Kiszla: Welcome home, Stanley! 500,000 Avalanche fans raise Cup to the rebirth of Denver.

Kiszla: Welcome home, Stanley! 500,000 Avalanche fans raise Cup to the rebirth of Denver.

Welcome home, Stanley.

“This is for you, Denver. We (bleeping) love you!” captain Gabe Landeskog declared to a crowd of 500,000 spilling out of Civic Center Park as rain began to fall on a summer day when the Avalanche marched the Stanley Cup through town.

Nobody loves a victory parade more than Denver. But know what was so cool about this particular Thursday in June? It was a love letter to a city in need of a big hug.

The Avs brought life back to a downtrodden city that has felt abandoned since the outset of COVID-19.

Nathan MacKinnon snuggled a baby to his fuzzy face. Cale Makar ran down the street exchanging high-fives. Artturi Lehkonen drank a toast from his own shoe.

Raise a Cup to the rebirth of Denver, y’all.

“You want a beer?” Tivis Alexander asked me at 8:04 a.m., shortly after he plopped a chair down at a prime spot on the parade route and cranked up “All the Small Things” on his cellphone. “If you’re not a beer guy, I have gin and whiskey in this cooler.”

Nobody goes downtown anymore. Or at least that’s what I’ve been told by doomsayers insisting the best days for Denver are long gone.

Well, I don’t know about all that. But this much is true:

The pandemic turned office buildings into ghostly towers. The Wewatta Pavilion, built behind Union Station to protect commuters from winter snow, became a sad, fertile ground of homeless despair. Littered with needles and populated by rats, barricades went up, shutting down Civic Center Park in 2021.

The Queen City of the Plains became unrecognizable to Colorado natives who love the place, but not enough to risk a ride on light rail into the city from the burbs.

“I don’t like to come downtown, even for a Rockies game. Why? The city scares me,” said 69-year-old Kathy Glivar, lighting a cigarette as she leaned on a walker at the start of the parade route.

The Avs made Glivar fall in love with hockey way back in those giddy glory days of Patrick Roy during the 1990s. From the upper deck of old McNichols Arena, her daughter swooned, dreaming of a marriage proposal from Peter Forsberg.

But on this warm summer morning, Glivar was delighted to be back downtown, accompanied by her grandson. Young Brody Krause was decked out in a Forsberg sweater (in eternal admiration genetically passed along from Mom, no doubt).

Want to know why sports, at their best, are more than fun and games? Hockey can do more than build a tribe united in burgundy and blue. It can help rebuild the vitality of a city

“The best part for me is how the Avs let us all have fun for the first time since the pandemic,” Glivar said. “We needed this to bring the city back to life. Downtown was dead.”

If beating Tampa Bay in six games for the championship wasn’t enough, the Avs created miles of smiles during the parade.

“The alarm clock in my brain went off at 5:45,” said Will Barkoskie, who awoke in Fort Collins as the sun peeked above the horizon.

Barkoskie is 15 years old, freshly relocated to Colorado from Florida. He refuses to let muscular dystrophy or a wheelchair stop him from taking road trips for games of his new favorite team.

“I just became an Avalanche fan this year,” Barkoskie admitted. “The suspense of hockey never stops.”

In a city ready to roar after we were all cooped up by COVID for far too long, the best moments of the parade occurred at the end of the line, when fire trucks carrying the Avs were stuck in gridlock, waiting to be unloaded for the ceremony on the steps of the City and County Building.

On W 13th Ave is where Mikko Rantanen could be found autographing a Teddy Bear tossed to him from the street, while a fan repeatedly beseeched billionaire franchise owner Stan Kroenke to “Throw me all your money!”

If not mistaken, I spied notorious Cup-denter Nic (Unsafe at Any Speed) Aube-Kubel leap from his perch on a truck in an attempt to commandeer an electric scooter.

And I’m quite certain when the mother of tiny Silas Forakis, born Feb. 2, loudly requested MacKinnon to “Kiss my baby,” the team’s star center politely refused to pucker up for the health of everyone concerned, but gave a gentle hug video-recorded for posterity by the infant’s proud father.

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