Stanley Cup Finals: Denver has become Hockeytown, USA

It didn’t used to be like this.

Colorado wasn’t Minnesota or Massachusetts or Michigan — hockey factories that churned out NHL stars and Olympic medalists year after year after year.

But something’s happening on the cold, slick Rocky Mountain ice. Denver-area teams, from the youth level to high school to college and the pros, just keep winning.

And it’s becoming regular.

The AAA Colorado Thunderbirds made it to the national championship game last year. Denver East High School and the University of Denver both took home national titles this spring.

And the Colorado Avalanche begin their quest Wednesday night to hoist the Stanley Cup for the third time.

Denver is staking its claim as Hockeytown, USA.

“It’s a snowball of momentum,” said DU coach David Carle. “This town’s always loved winners. That’s what we’re doing at a high level within the Colorado hockey community.”

A youth surge

Everything changed for Colorado hockey when the Avalanche moved to Denver from Quebec in 1995.

The team’s early success, fueled by lovable stars such as Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg, catapulted the sport into the mainstream. Rinks sprung up around the Centennial State. Youth participation surged.

Just over 9,000 kids played hockey here in 1998-99, according to USA Hockey. That number is now north of 15,500 youth players more than two decades later.

“Any time a professional franchise has success like the Avs have had, the grassroots are gonna be impacted in a positive way,” said George Gwozdecky, head hockey coach at Valor Christian High School in Highlands Ranch. “More kids will play and wanna be like their stars.”

The sport is getting so popular that it’s tough to find ice time around metro Denver. Pre-dawn practices are routine.

“We are seeing more non-hockey families registering,” said Brian TenEyck, executive hockey director for the Littleton Hockey Association. “There’s a lot of excitement around it.”

Longtime hockey coach Angelo Ricci is the executive director of the Thunderbirds but is involved in the game at multiple levels, including as a skills coach for the Philadelphia Flyers.

When Ricci was a senior on the DU hockey team in 1995, the short-lived Denver Grizzlies won a minor league hockey title just before the Avs came and made their mark on the city. That was part of a huge growth spurt in youth hockey in Colorado in the ‘90s, he said.

With the city and state’s high quality of life and bountiful activities, people from the East Coast and Canada moved in, bringing strong hockey heritages with them and further growing the sport locally, Ricci said.

“I guess it’s just pretty cool to see through that and where it is today,” said Ricci, originally from Chicago.

Colorado, even with its recent success stories, still lags behind traditional powerhouses such as Minnesota (58,666 youth participants), Massachusetts (46,966) and Michigan (37,381) for 2021-2022.

“You know the biggest part that’s growing? Girls hockey is really starting to take off, which is great to see,” Ricci said.

High school and college dominance

High school clubs, meanwhile, are starting to make noise on the national stage.

Denver East, a combined team of players from across Denver Public Schools, didn’t even have a program nine years ago.

But in March, the team stormed to the Class 5A state championship. Then the group capped its storybook season with a dramatic 4-2 victory over the Northport (New York) Huntington Tigers to claim the Division II national championship.

The shift has been startling. A few years ago, if you showed up and could skate, you made the team, said coach John Kopperud.

Now 80 or 90 kids are showing up for the summer program — double the number they once saw.

“The amount of people trying to join East hockey is insane,” said Sam Beardshear, a rising senior.

The team’s magical run to the national championship has helped boost the state’s reputation as a hockey powerhouse.

“We’ve always been mid-tier,” said Zeke Romero, another rising senior. “But over the past few years, we’ve been up at a higher hockey tier.”

When Gwozdecky was at DU, he never thought of basing his recruiting in Colorado. Soon, though, some of the team’s best players, its captains, were coming from Denver and around the state.

“It’s been rewarding to be part of it, to watch the growth of the sport in this region,” he said.

Less than two weeks after the East boys raised their trophy, DU followed suit, capturing its ninth national championship — tied for the most of any collegiate program in the country.

“You come to Denver to win national championships,” senior forward Ryan Barrow said after the win in Boston.

The Pioneers’ domination is nothing new. But now the rest of Colorado’s teams are starting to catch up.

“From a success standpoint, none of the other major sports have had the success that the hockey teams have had in our city recently,” Carle, DU’s coach, said. “My hope would be that there’s a buzz. People are talking about it more, people wanna come out and watch us play and watch the Avs play.”

Stars energizing the next generation

Now Colorado’s faithful are yearning for the Avalanche to complete the high school-college-pro trifecta.

And it’s encouraging even the casuals to get interested.

Romero, the rising East High senior, has been gathering with 10 friends nearly every other night throughout the spring to watch the Avs.

Piggybacking on East’s thrilling run, some of these friends — who’ve only skated maybe twice in their lives — are asking to go to stick and puck to learn more about the sport.

“They’re all saying, ‘Oh, I wish I played hockey,’” Romero said.

Sports radio stations that historically talked far more about Broncos free agency are now all Avs, all the time.

“It’s great for the sport,” said Kopperud, East’s coach. “It’s great for making kids want to play hockey. It’s spectacular.”

Meanwhile, many of the Avs greats of old are sticking around Colorado and stoking the next generation.

Eric Lacroix knows what it’s like to see Denver energized by a deep Avalanche playoff run. His dad, the late Pierre Lacroix, was the general manager of the team when it first moved to Denver. The elder Lacroix presided over two Stanley Cup championships, at the end of that inaugural season in 1996 and again in 2001.

Eric Lacroix played for the Avs for three years between those titles, making it to the Western Conference finals in 1997. Now, 25 years later, he is married to a Coloradan, has three Colorado-born kids (two of whom came up through the youth hockey ranks in the Denver area) and also recently opened a hockey training facility in Centennial called Drill House Sports Center.

“Our family is 100% Colorado,” the Canadian-born Lacroix said.

He arrived in Denver two weeks after the Avs’ first Stanley Cup run and called it instrumental in establishing buzz around the sport in the state.

“It’s great to see how this generation — (Gabriel) Landeskog and (Nathan) MacKinnon and especially (Cale) Makar, my favorite guy — become those guys that kids will talk about for years to come,” he said of this year’s cup run. “What it does is it makes people catch the bug and want to be one of those guys.”

More than 120 kids are enrolled in Drill House’s summer camp program. With the help of his partners and fellow National Hockey League alumni David Clarkson and John Mitchell, Lacroix will be working with those kids three days a week for the next 11 weeks. He’s also organizing a street hockey festival in August that will carry on his late father’s legacy.

“It’s awesome to see,” Lacroix said of the enthusiasm around hockey in Denver today. “Hey, we’re biased. We love the sport and we think it’s the best.”

Clarkson first moved to Colorado six years ago, living in Snowmass before moving his family to Castle Pines. The 10-year NHL veteran fell in love with the state when taking part in an annual hockey camp in Vail each year that was attended by stars like MacKinnon and Sidney Crosby.

Clarkson still does player development work for the Florida Panthers, but his passion is coaching the next generation. He was the head coach for the 2021 Thunderbirds, which reached the national title game.

“I got into youth hockey to help kids. I’ve been fortunate enough to coach some good teams. I think they just make us look good as coaches,” he said. “It’s pretty special when (former players) call you and say, ‘Hey, coach. I made the (United States Hockey League)’ or I committed to this school or I committed to that school. It’s really rewarding.”

Clarkson sees it with his 7-year-old son, Colton, who loves the Avs. The two will be at Ball Arena for Game 1.

“It’s been fun to see my son look up to these guys,” Clarkson said of Avs players like MacKinnon and Nazem Kadri. “To see your kid fall in love with something is pretty special.”

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