Northern Stars: The Colorado Eagles continue their run of excellence

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This story originally appeared in Mile High Sports Magazine. Read the full digital edition.

When Colorado Eagles co-owner and general manager Ralph Backstrom gave me a tour of the under-construction Budweiser Events Center in Loveland in 2002, the Central Hockey League expansion franchise was a year away from playing its first game.

I had known Backstrom for many years, and I politely nodded as he ran through the checklist of reasons the Eagles would be successful in a crowded Colorado sports landscape – one that generally had been unkind to minor-league hockey franchises, both before and after the arrival of the NHL’s Avalanche in Denver in 1995.

Backstrom said that with modestly priced tickets and an unpretentious carnival-like game-night experience, the Eagles could fill a professional sports void in the booming Northern Colorado corridor, drawing fans from as far north as Cheyenne, as well as from Fort Collins, Windsor, Loveland, even Longmont, and all areas within hailing distance.

Actually, I assumed Backstrom’s minor-league venture would have a difficult time gaining a foothold and surviving.

I was wrong.

Long before the Eagles hoisted the ECHL’s Patrick J. Kelly Cup last spring and celebrated the championship through the summer, they were entrenched as a success story, playing in the 5,289-seat building 50 miles up Interstate 25 from Pepsi Center and indeed becoming one of the major entertainment attractions in Northern Colorado. Developer Martin Lind, instrumental in the Northern Colorado growth, is the Eagles’ CEO and the franchise owner.

Sellouts no longer are automatic, but the BEC still generally is packed and rocking on game nights. And with the Eagles and their fans buoyed by the 2017 ECHL playoff run that included series victories over the Idaho Steelheads, Allen Americans, Toledo Walleye and ultimately a four-game Finals sweep of the Carolina Stingrays, that will be the case again in the 2017-18 season.

The Eagles barely make a blip on the sports radar in the Denver metro area, less than an hour away and the home of the Avalanche and the reigning NCAA champion University of Denver Pioneers. But that’s of little concern for the Eagles, whose players are athletic celebrities in the area and whose games are social events. The Eagles Chicks dancers/cheerleaders exhort the fans to get into the game, and the crowd is a mix of those arguing over who should be on the first power-play unit and those primarily hoping they don’t spill their beer as they jump up when the first fight breaks out. (And there is a fight… or two… or three on most nights.)

“As we stand today, it can’t be much better than it has been,” Backstrom said as the Eagles’ 2017 training camp approached. “We really appreciate the support we’ve gotten, and it’s been a wonderful experience. We’ve had tremendous fans the past 15 years. We’ve been able to bring in a lot of real solid professional hockey players, and have had a lot of guys who had great junior careers and great college careers and we’re just glad we’ve been able to give them that opportunity to enjoy what professional hockey is all about.”

Backstrom’s résumé is accomplishment-filled. This doesn’t even cover it all, but he played for six Stanley Cup champions at Montreal, spent a brief stint with the Denver Spurs of the World Hockey Association, coached at the University of Denver and became entrenched as a Coloradan.  As he watches from retirement after turning 80 in mid-September, he can be proud of what the franchise has accomplished in the past 14 years.

The Eagles’ other constant has been Chris Stewart, a savvy hockey executive adept at the balancing act and recruiting necessary to succeed in the ECHL. Stewart was the Eagles’ first coach and served in that role, with the exception of a two-year hiatus to concentrate on his additional duties as president and general manager, until he stepped away from the bench for good after the 2015-16 season. As the Eagles won their third championship, Stewart was the president-GM, watching from above and then joining in the celebration on the ice.

“I don’t know if anyone saw this coming,” Stewart said of the franchise’s success in the Northern Colorado marketplace.

What about Ralph Backstrom?

“Well, you know what, maybe that’s the guy smart enough to see it all coming,” Stewart said with a laugh. “I sure didn’t. I knew it was going to be a good situation, and obviously I was quick to jump on board. But to see this come together the way it did, it really was astounding. We had 100-some season tickets from Cheyenne that first year.

“But as time went on, we were held accountable. That’s not always easy. You have a target on your back. When you’re winning, you have to be very gracious and when you’re losing, even more so. But I really believe when we try to ingratiate ourselves with this community, it shows hard work. This has been a very good situation for everyone who has been involved here.”

Ex-Eagles defenseman and assistant coach Aaron Schneekloth, also a former University of North Dakota standout, moved up to become head coach before last season – and won a championship as a rookie head coach. His two assistants, Ryan Tobler and goaltending coach Ryan Bach, plus consultant Riley Nelson, also are former Eagles and serve to demonstrate that many Colorado players, especially those who wind their careers with successful runs with the Eagles, tend to stick around in the area.

“To win a championship in my first year, with the group of guys we had, was something I’ll never forget,” Schneekloth said. “We had the right mix of veteran players with youth and everything in between.”

The Eagles’ ECHL championship was their third title, and it came in the first season of a working agreement with the Avalanche. (For the record, the acronym now is the official name of the former East Coast Hockey League, a label that became too inaccurate to keep.) The Eagles won the CHL’s Ray Miron President’s Cup in 2005 and 2007 before bolting that league for the ECHL in 2011. Even there, the Eagles were prescient, since the CHL later folded in 2014. The 2017 title ended a run of playoff frustration for the Eagles in their second league, since it was the first time they advanced beyond the opening round of the ECHL postseason.

“I would say it was important for us,” said Stewart. “But they say that the best is yet to come and as we move along, we feel very fortunate and it took a lot of people to get that done.”

Another irony: The Eagles have won two championship trophies, and they’re named after two men who worked for – even briefly together – the NHL’s Colorado Rockies. Miron was the Rockies’ general manager, Kelly their coach for one season and part of a second. Both went on to make fortunes as minor league co-founders and executives.

