Avalanche Victory Over Predators Stirs Hope

I apologize ahead of time if this goes in a weird direction for hockey. It’s the first thing I have written in two weeks. Writing, for me, comes from the heart. When my heart is hurting, as it is now, it’s hard to write. So please bear with me as I share the journey of the past couple weeks with you and one of the reasons why I love hockey.

I enjoy hockey – all the activity on the ice, the skill and athleticism as well as the grace, the sound of the skates on the ice, the players talking to each other, the hitting. One of the things I grew most fond of, was the fighting. Not the sucker punch, cheap, off the puck stuff. I liked the old school “you messed with my teammate, time to pay the piper” kind of fight. Whatever squabbles or injustices there were, they were settled on the ice. By the end of the game, everyone shook hands and moved on. There is beauty in that simplicity.

Background Before the Game

But my life, and the lives of my children, took a sudden turn two weeks ago. A young man who had been close friends to two of my children, died at the age of 17. We found out at the beginning of this past week he took his own life. Our hearts are broken.

There was nothing beautiful or just about losing this young man. He had gone on a Boy Scout sailing trip with my son. My daughter went on a special birthday tubing adventure with him last year. They all went to youth group together. They weathered highs and lows. For a few years, our families were intertwined, through times of joy and sorrow.

Colorado Avalanche Valeri Nichushkin Nashville Predators Rocco Grimaldi
Colorado Avalanche Valeri Nichushkin tries to keep the puck from Nashville Predators center Rocco Grimaldi (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Over the last couple of years, life took the families on different paths. While the kids tried to stay in touch, the past year had seen little in the way of communication. But there was always the hope as they got older, as they each found their way through high school, they would re-connect and enjoy adulthood together.

That all changed. M., in a dark moment, took his own life. He was a bright kid, gawky and socially awkward, with a crooked smile. He also possessed a gentle heart. He could be kind and sensitive to others even when he didn’t understand what they were going through. He could get lost in a mathematics or engineering design problem for hours. M. was a powerful mix of brilliance and sensitivity, all of which were still struggling to find their balance.

What does this have to do with hockey, you might ask? Fair question. Just this. As our family struggled to wrap our minds around this tragedy, to remember, to reflect, to question, hockey offered a welcome distraction to the pain.

I couldn’t really focus enough to write as I wrestled to be available to my kids as they fought with their own issues. Could they have done more? How could they have helped M.? How could M. have made such a permanent decision to end a beautiful life? All the anger, the sorrow, the outrage, the fear, the memories. Walking through the process is exhausting. And draining.

But we could have brief conversations about how the Colorado Avalanche were doing, which offered a small reprieve. They weren’t doing well – they were in the middle of a five-game losing streak and were losing key players like the Titanic took on water. But it gave us something to think about that didn’t require much from us.

Colorado Avalanche Pavel Francouz Arizona Coyotes Carl Soderberg
Pavel Francouz makes a save as the Avalanche battle injuries, including one to starting goaltender Philipp Grubauer. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

In fact, the team doing poorly actually felt appropriate. We were struggling. The Avalanche were struggling. There’s not a lot one can do about a series of freak injuries. And there wasn’t much we could do about M. But there we were, trying to muddle our way through, much like the Avalanche. It was comforting to know other people were trying to deal with issues beyond their power to control as well.

M.’s funeral service was this past Tuesday, so we missed that game, although we recorded it because, thank God, Altitude was finally able to work out a deal with DirecTV. As we left the service, we checked in on the score and it wasn’t good. That was fine with us, because we weren’t doing so good either.

Entering the Avalanche-Predators Matchup

But a funny thing happened just two days later. At Thursday night’s game, my son and I went to see the Avalanche take on the Nashville Predators. We had low expectations because of the losing streak and being moderately depressed about the loss of M.

