Colorado Eagles fans enjoying the final playoff run in ECHL | MyWindsorNow.com

Colorado Eagles fans enjoying the final playoff run in ECHL

Terry Frei
tfrei@greeleytribune.com

By day, Terry Maxwell of Greeley runs a road grader for Weld County. A lot of nights, he puts on his Colorado Eagles jersey and makes the drive west to the Budweiser Events Center. There, he most often joins his brother-in-law, Rick Crawford, at the back of Section F at center ice and roots on northern Colorado's minor-league hockey franchise.

"I don't do a lot of things in this world," Maxwell said with a laugh Saturday. "This is one thing I go to. It's just fun. It's not overly expensive, it's a great time. You can go to Denver and watch the Avalanche, and I do that every once in a while, but it's a long drive down and a long drive back. From here, it's 20 minutes to home."

The Eagles, who are moving up to the American Hockey League next season and becoming the Avalanche's top minor-league affiliate, say about 20 percent of their season-ticket holders are from the Greeley-Windsor area. On Saturday, before the Eagles beat the Fort Wayne Komets 3-2 in overtime in Game 1 of the ECHL's Western Conference finals, I wandered the concourse, asking individuals and groups if anyone was from Greeley.

Within a few minutes I found and spoke with three.

Each time I'm at the Events Center, I'm reminded of when I took a hard-hat tour of the under-construction arena in 2002, with former Montreal Canadiens center and ex-University of Denver coach Ralph Backstrom as my guide. As co-founder of the Eagles, destined to open play under the majority ownership of developer Martin Lind in 2003 as a Central Hockey League expansion franchise, Backstrom rattled off the reasons he thought the venture would work. At the top of the list were the major growth in northern Colorado and the lack of professional sports competition.

I nodded politely, not entirely convinced. I had seen too many teams and leagues come and go.

Since that tour, I've been to many Eagles games, marveling at the franchise's sustained success in its 15 seasons, both on the ice and at the gate in the CHL and then, from 2011 on, the ECHL.

The Eagles won the CHL's Ray Miron President's Cup in 2005 and '07, and the ECHL's Patrick J. Kelly Cup last season.

The CHL folded in 2014. The ECHL bills itself as hockey's "premier AA" league, a rung below the "AAA" American Hockey League, and its competition has died off. ("AAA" in any sport stands for "One Phone Call Away.") Despite the geographic proximity, the Eagles didn't become an Avalanche affiliate until the 2016-17 season.

Operating with a $12,600 weekly ECHL salary cap, the Eagles have a mix of players they signed themselves and trickle-down prospects under contract to the Avalanche organization on either AHL or NHL deals. When an Avalanche property is on the Eagles roster, the ECHL team is charged (and pays) only $525 against the cap, though the player makes more than that. The Eagles' player movement has been up to and down to and from the San Antonio Rampage of the AHL.

The game changes next season for the Eagles. In the move to the AHL, they're replacing the Rampage as the Avalanche's top farm club. The NHL team from down the road will take over the entire hockey operation and the Eagles organization no longer will sign any players itself. The plan is for Lind to retain ownership, though the trend is for NHL teams to buy AHL franchises.

Chris Stewart, currently the Eagles' president and general manager, has been with the franchise from the start, also serving as coach in two stints before stepping away from that role for good in 2016. He'll miss the maneuvering that goes with assembling a hybrid roster at the ECHL level, but he's ready for that, too. Plus, the Eagles organization itself won't have a player or coaching staff payroll, period. That will all be up to the Avalanche. Some players will be said to be under AHL contracts with the Eagles, but that's still the Avalanche's responsibility.

"My opportunity is really to manage our staff when we're within the confines of the Budweiser Events Center and keep the synergy and energy level up and make sure everybody's willing to accept the move up to the AHL," Stewart said. "It's certainly going to be a big change for me after 34 years in the game, but if you're not changing, you're not moving ahead."

Now the Eagles are playing out the string in the ECHL and looking for a second consecutive league championship — with many folks from Greeley in the house at the 5,289-seat Budweiser Events Center and looking forward to the move up.

"From what I hear, it will be a lot faster-paced hockey," Terry Maxwell said.

Greeley's Jim Betz, 51, is in the insurance industry and Saturday was wearing a yellow Eagles jersey with Backstrom's name across the back. He has two front-row — "on the glass" — season tickets, averaging $29 per ticket per regular-season game, and he has been coming to the Eagles games from the start.

