL history.
The better team won. Dominating four of six games, including the most lopsided playoff game in 15 years at least in Game 2. Tampa made it interesting at home, but this was a well-deserved championship. pic.twitter.com/FnJHYBu71h
— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) June 27, 2022
Now that they’ve beaten every boss fight the modern NHL has to offer (with the exceptions of Boston and Pittsburgh), the Avalanche’s potential truly seems limitless. Given the weakness of the Western Conference and the dominance that Colorado shows over them (the Avs have won 70% of their regular season and playoff games against the West over the past two years), it’s not unreasonable to dream that Colorado a LeBron James-style run in the neighborhood of about five Stanley Cup Finals in a row, unless Connor McDavid can find more friends to play defense.
The second and third periods of Game 6 should send shivers down the spine of the entire NHL. The Avalanche, a team that will be remembered as that best offensive playoff team since the “wait, can you play defense?” In the 1980s, they completely shut down consecutive champions in their own building, limiting them to two shot attempts in the third. The flash couldn’t get past the torch, the avalanche ripped it from her cold, dead hands.
Enjoy it Avs fans especially those who survived the 48 point season. They deserve this, and considering how young the core is and how healthy Colorado’s cap situation is going forward, this is most likely just the beginning of something special.