The hockey now on display in Loveland?

It’s surprisingly good, given the conditions and restraints.

The ECHL bills itself as a “AA” league, a step below the “AAA” American Hockey League, and it is a strictly cost-controlled operation, with a $12,600 per-week salary cap for players. ECHL affiliations with NHL teams are not as meaningful at the “AA” level as in a baseball farm system, for example, since they amount to accepting at most a handful of prospects trickling down through the organization’s AHL roster. Last season, that meant player movement back and forth between the AHL’s San Antonio Rampage and the Eagles, and it greatly helped that the Avalanche moved several prospects down from the Rampage – which didn’t make the playoffs – to the Eagles to gain playoff experience and play more games, period. The Eagles’ previous affiliations were with Tampa Bay, Calgary and Winnipeg.

Among the players under contract to the Avalanche organization (or to San Antonio) who played for the Eagles for stints of varying length last season were forwards Julien Nantel, Alex Belzile and Shawn St-Amant, plus defensemen Sergei Boikov and Mason Geertsen. At one point, Belzile, now 26, was the most exciting player in the ECHL. He had 10 goals in 17 games in the regular season, then 14 goals in 18 games in the playoffs. His reward was a look in the Avalanche training camp. The politics of minor-league hockey can be strikingly similar to those in minor-league baseball, with players labeled “prospects” given precedence, often ahead of “non-prospects” who are more productive.

The Eagles and other ECHL franchises pay only the first $525 per week of the salaries for the players assigned by an NHL team, and are charged only that against the cap. Beyond that, ECHL teams generally line up their own players, knowing those guys must – and there’s no other way to put this – love the sport to continue playing at the ECHL level. The Eagles’ major competition is Europe, since players who can thrive in the ECHL usually can make more money playing overseas. Plus, the ECHL mandates turnover, since each roster can have only four “veterans” who have played more than 260 professional games.

“What it comes down to is that when we bring the players in, we treat them the best we possibly can,” Stewart said. “The community is fantastic and the players love to play here. When you come here, you can feel the synergy in this building. You know what it’s like. There’s some great energy in this building. Players at this level really enjoy that side of the game. They’re not in it for the $600, $800 or a $1,000 a week they get, or whatever it is. It doesn’t work that way. Even the guys [under contract to NHL organizations] who get sent down are willing to come in and put forth the effort, because if they don’t, they’re going to look real average quick. If they put in the effort, they get called back up.

“We do serve a purpose to help develop players for the next level. That’s important to us. But more than anything, we provide entertainment to our fans.”

Schneekloth, 39, finished up his journeyman’s playing career with seven seasons with the Eagles.

“It’s a first-class organization,” he said. “They don’t cut corners, they take care of their players, they take care of their staff. It’s got the family feel all the way through it, and it’s an honor to be part of this organization. They continue to push the envelope to make sure that they stay at the top. They have a great model that everybody mimics to try to achieve the success the Eagles have. Our fan base here can rival any fan base, with the passion and the knowledge they have. It’s a unique sport for minor-league hockey.”

The Eagles’ top holdovers from the championship team are 27-year-old center Matt Garbowsky, a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award (hockey’s Heisman) in his collegiate career at R.I.T., who had 36 goals in 72 games for Colorado last season; and Matt Register, 28, the ECHL’s Defenseman of the Year in each of the past two seasons and the playoff MVP last spring.

The major additions will be brothers Drayson Bowman, a forward, and Collin Bowman, a defenseman. The brothers, while born in Michigan, were raised and began their youth hockey careers when their family lived in Littleton. Drayson was on a Memorial Cup winner, the Spokane Chiefs, in major junior, was Carolina’s third-round draft choice in 2007 and has played 180 NHL games. This will be Collin’s second stint with the Eagles, and the brothers both are returning from playing last season in Europe – Collin with Vienna and Drayson with Dusseldorf.

“There’s never been a time where we’ve been satisfied,” said Stewart. “We’re always looking for that next jump, that next opportunity, that next challenge. To win two championships in a row now at any level is tough, and we all know that. But that’s our goal right now, to win two in a row.”

This hasn’t been officially confirmed, but it’s far from a secret: This will be the Eagles’ final ECHL season before they move up to the AHL and become the Avalanche’s full “AAA” affiliate. It’s part of an NHL trend to either own or be affiliated with AHL franchises nearby, for ease of player movement and evaluation, or as in the case of San Jose and Toronto, to place them in the NHL markets themselves.

The advantage for the Eagles will be that with few exceptions, the NHL team supplies all the talent at the AHL level and pays the players, so the days of the Eagles’ maneuvering and balancing figures to stay at or below the modest cap, even from week to week, and lining up most of the roster themselves will be over. The locker rooms and other parts of the BEC will require upgrading, and seats will be added.

Could it be tampering with a success formula?

“I think we owe it to our fans, and we owe it to our players, to perform at the highest level we possibly can,” Backstrom said. “Northern Colorado is booming even more now, and it’s great to be part of getting to the point we’re at right now.”

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Denver-based journalist Terry Frei writes commentaries about the Avalanche for Mile High Sports. He has been named a state’s sports writer of the year seven times, four times in Colorado (including for 2016) and three times in Oregon. He’s the author of seven books, including the fact-based novel “Olympic Affair” about Colorado’s Glenn Morris, the 1936 Olympic decathlon champion; and “Third Down and a War to Go,” about the 1942 football national champion Wisconsin Badgers and the players’ subsequent World War II heroism. His web site is terryfrei.com and his additional “On the Colorado Scene” commentaries are at terryfrei/oncolorado

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