ENGLEWOOD, Colo. - The fans crammed into the bleachers and lined one side of the ice rink, waiting for the Colorado Avalanche to take the ice.
Maybe they were there to simply catch a glimpse of the Avalanche during their first official practice since the lockout was lifted.
Or maybe they filled the tiny facility on Sunday because it was a way to forget—at least for a moment—the Denver Broncos' stinging loss the day before to Baltimore that ended a promising season and sent the city into a sombre mood.
Either way, the players were sure appreciative. A little shocked even, when they were greeted by cheers as they stepped out of the locker room and onto the ice.
They expected maybe a handful of fans to show up. Just nothing like this.
"For us to go out there and see a full barn, wow, that's exciting," defenceman Shane O'Brien said after a two-hour practice. "It's a good feeling. The boys had a good practice today."
With time now of the essence, the Avalanche jumped right in and were put through a pretty up-tempo workout by coach Joe Sacco. They open the season next Saturday in Minnesota against a Wild team that could be a Stanley Cup contender.
For the Avalanche to have any hope of slipping into that conversation, well, they have to get on the same page in a hurry. The team has quite a few new additions, including forwards P.A. Parenteau and John Mitchell, along with defenceman Greg Zanon.
One familiar face missing from practice on Sunday was Ryan O'Reilly, who's playing overseas as he and the team try to work out a deal. The player nicknamed "Factor" for his big-play ability was the team's leading scorer last season.
"Obviously, we want 'Factor' back," centre Matt Duchene said. "At the same time, I'm only worried about what I'm going to do for the team. Each guy is worried about their role and how they're going to help this team. We're all links in the chain and have to be strong so we can win.
"We can't worry about who's not here and just who is."
Just one practice in and already Colorado's top line of captain Gabriel Landeskog, Duchene and Parenteau appears to be clicking. They had a solid morning session, scoring a few nifty goals in 5-on-5 drills.
"Feels really good to be here, actually," said Parenteau, who arrived in town after playing last season with the New York Islanders. "It took too long before I got to meet my new teammates and new city. This is a pretty good group of guys."
To speed up the learning curve, the Avalanche players are dining together. Their reasoning? Breaking bread off the ice could lead to goals on it.
"It's real important to build something right off the bat," Parenteau said.
So, who picks up the check?
"Everyone splits it," O'Brien said. "We've got a great group of guys in here. It's an easy dressing room to come in and feel comfortable. Everyone seems to be fitting in perfectly. Hopefully we can put the product on the ice and win hockey games."
The Avs are trying to get back on track after missing the playoffs last season for a second straight year. As the leader, it's Landeskog's task to quickly get them on the same page.
Not that he's too worried.
"Everyone has done a great job of staying in shape. Everyone looks hungry out there and like they're having fun," said the 20-year-old Landeskog, who's the youngest captain in NHL history. "We missed hockey so much, being around the guys, practicing and messing around after practice. We're all looking forward to this. Today was a good start—we have to build off that and get better."
As for the packed audience, well, that was a nice bonus.
Were the fans out there because the Broncos lost or excited to see the return of hockey?
"I think folks are excited about hockey," Sacco said. "I think it's time that it's back. That was a great turnout. Even though it's practice, it certainly motivates the players to some degree when they see people out there. It livens things up a little bit."
To keep the fans attending games all season will require one thing—victories.
"The fans in Denver are smart hockey fans," O'Brien said. "They've seen two Stanley Cups. They know what good hockey is. Play good hockey, win hockey games, be a playoff team—you'll see the Pepsi Center full every night. You can't blame them if we're losing game they don't come. Hopefully, we'll win some games and fill the building."
NOTES: Avs F Chuck Kobasew (illness) didn't skate Sunday. ... Asked about the tempo of the first practice, Sacco said: "It looked like we had guys that were excited to be back on the ice game. You could see that passion out there."
Follow Pat Graham on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/Pgraham34
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