Colorado Avalanche defenseman Sam Girard broke his sternum in a playoff game on May 21. Forty days later, he did a cartwheel on a stage built on the steps of the Denver City and County Building.
It was an apt demonstration of the Avs jubilation and their fans are feeling after the franchise won the NHL championship and claimed its third Stanley Cup trophy this week. It was a feat celebrated with a parade and rally that Denver officials estimate drew at least 500,000 people downtown on Thursday.
Joe Sakic was a player the last time the Avalanche claimed the cup in 2001. Appearing in Civic Center Park as the team’s general manager, he thanked the fanbase for its support as the Avs finally climbed back to the top of the mountain.
“Twenty-one long damn years,” Sakic said, surveying the sea of people. “It’s been a long time but we’re back. We’re back. ”
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and Gov. Jared Polis took turns hyping up the crowd and congratulating the team. Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar, known for his stoic demeanor, was emotional during his turn with the mic as he described the hard work and sacrifices of the team’s players, coaches and families.
“When it comes to the players, I couldn’t be more proud of these guys. I can’t even explain it. I couldn’t put it into words. I’m amazed by every single one of them, ”Bednar said.
It was the players that the throngs of fans came to see. Appearing on stage in various states of inebriation, the Avalanche did not disappoint, despite a severe weather warning beamed out in the middle of the rally urging people to seek shelter as a smattering of raindrops fell.
Team captain Gabriel Landeskog set the tone. Shedding his jersey and wrapping himself in the flag of his native Sweden before hoisting the cup to raucous cheers, the man known as Landy lauded his teammates for their resiliency, determination and attitude.
Then he turned his attention to the fans.
“The city of Denver, the state of Colorado, you guys have been (expletive) amazing for us this whole year,” he said. “We just want to thank all of you guys for all your support through the tough times, through all the good times.”
“Pumped to see the cup”
The party on Thursday started well before Erik Johnson, the longest-tenured Avalanche player, led the Civic Center Park crowd through an a cappella version of Blink-182’s “All the Small Things,” a song that has become the team’s anthem.
Giddy Avs fans began to gather outside Union Station just after dawn.
Janice and Ryan Wallace staked out a spot before 7 am, their three children in tow.
More than two decades ago, Janice celebrated the 2001 championship. This time around, she found herself stress-cleaning the house during tight games.
“I love that I now get to pass that along to the kids,” she said as the family waited for the parade to roll past.
Brody Wallace, 12, got into hockey five years ago – when the Avs finished with the worst record in the league. Now he gets to celebrate a championship and watch his favorite player, Cale Makar, drive by in a parade.
“We’re pumped to see the cup,” Janice Wallace said with a grin.
All around them, parents hoisted children onto their shoulders, craning their necks to see the team ride by on fire trucks.
It may have been 10 am, but that didn’t stop fans from guzzling to-go cups of adult beverages as they high-fived strangers. Chants of “Let’s go, Avs!” rang out sporadically.
Fans clad in burgundy and blue leaned out apartment windows and cheered atop balconies along Wynkoop Street. One brazen individual perched himself on the black Oxford Hotel sign that hangs above 17th Street. It was a peaceful celebration, though, with Denver police reporting they made no arrests in connection with the parade or Civic Center event.
A young woman slithered through the crowd, politely asking the masses to let her through so she could get to work.
“Work?” one man yelled. “Who’s working today?”
“Best day of my life”
Sandy and Bob Adams took four trains to get to the parade from their home in Berthoud. They watched the truck carrying the University of Denver NCAA championship team drive past, pumping their fists while holding their own trophy. The Denver East High School team that claimed a national title this spring was also celebrated as part of the festivities.
“This is Hockeytown, USA right now!” Bob Adams said with a grin.
Cheers erupted as the heroes came into view down Wynkoop. Players fired super soakers into the crowd. Others shook up cans of beer, spraying anyone in reach. One player pulled his shirt over his face, chugging a drink through the fabric as the crowd roared.
Chants of “MVP! MVP! ” broke out when Makar appeared in view, holding the Conn Smythe Trophy awarded to the most valuable player in the Stanley Cup final.
Then came the show everyone was waiting for. Phones raised high in the air, a low murmur growing to a crescendo as Landeskog rolled by and raised the Stanley Cup trophy high above his head, pumping the 34.5-pound silver cup up and down.
“That gave me goosebumps,” said Steve Comeau, who remembers standing in line in 1995 to get opening day tickets when the Avs first arrived in Colorado from Quebec.
The legions followed the parade down 17th Street, en route to Civic Center, skipping, whooping and hollering to no one in particular. Construction workers in hardhats and orange vests took a break to watch the crowds roll down Broadway. One man honked a horn fastened to his wheelchair.
A teen in a Detroit Red Wings jersey riled up the crowd, eliciting hearty boos. Old rivalries never die.
“This is the best day of my life,” one man said, drinking a beer tucked inside a koozie pom-pom.
“A dream come true”
Some fans avoided the parade route in favor of claiming prime spots on the Civic Center grass.
Watching the parade come down 17th Street on giant video screens, the crowd went crazy upon hearing that some Avs players were filling their Super Soakers with beer to spray onlookers. The crowd erupted again, louder, when the Stanley Cup appeared on screen for the first time.
Among the revelers on the great lawn were Bruce and Carolyn Hohne. The couple left their home near St. Mary’s Glacier at 6:30 am to get a good spot.
“It’s not like they have a parade like this every year,” said Bruce Hohne, 67.
Wearing a Makar jersey, Carolyn Hohne, 59, said the highlight of the postseason run for her was the Avs defeating the St. Louis Blues in the second round and breaking their course. The team lost in the second round of the playoffs three years in a row before 2022.
Asked what she would remember most about the 2021-2022 Avs, Hohne offered one word: speed
“These guys can skate,” she said.
Therese Pocrnick was sporting a Sakic jersey from the 2001 NHL All-Star Game (played in Denver) as she walked to the park for the rally. Hockey is in her blood. She has a tattoo of her dad, Tony, in his hockey gear on her calf. He played for DU in 1950, she said.
There were two reasons why Pocrnick wanted to attend the Stanley Cup celebration. First, she said, is that it feels like the world is coming apart right now and it’s great to celebrate something good. Reason No. 2 was to remember her dad, who passed away in the late 1990s.
“This is a way to keep him present,” she said. “Alive in my memory, you know?”
The highlight of the Avs ’season for Porcnick came when Nazem Kadri scored a hat trick in St. Louis. Louis in Game 4 of that series. It came after Kadri, who is Muslim, received racist online threats after colliding with Blues goalie Jordan Binnington in Game 3.
Kadri was the last player to take the microphone at the celebration.
“Guys, this is incredible,” he said. “This is a dream come true and you guys are a part of it.”