Semyon Varlamov
Returning to the familiarity of the Pepsi Center was soothing. (Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports)

When we got to the game, we saw our usher, who was his usual combination of stoicism and friendliness. As we headed to our seats, we got to see other season ticket holders, welcoming acquaintances, who knew nothing about our last two weeks. But they were happy to see us and we were relieved to see them.

We could talk about the game, the injuries, the questionable food and vendor changes at the Pepsi Center, and relief came rushing over us. We had a little pocket of time where we could forget about the rest of the world and just enjoy being.

We could watch the pre-game skate and wonder what the new jumble of line combinations would look like. We could talk about the impact of losing Philipp Grubauer with such short notice. These weren’t big, earth shattering things. They were just the stuff of everyday life. And it felt so – normal. I realized it was the first time I had felt ‘normal’ since we got the news of M.’s death.

When the arena DJ decided everyone needed to feel the music in their chests, we got ear plugs. We fussed over finding bottle caps for our drinks because our seats don’t really have cupholders and the vendors are prohibited from giving them to customers. Normally, we bring our own, but we were out of sorts and left them at home. When Jake Schroeder started singing the national anthem, we sang too, loudly.

An Avalanche of Scoring

As the game started, and the Avalanche started playing, all the familiar sounds swept us into their rushing current. A couple of friendly Predators fans were talking with the diehard Avalanche fans in front of us, telling the grandmother she must miss having Matt Duchene on the team. The normally very genial woman responded with “no, not a bit”. My son and I cracked up.

Matt Duchene Avalanche
At least one Avalanche fan doesn’t want Matt Duchene back. Based on the ‘boo’s’, there’s a lot more who feel the same way. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The little boy behind us kept trying to start the “let’s go, Avalanche” chant and we joined in. We picked up extra placards to smash during the rivalry night shenanigans and started occasionally bopping each other with them. And we laughed.  Not because we were remembering some funny story about M., which we had done plenty of. Not because of some attempt to lighten a mood, which we had also done. But just because we were having fun with each other and the friends around us.

The Avalanche played well enough in the first period to engage the crowd. It was a pleasant surprise since all the lines had been scrambled. But trying to figure out who was skating with whom and watching if they worked together was an adventure. They ended the first period ahead 2-1 with power play time to start the second and everything looked more promising for the team than they had in six games. But they had blown a lead in the third already this season, at home, in the waning seconds of the game, so no one was getting ahead of themselves.

Then the second period started. After getting behind 3-2 in the first five minutes of the period and watching Duchene celebrate his go-ahead goal, the Avalanche found another gear. The team went on to score six goals in eight minutes. People were still celebrating Joonas Donskoi’s game-tying goal when defenseman Ryan Graves scored from the point to put the Avalanche up 4-3.

Colorado Avalanche Joonas Donskoi Boston Bruins Jaroslav Halak
Joonas Donskoi found his groove in the mishmash of Avalanche line combinations. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

It was amazing to see the team come back so quickly. Everyone was cheering and looking at each other in surprise.

When Andre Burakovsky scored just a little over a minute later, the place erupted. The Avalanche had scored three goals in less than two minutes against the Predators, a team favored to go deep in the playoffs. That’s when Predators coach Peter Laviolette elected to pull Pekka Rinne from the net. Yes, the same Rinne who had yet to face a loss this season.

Shortly thereafter, the Avalanche ended up on the penalty kill and it looked like the momentum could shift again. And it did. J.T. Compher made a great play to get the puck into the Predator’s zone where he dished it to Matt Nieto, who scored the Avalanche’s sixth goal of the game, the fourth in less than three minutes of play.

The fans erupted like they were losing their minds, my son and I were high-fiving everyone who moved, people were rushing up and down the stairs to hug each other. One gentleman just covered his mouth with his eyes wide in disbelief. It was pandemonium.

I had forgotten how good it felt to have something to cheer for. Grief can do that. And the cheering was doing something healing for my soul.

