Paul Klee: How the Avalanche’s arrival in 1995 changed youth hockey in Colorado forever | Paul Klee

DENVER • Go back 30 years or so, and a Littleton youth hockey team winning a big-time international tournament probably wouldn’t have been a thing. Credit the 15 boys and girls who brought the trophy home to Colorado.

Tap a stick for the Colorado Avalanche, too.

See, youth hockey around these hills was always a thing. Back in 1990-91 there were 3,850-ish registered youth hockey players in Colorado, according to USA Hockey. Then came the Avs, who arrived with a flurry in 1995, won a couple Stanley Cups, and look where we are now: almost 15,500 youth hockey players and close to 150 high school clubs, the Avs say.

The Avs coming to Denver and the explosion of youth hockey is no coincidence — and no joke.

As the Avs prepare to clash with the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup final, it’s a good time to point out an Avalanche club already won a championship in 2022. Boy (and girl!), did it ever. Just a couple weeks ago, a team of 12- and 13-year-olds from the Littleton Hawks Youth Hockey Association went to Canada and won the Quebec International Peewee Hockey Tournament, the most prestigious minor hockey tournament in the world. They competed as the Junior Avs, were sponsored by the Avs, decked out as Avs. Thanks to the franchise’s commitment to youth hockey, they are now Avalanche fanatics for life.

Well, except for one little man who swears his allegiance to the Red Wings. Kids these days.

But seriously, how’s this for a 12-year-old hockey player’s dream? The Avs hooked up the kids with replica jerseys for the Quebec tournament. Plane fares, hotels, meals — all footed by the Avs. Shoot, the Avs put together an 11-day itinerary for the kids (“Down to the minute,” one parent said), complete with team meals, tours of the Canadian parliament and a maple syrup factory, paintball battles and homework sessions to keep up with sixth grade.

There was even a 9 pm curfew. And if a kid broke curfew? No one knows. No one did.

“On and off the ice, the kids were head-to-toe ‘Avs’ the whole time,” says the coach, Matt Adams, whose crafty gameplan helped the Junior Avs beat a gifted squad from Edmonton.

Talk about a kid’s dream. Throw in a meet-and-great with Avs forward Alex Newhook, enough swag to fill a closet and a week’s worth of elite hockey — 12 years old doesn’t get much better.

“Listen, I’m a Chicago guy. Big Blackhawks guy. But the respect I have for the Avs after seeing this is through the roof,” says Mike Bozek, whose son Joseph is a sixth-grade defenseman for the Junior Avs. “The Avs are first-class. The way it was organized was simply off-the-charts.”

Bozek spent 12 years coaching youth hockey. In fact, he coached Adams, his son’s coach now.

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“I don’t think my son will comprehend what they just accomplished until he’s 25, having a beer with his friends talking about the good ol’ days up in Quebec,” Bozek says.

This year marked the first time a team from Colorado won the AA division at the Quebec tournament. What a performance, too. They buzzed through the bracket with a 5-0 record.

Over the past eight months, this Littleton-based squad won five championships and went 74-10-3. Who’s the next Cale Makar or Logan O’Connor (a Denver Pioneer and fan favorite among the kids)? Well, take a flyer on Colton Lien, Blake Kawasaki, Trey Packard or goalie Sydney Kelm.

The Junior Avs scrimmaged teams from Calgary and Switzerland and beat both. They rolled through the real bracket with wins over teams from Quebec, Edmonton, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. Before a loud crowd in the championship game, the Junior Avs beat Charlevoix Rorquals (Clermont, Ontario), 7-5.

The NHL’s Avalanche beat the Edmonton Oilers in the second round. Same for the Junior Avs.

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“They had the (replica) Oilers jerseys too,” says Adams, a former standout with the CU Buffs club team. “The kids got a kick out of that.”

Why do the Colorado Avalanche invest so much in youth hockey across the state?

“Not only does it attract people to the game, it’s supporting the growth and development of hockey in Colorado,” says Jason Schofield, the Avs director of amateur hockey development.

The goal is “to give these kids a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that only the Quebec tournament can provide,” Schofield said.

Prior to winning a world title, the Junior Avs had their parents drive them to Ball Arena to collect their sweet new sweaters and meet the pros. Newhook was there. So was general manager Joe Sakic. One kid told Sakic: “We’ll win this thing if you guys can bring home the Cup too.”

Sakic’s response: “OK, you’re on.”

It’s go time, Avs. The kids held up their end of the bargain.

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