TAMPA, Fla. – The only thing better than winning the NHL championship? Sharing a big hockey hug with your best friend.

Before they went dancing with the Stanley Cup, Avalanche captain Gabe Landeskog and Erik Johnson carved out a little piece of ice amid the celebration of a 2-1 victory against Tampa Bay and embraced like brothers from different mothers.

“We were crying, telling each other how much we loved each other. How proud we were of each other. We’ve been teammates for 11 years. We finally climbed the mountain,” Johnson told me late Sunday, after Colorado beat the Lightning in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final to claim the franchise’s first championship since 2001.

Gabriel Landeskog (92) of the Colorado ...

AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post

Gabriel Landeskog (92) of the Colorado Avalanche and Erik Johnson (6) celebrate with the Stanley Cup after the third period of Colorado’s 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Sunday, June 26, 2022. The Avalanche defeated the lightning 4-2 in the best-of-seven series to clinch the third Stanley Cup title in franchise history.

It was worth the wait, because there is no more beautiful dance in sports than the one Landeskog took with a 139-year-old beauty. Landeskog lifted the 34.5-pound silver chalice over his head, welcoming the Cup back home to Colorado with a kiss.

And then? Landeskog handed the Cup to Johnson. Hockey besties. Sharing the greatest prize in the game. Atop the mountain. Together.

“To win it with E.J. is just so special. He has been my best friend since Day 1 … He was the first guy to reach out to me after I got drafted,” Landeskog told me. “I’ve been following my big brother for all these last 11 years. To be able to hand off that Stanley Cup and watch him skate away with it …”

I’m not crying. You’re crying.

Landy and E.J. have given heart and soul to this team, not to mention teeth and assorted body other parts, from years when the Avs weren’t easy to love through this crowning glory. Between them, Johnson and Landeskog have played 1,509 games, scored 344 goals and contributed 551 assists to the Burgundy and Blue.

A child led the Avs to their first championship since 2001. OK, check that. At 23 years old, baby-faced defenseman Cale Makar only looks like the kid that takes your hamburger order at the drive-through window. On a star-studded roster, Makar was the man, richly deserving of the Conn Smythe trophy as the playoff MVP.

But did you see Landeskog crawling off the ice to the Avs bench in the final desperate minutes of the Cup-clinching contest, in obvious pain after blocking a wicked hard shot by Tampa Bay forward Nikita Kucherov?

Landeskog “might be the most important person in this whole organization,”  Johnson said before this championship series began. “The demeanor he has, the type of player he is. Just a critical piece. He’s the cog that makes this machine go. The heartbeat of this team.”



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