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The Colorado Avalanche are building something special

There is no pleasure without pain, and no glory without struggle, the Avs learned to win the hard way

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Colorado Avalanche at Tampa Bay Lightning Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Sitting in the season tickets I shared this year with two of my lifetime friends, I found myself overcome with emotions before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. The Colorado Avalanche were five seasons removed from the worst season any team has ever completed in the salary cap era, while UMass, my beloved alma mater with one career NCAA hockey tournament appearance in 22 seasons at the Division I level, went 5-29-2 that same season.

Just five years later, UMass had two national championship appearances, winning one, and now the Avalanche were hosting the Stanley Cup Final against the NHL’s dominant force, and were just a week away from ending the Tampa Bay Lightning’s incredible streak of 11 straight playoff series victories. To make matters even more surreal, I was looking down on the ice during the starting lineup announcements as it built to a crescendo towards a modern-day Bobby Orr who was a central force in both of my rags-to-riches sports stories.

It seems like just yesterday that I was watching Cale Makar transform UMass into the so-called sleeping giant so many partisans had described it as for years, and subsequently feeling those same emotions I described myself having before Game 1 when he somberly declared after a National Championship loss that he didn’t want to take his UMass jersey off—just days before he would score his first career NHL goal in the crucible of the playoffs.

Now the greatest college hockey player of all time (in my definitely not biased opinion) is the first unanimous Conn Smythe Trophy winner since they started releasing the votes five years ago, and he is 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 was determined to play out his full eligibility at UMass, he could have used his COVID-19 exemption and played in college this season. He is the best defenseman in the NHL and he is just getting started.

If in 2017 you would have told me what the next five years of my hockey fandom would look like, I would have assumed you were high on bath salts. The muck these teams had to crawl through was unparalleled in both of their respective leagues, and in overcoming the top of the mountaintops in Minnesota-Duluth and Tampa Bay, it made the experience exponentially more validating.

There is a lesson for sports fans in both these teams whose commonality is the NHL’s first serious contender to Connor McDavid’s throne, and it’s that while it is always fun to be a front-runner who only shows up for the good times and there’s nothing wrong with that (you just lack sports street cred us die-hards have earned), it’s a far more rewarding feeling to live through the frustration and watch your team grow into the champion you always hoped it could be. A central part of what makes this championship run so special is the depths it began from, and if you did not live through those, then you cannot fully grasp the meaning of this moment.

There is no Stanley Cup Championship without Nathan Mackinnon deciding to transform his game after the 48-point season, or the gut punches against San Jose, Dallas and Las Vegas, and there is no National Championship without UMass’ 13-53-6 record over the two years B.M. (Before Makar) or its humbling against Duluth the first time around with Makar.

Winning is a process as much as it is a destination, and the process is a central part of what makes being a fan so fun. Avalanche season tickets were my best purchase in the last year, and I made a lifetime of memories with friends and family over the last nine months. Everyone in the broader Avalanche community has lived a year they will never forget, providing all of us with stories we will tell each other about for the rest of our lives.

Fandom can be a frustrating experience sometimes, but these are the moments we live for. People with nothing in common other than they attended games during the 48-point season have a shared bond for life that makes those dreary nights five years ago now feel as if they have all the meaning in the world. In an age of increasing atomization and isolation, sports provide us with a much-needed sense of family, and championships give us the opportunity to celebrate our communities. We shouldn’t take these moments for granted. Soak it all in, Avs fans.

The Avs followed a path forged by previous contenders

Sports are littered with clichés and most of them are generic platitudes that don’t really say much at all, but looking at the injuries endured by guys like Val Nichushkin, Andre Burakovsky, Andrew Cogliano, and Nazem Kadri’s 6-week injury 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 difficult trophy to win in sports. It is an NFL-style war of attrition that lasts five times as long as the NFL’s version—to say nothing of the humbling that seems necessary to go through before even getting to the mountaintop.

Pittsburgh needed Detroit. Chicago needed first-round reality checks against Vancouver and Phoenix 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 out on their own and failing as favorites against Dallas and Las Vegas in the second round. Another opportunity to lose to another bruising, experienced, tough team arrived this season, and the Avalanche responded by mostly blowing St. Louis out of the water. Sure, the series went 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 doubled as the Avalanche’s worst game of the postseason.

The Avs survived every challenge thrown at them these playoffs: an opportunity to take a mediocre team with a very dangerous first line lightly, yet another war against a deep and hated rival with championship experience, the best forward in the league, and the modern-day dynasty (I think in the salary cap era, back to back titles should qualify 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 straight Cups are over).

Colorado passed every single test this postseason with flying colors while etching their names alongside some of the most dominant championship teams in NHL history.

Now that they have run through all the boss battles the modern NHL has to offer (save for Boston and Pittsburgh), the Avalanche’s potential truly seems limitless. Given the weakness of the Western Conference and the dominance Colorado is displaying over it (the Avs have won 70% of their regular season and playoff games against the west the last two years), it’s not unreasonable to dream of Colorado making a LeBron James-style run to the neighborhood of around five Stanley Cup Finals in a row unless Connor McDavid can find some more friends who play defense.

Game 6’s second and third periods should send shivers down the entire NHL’s spine. The Avalanche, a team that will be remembered as the best offensive playoff team since the “wait you can play defense?” 1980s, completely shut down the back-to-back champs in their own building—limiting them to two shot attempts in the third. The Lightning didn’t pass the torch, the Avalanche ripped it out of their cold, dead hands.

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Enjoy it Avs fans, especially those who endured the 48-point season. You’ve earned this, and given how young the core is and how healthy Colorado’s cap situation is for the near-future, this is very likely just the start of something special.