As I watched the Colorado Avalanche players whiz around the ice during they playoff game, I couldn’t help but wonder if they didn’t have a distinct advantage. Not an advantage of coaching or superstar players. No, that advantage definitely belonged to the Nashville Predators, conference winners.
No, the advantage I thought of had to do with altitude. Nashville was coming from a city that sits at a not-so-lofty 597 feet in altitude. And as everybody knows, the Avalanche play their home games in the infamous mile-high city of Denver, sitting at 5,240 feet.
Living and sleeping at higher altitudes increases the production of red blood cells to compensate for less oxygen. Think of it as natural blood doping. Meanwhile, flatlanders coming to compete in Colorado suffer from that oxygen deficit. In fact, at 8,000 feet, where we reside in Nederland, there is 30% less oxygen.
Hockey is a very fast-paced sport that requires bursts of aerobic energy expended as skaters sprint up and down the ice chasing the puck. The advantage of living at high altitude could very well mean the difference between a win and a loss, especially as the game wears on, and players tire in the third period.
I’ve seen the effects of flatlanders dealing with high altitude first hand as a ski instructor. Just the other week, I taught a group of high school students from the United Kingdom for five days. They spent a day flying to Denver, riding a bus up to Winter Park, and found themselves with skis on less than 24 hours later at 9000 feet. The day was filled with complaints of feeling tired, having headaches, and having little energy. I’ve often thought the kindest thing visitors could do to themselves when coming on a ski vacation to Colorado is spend a couple of nights in Denver getting acclimated first.
On the other hand, those of us who live high in the Rocky Mountains have a distinct competitive advantage when we go to other places. All those red blood cells make running and bicycling feel so much easier at sea level. Our first year living in Nederland, we went to San Francisco to run the famed Bay to Breakers running race. It is marked by a very steep uphill in the middle of the race that test even the most seasoned runner. But the hill really didn’t seem bad at all, after doing numerous training runs around the forest and mountains of Colorado.
Interestingly enough, the Avalanche moved to Colorado in 1995, previously playing in Quebec. That same year, they won the Pacific Division and went on to win the coveted Stanley Cup, becoming the first team to win the Cup in their first year after relocating.
A coincidence or a result of their new high altitude home? You decide.