Farewell Denver. The Colorado Avalanche is heading north to Canada for a chance at bringing back the city's third Stanley Cup championship.
The Avs held their final on-ice practice of the Phase 3 Training Camp at Pepsi Center on Saturday and now head to Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, the site of the team's remaining games this season.
Colorado players, coaches, trainers and a few support staff members will travel to the Western Conference hub city on Sunday and will spend at least three weeks in the NHL's secure zone, created due to concerns from the COVID-19 pandemic, but the organization hopes its stay is much, much longer. The tentative last day that the Stanley Cup will be awarded is set for Oct. 4, and the Avalanche aims to be in the Alberta capital for when summer turns to fall and the crisp chill that signifies winter is around the corner returns to the air.
"It's certainly going to be a unique situation. I think it's going to be a little bit like a summer camp, where they try to get a lot of things in the bubble, keep guys entertained," said defenseman Ian Cole. "But when it comes down to it, we're there to win hockey games and we're there to win a Stanley Cup. We're not there to watch movies at the theater and go to all the different food trucks they have coming in. So it's not a vacation. It's very much a time to work. I think everyone on this team knows that and everyone is certainly okay with that. We have one goal and that is to win a Stanley Cup."
Video: The Avs watched a send-off video before the playoffs
The Avs' schedule next week involves practices and an exhibition contest on Wednesday versus the Minnesota Wild before the team opens round-robin play on Sunday, Aug. 2 against the St. Louis Blues. Colorado also plays the Dallas Stars (Aug. 5) and Vegas Golden Knights (Aug. 9) that week to determine the top four seeds in the West for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, with the first round set to begin on Aug. 11.
For the Avalanche's 52-member traveling party, many them will be away from wives, significant others, children and parents for up to 10 weeks, all for the chance to raise the silver chalice that many have dreamed of doing since they were kids playing mini sticks in their hallways and basements of their youth.
Cole is one of eight Avalanche players to have helped previous clubs reach the Stanley Cup Final and is one of three on the team to have his name engraved on the trophy, joining Andre Burakovsky and Philipp Grubauer (2018 Washington Capitals). The defenseman has a unique perspective in that he won a championship in back-to-back seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins (2016 and 2017), but he knows these chances don't come around very often.
"We can be locked in our hotel rooms for every second of the day, but as long as we get a chance to compete for that, then I think we'd be happy," Cole said. "So it's certainly going to be unique. It should be kind of fun in some instances. Obviously you're going to miss your family. But you only get so many opportunities to win the Stanley Cup and this a great opportunity for us."
Video: Cole on the mindset of the Avs on heading to Edmonton
There will no doubt be distractions once the team gets to Edmonton. Not necessarily in the form of off-ice activities, but just the thought of being away from loved ones for such a long, unspecified amount of time.
Head coach Jared Bednar's message to his team during the Phase 3 Training Camp was to focus on the job at hand and be ready for the most important games of the season. It will be "zero to 60" for the players once the puck drops in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers in one week's time.
"I think the message from me is we have to be prepared and ready to play meaningful games at the highest possible intensity and competitiveness that we can from the time we get there," Bednar said. "We're fortunate that we have an exhibition game and the round-robin games to get to full speed. We're fighting for home ice and those are games we want to win. So the guys that do the best job of getting themselves ready from that competitive standpoint will be the guys who have the most success."
Bednar on Saturday praised his team's performance during the 10 practices in Denver, while also recognizing there were portions that lacked the necessary intensity, which can certainly be understandable after four months off and a long camp that featured scrimmages between teammates. There is still work to be done this coming week before the Avs begin their pursuit of a title.
The team had five instrasquad scrimmages over the past two weeks to help get the players back competing and get that feeling back of what the speed and physicality of the game is like when played at the highest level. Bednar said he could sense his team's enthusiasm to get going on the last day of practice in Colorado.
"We still have some time to get to exactly where we need to be, tactically and with the intensity and competitiveness in the first game, but I think guys are really excited," Bednar said. "I really liked our energy out there today. Guys knowing that it's our last skate before we jump on the plane to head to Edmonton tomorrow. So pretty successful camp, and that's because of the hard work the guys put in."
As the last Avalanche player left the ice at the bottom of the 1 o'clock hour on Saturday afternoon, the Pepsi Center sheet was empty and will remain that way until the club reports for the 2020-21 training camp, likely in November.
It will certainly be weird for everyone on the Avs' roster in the coming weeks to compete away from home at a neutral site, but the work they've put in at their home rink over the last several weeks will hopefully pay off later on.
"I think overall we've done a good job of trying to get back to mid-season or even late-season form as quickly as possible," said Cole. "We're fortunate that we don't have a qualifying round series, but we are going to have seeding games. So we need to be ready, everyone knows that, and we're going to have to be ready to go. I think we've done a good job so far, with certainly some more work to do."