by Woody Paige
(left) Denver Post & ESPN funnyman Woody Paige in on board for outdoor hockey games at Mile High Stadium
The Mile High Icextravaganza & Winter Festival ought to become a reality for New Year's Eve, 2008 or '09.
Denver could set the record for the biggest hockey crowd in the world and establish a terrific annual holiday event.
"It's an intriguing possibility," says Jon Schmieder, executive director of the Metro Denver Sports Commission.
The Buffalo Sabres-Pittsburgh Penguins game Jan. 1 — outdoors in the Bills' football stadium — attracted 71,217, an NHL record, and was the highest-rated network game for the league in more than a decade. The largest percentage of viewers resides, obviously, in Buffalo and Pittsburgh, followed by Minneapolis-St. Paul.
Denver, surprisingly, was fourth.
There is serious hockey interest here. The Avalanche produced the longest sellout streak in NHL history — and owns two Stanley Cup titles — and the DU Pioneers have won seven national championships, the last in 2004-05, and are ranked in the top five again this season.
The Frozen Four, the NCAA's Division I men's hockey finals, will be held at The Can on April 10-12, and all tickets are long gone. This is Denver's first college hockey championship since 1976 (when it was held at the old DU Arena).
Denver was the host of the rare and well-done 2001 NHL All-Star Game, and junior and high school hockey programs are growing in Colorado. The Detroit Red Red Wings alumni participated again last weekend in the annual Rocky Mountain Pond Championships in the Vail Valley.
So, why not a big-time "pond" game in Denver?
The Metro Denver Sports Commission, management of the Avalanche and DU coach George Gwozdecky discussed the idea of an outdoor game years ago after a Michigan State-Michigan game at Spartan Stadium brought out a (still-standing) hockey record audience of 74,544 on Oct. 6, 2001.
But the plan melted away because of cost and a variety of other issues. "We just didn't have the assets and the commitment to do it at the time," Schmieder said.
The success and popularity of the Buffalo-Pittsburgh game renewed fascination with the outdoor game here and elsewhere. The NHL, which puts on its All-Star Game in Atlanta this weekend, is pondering more stadium games in other "winter" locales.
(Miami and Phoenix don't seem logical, although Las Vegas was the site once for an outdoor NHL exhibition.)
The Post's Terry Frei wrote about the Sabres-Penguins game in Orchard Park, N.Y., and raised the question: "Why not an Avs-Red Wings game outdoors in Denver?"
So, again, why not?
The Broncos have put as many as 76,775 bodies in their stadium. An audience of 75,000 would break the world record.
"A lot of pieces would be involved," said Schmieder, whose organization has originated and overseen myriad sports events in Denver, including the most prominent, the Rocky Mountain Showdown between the Colorado and Colorado State football teams. "Our board has asked me where we stand (on an outdoor game). The genesis started with the Avs when we first talked about it, and it's really up to the Avs. If they and the NHL wanted to back it and get it going, it would be worth investigating."
Schmieder said the earlier brainstorming discussions a few years back "brought out a range of" suggestions — games involving the Avs, the Pioneers and the U.S. and Canadian women's hockey teams, figure skating competition and a national junior hockey tournament.
All are excellent proposals.
Conceivably, an entire winter festival, somewhat in the tradition of the St. Paul Winter Carnival, could be staged up to the New Year, with the games at the football stadium, the New Year's Eve celebration downtown, ice sculptures, skating clinics, an international ice show, a parade, shops, markets, food bonanzas and a mini-Olympics (figure skating, speedskating, curling, sled racing, etc., etc.) in cooperation with the USOC in Colorado Springs.
As long as Dick Lamm doesn't try to fight it and John Hickenlooper climbs on board.
"Of course, the Avs and the Pioneers would be the big ticket," Schmieder said.
I'm envisioning a nationally televised doubleheader extravaganza featuring the University of Denver and Colorado College in the first game, followed by the Avalanche against the Red Wings. Ice, Nice, Baby.
The Avs and the Wings would get a monetary bonanza (and the league the attention it continues to crave), and both college athletic programs would receive major financial assistance. Plus, with ticket sales and corporate sponsorships (with a title sponsor) the Sports Commission and local charities would be beneficiaries.
What about the Broncos? Schmieder said the setup of the ice-making equipment, which is very expensive, and the rink would take seven to 10 days before Dec. 31 (a Wednesday this year). The Broncos could schedule a road game on the 28th. Or the hockey games could be played at the baseball park (no record, but 50,000 and a LoDo bash).
If we can invite the Democrats to town for a few days, we can endure the Puckheads, too.
And the temperature (Monday notwithstanding) on Dec. 31 probably would be 70 — a perfect night for a hockey game. Let's play two.