Following the Colorado Avalanche's overtime win against Minnesota Wild in the preseason on Friday, Pepsi Center was in a flurry of burgundy and blue on Saturday morning as jersey-clad fans of all ages flocked to the arena for the team's inaugural Fan Fest.
The event was free and included on-ice instruction for youth hockey players, various interactive activities, giveaways and culminated in an open practice with the NHL squad.
Colorado Springs residents and lifelong Avalanche fans Pat and Chris said they didn't know what to expect of the event's debut but came excited for a chance to share in the activities.
Pat, who was featured as the King Soopers Hero of the Game during a 2016-17 game, was overjoyed at the signed stick and "5-foot-tall painting" he picked up at the Avalanche merchandise clear out sale at Pepsi Point outside section 102.
A skating clinic for over 200 Mile High Mites--youth hockey players associated with the Avalanche's Learn To Play program--started off the day and included six sessions with instruction from team alumni Milan Hejduk and John-Michael Liles. The two alums stuck around afterward to sign sticks, pucks, helmets and more on the concourse for fans eager to meet two of the top players in the team's history.
For 5-year-old Wade and 8-year-old Quentin (whose favorite current players are Mikko Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon, respectively), they said they had a lot of fun skating with Hejduk and Liles in the morning with the mites.
When asked to recall his favorite Avs moment, Quentin answered, "When they went to the playoffs last year."
That was a common sentiment throughout the day, as the fan fest was buzzing with memories of last year's turnaround season and many fans were full of optimism for the new campaign ahead.
The event also included photo opportunities and meet and greets with the RAM Trucks Avalanche Ice Girls and mascot Bernie, who could be spotted around the stands throwing snowballs and giving lots of high-fives. Various fitness challenges sponsored by UCHealth were also featured throughout the arena.
A thousand people either in-line skated or ran the Avs 5K race around the Pepsi Center grounds in the morning and received a medal and a t-shirt for their efforts. UCHealth also presented a shooting challenge where fans of all ages tried their hand at shooting pucks into small targets in a hockey goal on the main concourse. These activities were presented in conjunction with UCHealth's Fan Fit initiative that includes in-game, fitness-related challenges at all Avalanche home contests.
Outside of Pepsi Center, a large inflatable rink enclosed a street hockey clinic where fans of all ages were given sticks and had the opportunity to shoot around with members of the Ice Girls team.
Lauren, whose son was stickhandling in the outdoor rinks, said she drove more than three hours from Steamboat Springs to participate in today's event.
"My son is a huge Avs fan, and I got an email about this event and we said 'we got to go,'" she said. "He's been excited for days."
As the morning came to an end, fans filtered into the main arena seats to watch the Avs practice at noon.
The afternoon's training was preceded by a Q&As session with head coach Jared Bednar and Altitude TV's Marc Moser and Peter McNab. The three chatted about last season's highlights, the team's American Hockey League affiliate moving to Loveland and the strength of the Avs' leadership group as goaltenders Semyon Varlamov and Philipp Grubauer took to the ice and faced shots in a pre-practice workout.
Video: Head coach Jared Bednar at the Avs Fan Fest
"We have two-plus decades now where we have grown as a hockey state, and we've certainly grown as a hockey city as far as our knowledge of the game and in our fan base," said McNab, noting the importance of the fan fest as a place for players to connect with avid Colorado supporters. "Even in the worst of times, our fan base has been supportive and strong and the players know that. They know that there have been a couple years where it hasn't been as much fun as others, but the fans are always there, always cheering for them."
The Avalanche players wore either their burgundy home or white road game sweaters for the practice and were split into two teams for drills and mini-scrimmages in front of the crowd.
"We wanted to put something fun together for the fans," said Bednar. "In an ideal world, they're always having fun when they're coming to practice."
Video: Gabe Landeskog after the Avs Fan Fest
While drills were taken seriously on the ice, the benches were more relaxed. At one point, captain Gabriel Landeskog sprayed water on teammate Mikko Rantanen during the right wing's live interview. The action was retaliated as Rantanen sprayed Landeskog right back.
"I wish every practice was like this," said Tyson Barrie to Altitude reporter Lauren Gardner about the fun atmosphere.
The practice also included live commentary and analysis from Moser and McNab as well as player interviews from Gardner, Kyle Keefe and Mark Rycroft between drills.
The day ended with a shootout and an opportunity for the players to showcase their impressive stick-handling skills--and some soccer skills in the case of Landeskog's kicked-in goal.
Video: Part of Avs practice and the shootout at Fan Fest
The players practiced in some unlikely scenarios in the shootout, dodging thrown gloves and Gatorade bottles as they skated toward the net. The real star of the shootout was Varlamov, who also took the opportunity to show off his skills between the pipes. Team Burgundy won the shootout and was the overall winner of the day's practice competition.
"It was awesome to practice in front of the fans," said Landeskog. "It means a lot to us that they came out, and they supported us on a day like this."
Rookie Logan O'Connor echoed Landeskog's sentiment.
"It's pretty unbelievable. I didn't really know what turnout to expect, but [the fans] were loud, they were awesome," O'Connor said. "It was pretty cool to see the support the team gets, obviously, around the city here."
All in all, the Fan Fest was a fun and accessible day for fans from near and far to get involved with the team and the sport of hockey. It was a day of connection between the team and fans, reflection on why it is so fun to root for the Avalanche and excitement for what the season ahead will bring.