The Colorado Avalanche ended their 2008-2009 season in appropriate fashion, winding up on the short end of a 1-0 loss to the St. Louis Blues -- and a sidebar about the game by Denver Post hockey scribe Adrian Dater is freighted with symbolism about the future. Joe Sakic, the heartbeat of the Avs through its incredible run of playoff appearances and Stanley Cup victories, participated in a sweater giveaway while clad in street clothes due to injuries that may cause him to retire rather than return. This possibility lured attendance by Peter Forsberg, once among the game's fiercest offensive forces, who was also reduced to spectator status.
Clearly, the Avs are in transitional mode, and the cupboard isn't bare, as anyone who's seen young talents like Wojtek Wolski, Paul Stastny and Marek Svatos (not to mention the more veteran Ryan Smith) can attest. Indeed, most observers believe that coach Tony Granato could have, and should have, gotten more out of these skaters than he did this season, which probably means he'll soon be hitting the highway. More worrisome for the Avs, though, is how little passion the crew's lost season has stirred in the typical Denver sports junkie.
Once upon a time, hockey was considered by pretty much every observer to be one of America's four major sports, along with football, baseball and basketball -- but today, that's debatable. Motor sports like NASCAR are now much more popular than hockey in terms of attendance and television ratings, and lacrosse, soccer and other activities are rising as hockey slides. And while Denver has steadily supported the Avs ever since they came to town in the mid-'90s, doing so was easy. After all, the team was outstanding immediately, winning a championship at the end of its first season in Colorado -- and it boasted an enormously charismatic superstar in Patrick Roy, not to mention Sakic, Forsberg and many other tremendous athletes.
Now, however, there are fewer and fewer familiar faces, and not as many victories, either -- and casual hockey followers seem to be tuning out. Does that mean mainstream sports buffs will only pay attention if the Avs are good enough to challenge for the Cup? In light of the just-concluded season, maybe so. Over the years, Coloradans haven't seemed like fair-weather fans -- but attendance figures for the Rockies ebb and flow based on how they're doing in the standings, and the same thing could happen to the Avalanche, especially considering how tight money is these days.
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If the Avs don't want home sell-outs to become rare instead of commonplace, they'd better improve next season, and fast -- or they could become Denver's forgotten sports franchise.