But the Avalanche weren’t done yet. A little over two minutes later, Matt Calvert converted off a Nathan MacKinnon snipe to put the Avs up 7-3. And three minutes later, Donskoi scored the team’s sixth goal of the period, their eighth of the game. It was astounding. The Avalanche scored six goals in eight minutes. Was this the same team that got shut out by the Arizona Coyotes just a few days ago?

The adrenaline rush left fans breathless. The second period ended with the Avalanche up 8-3 after an incredibly exhilarating effort. Not once during that period had my son and I thought about anything other than hockey. It was a sweet relief.

But this is the Avalanche, after all, and the audience had suffered their share of disappointment over the years. They were excited but not counting the Predators out – yet.

The third period saw the Predators score midway through, and everyone waited to see if they were going to work their way back into the game. But the Avalanche, while not as offensively potent as in the previous frame, were still playing well enough to keep the lead. Then, with just a little over two minutes left, Donskoi scored on the power play, notching his third goal of the night and earning his first ever NHL hat trick. Once again, raucous celebrations ensued as people threw hats on the ice, some even fighting to get theirs through the gap in the netting on the ends.

When play resumed (after collecting all the hats off the ice), chants of “We want 10” filled the Can, echoing off the rafters. The Predators apparently thought losing 9-4 was enough, as they held the puck behind their net as the seconds ticked down.

As the buzzer finally sounded, the fans went wild, cheering the haphazard collection of remaining players as they lifted their sticks to the audience. It was a brief moment of joy and relief. The losing streak was over and the Avalanche had re-discovered their scoring touch.

For the moment, the concerns about Nikita Zadorov’s health (he left after taking a puck to the face) and MacKinnon’s status (he didn’t play in the third), were far at bay.

Avalanche defenseman Nikita Zadorov
Avalanche defenseman Nikita Zadorov took a puck to the face that required surgery to repair his jaw. (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

It was a win, and after a long drought, everyone was drinking it in. There would be plenty of time for worrying tomorrow.

The Game’s Lasting Impact

I know one win isn’t necessarily important in the grand scheme of an 82-game season. But remembering you still know how to score and win, despite what gets thrown at you, is important. The win reminded me and my son that there were still things to look forward to, surprises we couldn’t plan, good things to hope for.

I wish M. had that. I wish he was here so I could remind him that sometimes when things look their bleakest, it doesn’t mean there isn’t something wonderful right around the corner. I hope and pray that I remember to share that hope with those who cross my path, that I can find words to encourage those who are downhearted and may not be able to find their way out of their dark hole on their own. And I share our story of grief to let others know they really have no idea the impact their lives have on others. They are more important than they think. People matter.

Also, one other encouragement. We never really know what someone else is going through, what troubles may be weighing on their heart. Tread lightly and be kind.

A hockey game can’t fix the troubles of the world. But this night, the Avalanche game reminded my son and I there is still joy to be had, unexpected fun and silliness around the corner, and the occasional oasis to offer respite from the cares of the world.

Thank You, Colorado Avalanche

I want to thank hockey for disrupting my plans, winning my heart, and reminding me there is still life ahead. I want to thank our usher for his reassuring and welcoming presence. I want to thank all those season ticket holders who endured the catcalls during the 48-point season and who we celebrated with during the playoff runs for sharing their kindness and joy.

Matt Nieto Colorado Avalanche
The Colorado Avalanche helped bring some happiness back into our lives in our sorrow. (Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports)

I want to thank the Avalanche for offering a little respite from the world, allowing me to re-connect with play and wonder in the company of others. Finally, I want to thank those of you who take the time out of your busy lives to actually read anything I might scratch out. I appreciate that investment and I endeavor to write something worthy of your attention.

Until the next time – hold those you love close, fight for your silver lining, and remember to keep your eyes open for those unexpected pockets of joy! They are out there, even if they seem delayed right now.

And one more thing – Go Avalanche!