'Bandwagon fan' is a loaded term. It suggests an aggravating specimen, the kind of person with no interest or knowledge of a team until it become cool to support them. The sort of person who frustrates the diehards to no end with questions like 'What is that guy's name?' and 'Why are they blowing the whistle?' The nice thing about them is that you never hear from them when the team isn't doing good – but that's also the worst thing, too, come to think of it. At least their presence is an indicator that your team is attracting positive attention.
So that's why I want to write this, to clear the air: I didn't jump off the Colorado Avalanche bandwagon. It just took off without me one day, and it's taken me this long to catch up.
I loved all the major sports when I was a kid, but I was a late adopter when it came to hockey. I came to the sport thanks to the EA Sports NHL video games, and still have fond memories of playing those games for hours with my dad and abusing the wrap-around move for the automatic goals that ensued. (Since there were no Avalanche, I chose the New Jersey Devils to play with, and as such remain convinced that Stephane Richer is one of the 10 greatest hockey players of all time, so prolific was he coming around from behind the net.) The Avalanche came to Denver early enough in my life as a hockey fan that I was able to quickly disown the team I'd picked to be my favorite initially – the Detroit Red Wings. (Dodged a bullet, there.)
Not to spend too much time on my bonafides – but from 1995 to 2003, I followed the Avs as ardently as all of my other favorite teams. I listened to Mike Haynes' play-by-play calls religiously, watched playoff games from the same lucky spot on the couch, and still remember all the players from the Forsbergs and Sakics to the Reinprechts and Niemenens. I skated a tin-foil Stanley Cup around my block on Parade Day in 1996, and tried to hold back tears (and failed) when Ray Bourque hoisted the real thing in 2001. I was at the Field of Dreams store at Park Meadows when I found out the Avs had signed Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne for the 03-04 season, and remember high-fiving the guy at the counter and saying 'Just carve our names on the Cup right freaking now.' I remember listening to the Game 6 loss to the Sharks in the Western Semis that year and feeling like an era was coming to an end.
Then two things happened. One happened to every hockey fan – the lockout. The other happened to me – I left the burgeoning hockey madhouse that Denver had become and went off to college in a state decidedly more apathetic towards the game: Indiana. When hockey returned, in my sophomore year of college, I was cut off from the game. It was easy enough to follow my other favorite teams – the Rockies were an MLB.tv subscription away, and the Nuggets were on national TV often enough for me to feel connected, but I didn't see a single Avalanche game on television for three years. The Avs made the playoffs in '06, then missed for the first time ever in '07. That year, as a radio station intern, I attended several games in the season's second half and watched their dramatic push for the eighth seed fall just short. From the press box I was struck by how detached I felt watching the team play.
These weren't the Avs I'd grown up with, with their deep and talented roster featuring world-class players at every spot. Peter Forsberg, the greatest individual player I have ever seen wear a Colorado team's uniform in any sport, was gone. Patrick Roy was gone. The yearly trading deadline magic that Pierre LaCroix worked was fading. Hell, even John Kelly wasn't on the television broadcast anymore. I didn't care about Tyler Arnason and Ben Guite and Jose Theodore the same way I cared about the teams of the past – not for lack of success, but for lack of nights spent in front of the Altitude TV broadcast or nestled next to the radio following the team.
Even 2008's playoff run, which saw the return of Forsberg and a second-round playoff matchup with the hated Red Wings, didn't stir the old feelings. I still enjoyed the game, but I no longer had a team. The Avalanche bandwagon had left me behind.
Flash forward to today. Hockey's in as good a place as it's ever been, with labor strife behind it, a sweet new TV deal, and bonafide stars everywhere you look. The NBA seems hell-bent on destroying its season, leaving the NHL as the only game in town from Monday to Friday. And so I've spent the summer on a full sprint trying to catch up to that old bandwagon.
It's got a few dents in it, now. The burgundy and blue paint doesn't shine like it used to. The roster is a mix of young players just getting started and uninspiring retreads to surround them (I don't think Chuck Kobasew jerseys are going to sell too well). But it's the right kind of mix for a rebuilding club, one which the Avalanche clearly are.
I don't ask for much from my favorite teams. I'm not greedy/from New York enough to ask for championship glory every season. All I really want is for my team to be competitive and compelling, a team that I look forward to watching on a nightly basis. And with players like Matt Duchene, Semyon Varlamov, and Gabriel Landeskog all young enough to dream on, this edition of the Avalanche could prove to be just that.
So, if I could, I'd like my old seat back, please. The one I was sitting in for all those overtimes in the 1996 Western Semis, the one I was sitting in when Adam Deadmarsh hit the post as time expired in Game 7 of the 2000 Western Finals, the one from where I saw nine straight division titles and some absolutely electrifying hockey. It doesn't look like anybody's taken it. Those types of bandwagon fans I was talking about at the start aren't likely to catch on for some time. So there should be a little room for me to squeeze back in – and I promise not to get left behind again.