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February 8, 2021

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                                                                                                    Colorado Eagles 

Colorado Eagles release  

 

It has been a tough couple of months for the Colorado hockey community. 

 

Avalanche godfather Pierre Lacroix died Dec. 13.

 

USA Hockey icon Art Berglund, a long-time Colorado Springs resident, died Dec. 19.


Then Sunday came the awful news about Ralph Backstrom's death.


Backstrom's career included a variety of accomplishment, starting with playing for six Stanley Clup champions at Montreal. And ending as the visionary founder of the Loveland-based Colorado Eagles. He had faith that the burgeoning Northern Colorado area could support minor-league hockey. That faith was justified.     

 

I wrote several pieces about or involving Backstrom over the years, including during the Eagles' successful runs in the CHL and ECHL. 

 

But first, let me tell you the story of how he signed with the Canadiens ... and beyond. Ah, the stories. Ralph had a million of them.       

 

This is my January 28, 2001 profile of Backstrom, leading up to the NHL All-Star Game a few weeks later in the Pepsi Center. This was shortly before he became involved with the Eagles. 

 

 

Sit down with Ralph Backstrom, turn on the tape recorder ... and let the stories begin..


Terry Frei Sunday Focus
 

January 28, 2001.


Ken Reardon, the Montreal scout, played for the Canadiens before and after his World War II military stint, and he eventually would be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

 

So when Reardon visited 16-year-old Ralph Backstrom and his parents in their Kirkland, Ontario, home in the summer of 1954, he brought credibility through the front door as well as money and a contract in his pockets.

 

Chattily, he told the Backstroms their son would be better off signing with the Canadiens on the spot and playing with one of their junior affiliates in the Quebec League than playing junior in the Ontario League and probably ending up with someone other than the Canadiens.

 

Reardon pulled five $100 bills out of his pocket.

 

"If you sign today," he told the wide-eyed Backstrom, "these are yours."

 

After Backstrom's parents nodded, he signed.

 

And nearly 47 years later, Parker resident Ralph Backstrom still laughs - and not entirely mirthfully - about what Reardon did next.

 

"I swear on my kids' heads," Backstrom said, "when he walked out of our living room and was putting his coat on, he took another $500 out of his other pocket, waved it at me and said, "I was authorized to go up to $1,000.' He put it back in his pocket and said, "I'll see you in Montreal.'"

 

Yes, kid, we just pulled one over on you. Welcome to the organization.

 

In the fall of 1958, at age 21, Backstrom made his first appearance in the NHL All-Star Game. Like the money figures of the game's bygone era, the All-Star Game was drastically different. It was a real game, and not the defenseless, no-contact circus it has become. The event Backstrom, the former University of Denver coach who now scouts for the St. Louis Blues, will be watching in Denver next Sunday won't much resemble what he played in six times, from 1958-67.
 
Calling it a circus isn't a criticism of the modern All-Star Game. There's nothing wrong with visiting the circus once a year - as long as the cotton candy machine is working, and it hasn't been billed as a high-minded art form.

 

The All-Star Game has evolved into something different.

 

In Backstrom's era, the game matched the defending Stanley Cup champions against the NHL all-stars, in the champions' home rink, shortly before the start of the next regular season.

 

The 1958 training camp was typical for the Canadiens. They were the three-time defending NHL champions, and the players - as was the custom throughout the league - had spent the summer indulging in the pastimes of drinking beer, working on the farm, fishing, hunting and maybe even selling insurance. In camp, the Canadiens traveled all over the province of Quebec, sometimes playing two intrasquad games in different towns in one day.

 

The "kids" were on display, including prospects from the two junior teams owned by the Canadiens, the Regina Pats and the Hull-Ottawa Junior Canadiens. The teams had met in the 1958 Memorial Cup finals, and Backstrom was the captain and MVP as the Junior Canadiens, who won the championship of Canadian junior hockey. The Junior Canadiens' head coach was Sam Pollock, Montreal's future legendary GM, and their assistant coach was a young Scotty Bowman.

 

Backstrom played three games for the Canadiens in 1956-57 and two in '57-58 as an emergency callup, but he was a junior hockey star at the time. When Backstrom made the big league roster in the fall of 1958, it meant he would play in the All-Star Game before he took to the ice in a regular-season game that season. The Canadiens won 6-3, with Rocket Richard scoring twice.