"I like the family atmosphere," he said. "The staff and the people around the arena have been really good hosts and it's good quality hockey."

And next season?

"I think the quality of hockey is going to jump a little bit," he said, then smiled and added, "No, a lotta bit. We're going to see some bigger names from the Avalanche reassignments, coming down and playing here in Loveland, Colorado. I was smitten when the Avalanche came and then when the Eagles got here."

Greeley resident Meghan Troudt, 33, is a fleet manager for Crop Production Services in Loveland. She's in her fourth season as a season-ticket holder and before the game Saturday, she was sitting in a food court with a group of fans she met at the games. "They're from one section over," she said. (That's the way hockey works.)

"I just love the Eagles," she said. "It's a fun atmosphere and good company."

Like Maxwell and Betz, she already has renewed for next season. Ticket prices have gone up slightly, but a season-ticket package for 2018-19 still can average as low as $15 per game, and parking is more than that at an Avalanche game.

"You'll see players out here one night and they might get called up and you can go see them in Denver the next night," Troudt said.

Yes, that's the theory. The Budweiser Events Center is 53 miles from the Pepsi Center and 69 miles from the Avalanche's Centennial practice rink, Family Sports Center. It's not just about players going up and down, including in scrambling moves after injuries, but also about the Avalanche being able to have a more hands-on experience with their prospects and organizational-type veterans.

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The Avs' last two AHL affiliates, the Lake Erie (Cleveland) Monsters and the Rampage, have been controlled by NBA ownerships and played in front of scattered crowds in NBA arenas. The Budweiser Events Center is not a big-league arena, and there are no plans to expand the seating capacity. Yet as long as upgrades to dressing rooms and other facilities are completed on time for next season, it will be AHL-worthy and remain considerably more intimate than what the recent Avalanche farmhands have been used to in recent seasons.

"Our fans are ready for the AHL, and the reason I say that is they've grown up with us," Stewart said. "They've seen us go from the CHL to the ECHL, and now it will be the AHL. They know their hockey. They're going to love the AHL."

The potential downside to the move up is that the on-ice product will be at the Avalanche's mercy. Savvy maneuvering by a separate Eagles front office no longer will be part of the formula. The NHL parent team will be thinking player development foremost, and the Rampage hasn't made the playoffs in any of its three seasons as an Avalanche affiliate.

AHL hockey unquestionably will be better than the ECHL, but the Avalanche's challenge will be to prove it can be as much fun.

And worth the drive from Greeley.

— Terry Frei writes features and columns for The Tribune. He's the author of seven books, including the novel "Olympic Affair" about Colorado's Glenn Morris, the 1936 Olympic decathlon champion. He can be reached at (970) 392-4424 or tfrei@greeleytribune.com. His website is http://www.terryfrei.com. Twitter: @tfrei

Colorado Eagles’ final days in the ECHL

Defending Kelly Cup champions

2017-18 regular season record: 48-18-6

In the playoffs: Defeated Wichita 4-2, defeated Idaho 4-0, tied with Fort Wayne 1-1 after Sunday night’s 3-2 loss.

Under ECHL salary cap rules, the Eagles can have only four veterans who have played 260 or more professional games.

Leading regular-season scorers:

F Michael Joly: 52 games, 41 goals, 26 assists, 67 points. Joly, 23, had a hat trick Saturday night against Fort Wayne, scoring all three goals in a 3-2 overtime win in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals. He’s under a minor-league contract to the Avalanche organization.

D Matt Register: 72 games, 17 goals, 48 assists, 65 points

F Drayson Bowman: 65 games, 20 goals, 35 assists, 55 points

F Matt Garbowsky: 51 games, 15 goals, 39 assists, 54 points

Register, Bowman and Garbowsy are all under ECHL contracts with the Eagles organization.

Average regular-season attendance: 5,025 in the 5,289-seat Budweiser Events Center.

Minor-league success story

Since the Loveland-based Eagles began play in 2003, two other Colorado minor-league hockey franchises have opened shop, both in the Central Hockey League, and then folded. They were the Rocky Mountain Rage in Broomfield (2006-09) and the Denver Cutthroats at the Denver Coliseum (2012-14).

The Eagles have won two minor-league championship trophies — the CHL’s Ray Miron President’s Trophy and the ECHL’s Patrick J. Kelly Cup. Local irony: When the Colorado Rockies were in the NHL, Miron was their general manager for five seasons and Kelly was their coach for a full season and part of a second.