 

"I remember being awestruck," Backstrom said. "We played it in Montreal, and I looked around at who we were playing against - Gordie Howe, Alex Delvecchio and those guys.

 

"But it's pretty comforting to look around your own room and see Rocket Richard, Jean Beliveau, Boom Boom Geoffrion, Doug Harvey and Jacques Plante. Anytime I was awestruck by the opposing team, I would look around my own room and see who I was playing with."

 

Backstrom ended up playing for the Canadiens in the All-Star Game five times and once with the all-stars against Toronto in 1962.

 

"I think the only ceremony we ever had was the player introductions before the game," Backstrom said. "We were excited about it, ready to play, and there was a lot of body contact. It wasn't as vicious as a league game, but there were grudges going on. The all-stars didn't want to lose to the Stanley Cup champion. It would set the tone for the season.

 

"You played everyone 14 times, seven at home and seven away. So those grudges that not only went from game to game, but from week to week, or month to month, and they didn't stop in that game. Actually, they'd go from year to year. If someone popped you in the first game, you'd just wait your chance because you had 13 more times to go. And the All-Star Game could be part of that. There still are guys I played against 30 years ago I wouldn't say hello to if I walked right past them, which is stupid, I know. You're always taught to forgive, but there aren't too many hockey players who paid attention to that."

 

The young center from Ontario had to be good - or far more than that - to make that roster. The Flying Frenchmen were tearing up the league, and Backstrom was the third-line center, behind Beliveau and Henri "Pocket Rocket" Richard, Maurice's brother. Backstrom's nickname was the "Merchant of Speed."

 

After playing in that 1958 All-Star Game, Backstrom was the NHL's rookie of the year that season, getting 18 goals and 40 points.

 

"I made $7,000," he said. "I was rookie of the year. We finished in first place. We won the Stanley Cup. And I got a $1,000 raise. The rationale was, "Look at all the money you made in bonuses!' I think it was about $3,500."

 

Yes, the Stanley Cup seemed the Canadiens', by regal right.

 

"Henri and I used to go at it pretty good in practice," Backstrom said, "and (coach) Toe Blake would tell me, "Ease off.' I was trying to rise in the ranks, and Henri wasn't going to let me. There was so much tradition in Montreal. If you lost, you were lucky if the milkman left the milk for you."

 

When the Canadiens' dynasty was temporarily derailed, Backstrom and the all-stars lost to Toronto in 1962.

 

"Glenn Hall was our goalie, and I'd heard all the talk about him throwing up before a game," Backstrom said. "And there he was, his head in the bowl. I'm thinking, geez, an all-star goalie, one of the best in the history of the game, and he has got his head in the toilet bowl. And when I got back to Montreal, Toe Blake was all over me for playing a (bad) game. It was taken pretty serious."

 

In January 1971, in the fourth season after the NHL's original expansion from six to 12 teams, Backstrom was traded to the Los Angeles Kings.

 

"I went from 20 below to 75 degrees," he said. "I went to my first practice and nobody was there. We had people watching our practices in Montreal like they were games. In L.A., we practiced in Culver City, and after practice we were going on a short road trip. I asked Hank Cahan, "How far is it from the practice rink to the airport?' He said, "About a six-pack.' That was such a culture shock for me, I knew I was in trouble."

 

Wait a minute. Culver City to Los Angeles International Airport isn't very far. A six-pack?

 

"But you should have seen those guys drinking," Backstrom said.

 

In the offseason, Backstrom found a new way to train. He put roller skate-type wheels on skates, or primitive roller blade technology that that was revolutionary at the time. His neighbors looked at him skating down the street and reacted as if he had just stepped from a spaceship. He patented the design and tried to sell it to a Canadian sporting goods manufacturer.

 

"I skated through the factory past these ladies working on their sewing machines, and I was going backwards and doing crossovers and all those things," Backstrom said. "They said, "Thanks, but nothing will ever replace the roller skate with the wheels on the four corners.'"

 

He sold his rights to the patent.

 

In February 1973, the Chicago Blackhawks traded for Backstrom when Stan Mikita was injured late in the season. He scored six goals in 16 games and seemed rejuvenated. The Blackhawks lost to the Canadiens in the Stanley Cup final. Backstrom was so angry when the Blackhawks gave him only a one-fifth share of the divisional first-place money, it helped convince him to jump to the World Hockey Association's Chicago Cougars, and he ended up in Denver as a member of the Denver Spurs in 1975.

 

"I bought a home in the Pinery and I'm still paying for it," he said, smiling. "Nowadays players pay cash for houses. Twenty-five years later, I'm still paying for mine."

 

The Spurs didn't last nearly as long as the mortgage. In midseason, they headed to Cincinnati for a game against the Stingers. On the plane flight, Backstrom sat next to assistant coach Bob McCord. "He's rubbing his chin saying, "I don't think we're coming back.' That gets your attention on a plane," Backstrom said. "I asked him what he was talking about.

 

"He said, "I was in my office this morning and they were moving the furniture out.' I said, "Where we going?' He said he had heard rumors we were going to Canada. I said he was crazy. So we get to Cincinnati, and we have the Cincinnati Stingers on one blue line and the Denver Spurs on the other. We get to the national anthems. And they play, "O Canada.'

 

"O Canada'? All the guys are looking down the line and trying to hold back from laughing. I guess that sort of confirmed we were going to Ottawa."

 

They not only went to Ottawa, they went immediately. They played three games in Ottawa as the Civics, but then financing for a new ownership fell through and the franchise folded. Backstrom signed with the New England Whalers, played two more seasons and finally retired in 1977. He was 39. He came back to his home in the Pinery.

 

He was a DU assistant, a Kings assistant and then DU's head coach from 1981-90. After a two-year stint as head coach of the minor league Phoenix Roadrunners, he got back to roller hockey. As the commissioner of Roller Hockey International, he wrote the game's rules - which are still in use around the world - and presided over a league that hired a handful of former NHL enforcers as coaches, including Tiger Williams, Nick Fotiu and Dave "The Hammer" Schultz.

 

Two years ago [1999], he signed on with the Blues as a special assignment scout, looking at players coming through Denver and also traveling for the Blues. He went to Anchorage, Alaska, to check out and coordinate St. Louis' training camp facilities there for next fall. The Blues have lined up tickets for all of the all-star events for him, and he'll watch them, not as an embittered former player, but as a man who recognizes that the world has changed - and that the world has come to the NHL.

 

"I don't begrudge these guys what they're making now, not at all," he said.

 

Nowadays, when a hockey man pulls $500 out of his pocket, it's not called a bonus.

 

It's chump's change.   

 

A year after that profile ran, I wrote the below column on him, mainly touching on the audacious founding of the Eagles. 

 

Both in this piece and another I wrote when Backstrom gave me a tour of the Budweiser Events Center construction site, he rattled off the numbers in arguing that the Northern Colorado corridor was ready for a professional sports franchise. He was adamant the Eagles wouldn't be another failed venture, joining the long list of minor-league hockey flops in the state.

 

He was right. Boy, was he ever. 

 

Developer Martin Lind emerged as the original chief investor/owner and team CEO, and he's still in those roles today. Chris Stewart -- no relation to Bill Stewart, mentioned below -- was hired as coach and eventually served as general manager and team president as well before recently retiring.

 

Backstrom always was the patriarch. After he stepped back in retirement a few years ago, he was billed as "Founder" on the team's organizational chart.  

 
The Eagles' transition from the spunky, relatively autonomous days in the CHL and the ECHL took some of the audaciousness out of the Eagles' existence in the last couple of years. The move was from "Double-A" hockey, with most of the players under contract to the Eagles and with only a few second-tier NHL farmhands trickling down to Loveland in working agreements with several NHL teams over the years; to the AHL, where the Avs run the hockey operation as their AHL affiliate. The Eagles' front office tends to the business side and isn't much involved -- if at all -- the on-ice product. It made immense sense all around. But it's just different. 
 
But no matter what, Backstrom always will be the founder who had the vision.
 
   
 
Backstrom takes on new role with Eagles

Terry Frei Column
 
November 15, 2002 
 

As a longtime member of the Montreal Canadiens in the "Original Six" era, Ralph Backstrom was on six Stanley Cup champions before finishing his NHL career with Los Angeles and Chicago.

 

Later, he was on a World Hockey Association team, the Denver Spurs, when he and his teammates took the ice for a 1974 game in Cincinnati, heard "O Canada" played and guessed those rumors about the franchise moving to Ottawa might be true, after all.

 

The Spurs never came back from that trip, but Backstrom did. He had purchased a home in Parker, and although he closed his WHA career with Ottawa and the New England Whalers and served some coaching stints elsewhere, he kept that house and considered the Denver area his home.

 

He has been head coach at the University of Denver from 1981-90; a Los Angeles Kings assistant and a minor-league head coach; the commissioner of Roller Hockey International; a founding consultant for the Western Professional Hockey League; and a scout and adviser for the St. Louis Blues.

 

So the silver-haired, 65-year-old Backstrom has seen hockey from virtually every angle. Now he is embarking on another challenge, this time as an owner, president and general manager of the Colorado Eagles franchise that will begin play in the Central Hockey League next season.    
 

The Eagles will play in the Budweiser Events Center, a 5,500-seat arena scheduled to be completed in September [2003] on the Larimer County Fairgrounds in Loveland.


The Colorado Gold Kings of the West Coast Hockey League recently didn't make it in Colorado Springs, but that franchise was competing directly with Colorado College at the World Arena.

 

"We're the primary tenant up here," Backstrom said Thursday from the Eagles' offices in Windsor. "Eighty-five percent of the games will be on weekends. We're 48 miles north of the Pepsi Center, and we also will have our own Northern Colorado identity.

 

"Within a 30-mile radius from our arena, there are over 600,000 people."

 

The CHL has 16 teams this season, including nine in Texas, and will expand to 18 next season with the addition of the Eagles and a franchise in the Rio Grande Valley area of Texas.

 

In some instances, CHL teams have NHL affiliations and get as many as a half-dozen players from the big-league organization - the sorts of players who could be "called up" to an American Hockey League franchise, such as the Hershey Bears. The ideal connection, Backstrom acknowledged, would be with the Avalanche, but he said he hasn't had substantive discussions with the organization.

 

"The average age in this league is 24 to 25," Backstrom said. "Each team has to have five rookies, and you're only allowed five pros who have played 275 games."

 

The CHL salary cap is $8,500 per week, but players under contract to NHL organizations wouldn't count against that.

 

No, it's not great hockey, but nobody pretends it is. I was in Austin, Texas, last fall for the Colorado-Texas football game when the Austin Ice Bats opened the CHL season, and a capsule biography for one skater proclaimed he had spent the previous year as a professional wrestler and now hoped to prove he could do something other than fight. But as long as all understand this is a cost-controlled league with few pretensions, and an occasional player who could beat the odds and make the double jump to the NHL, then nobody is going to feel cheated.

 

Eagles ticket prices will range from $9 to $21, and Backstrom said the team already has commitments for about 1,700 season tickets. 

 

Denver had a couple of runs in the CHL years ago, but the league then was a virtual Triple-A operation. The league was reborn a few years ago with central ownership of the franchises, and the mogul then was one-time Colorado Rockies general manager Ray Miron.


[Timeout to interject: The Eagles eventually won two different championship trophies in their "AA" days. One was the CHL's Ray Miron President's Cup in 2005 and 2007. The other was the ECHL's Patrick J. Kelly Cup, named after the former Rockies coach who essentially re-founded the ECHL, in 2017 and 2018. Unsuccessful with the Rockies, Miron and Kelly both became wealthy as minor-league hochey czars. Now back to 2002.]    
 
Now, the CHL is a more conventional operation. The Western Professional Hockey League was five years old when it merged last year with the CHL.

 

"My only request for putting in quite a few years with the (WPHL) as a consultant was that I'd get first right of refusal for any franchise I might be interested in," Backstrom said.

 

When the CHL began looking at the new Larimer County arena and was talking with Larimer County officials, Backstrom stepped in and obtained the franchise. His former DU player, Bill Stewart, is helping him get the hockey operation off the ground. 

 

``Our jobs will overlap, too," Backstrom said. ``But we already have a staff of 12 people here now, and we're going full-bore." 


In 2021, I'll close with ...

 

The rest is history.

 

To Ralph Backstrom: Stick taps. 

 

EaglesAvs21.jpg

 

At the October 2017 news conference officially announcing the Eagles would become the Avalanche's AHL affiiate in the 2018-19 season: Avalanche assistant GM Craig Billington, Eagles owner Martin Lind,

Avalanche GM Joe Sakic, Eagles founder Ralph Backstrom, and Eagles President/GM Chris Stewart.







 
     

 

terry@terryfrei.com

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