Trent Hines is the rare member of the Northern Colorado Eagles playing in his home area. The defenseman from Fort
Collins in in his fifth season with the Eagles and recently played his 200th game for the franchise. (Mark Mauno photo.)
In conversations about hockey of late, I’ve been struck that things got a bit confusing
this season for Greeley-area casual sports fans — and others — who were trying to sort out the Northern Colorado
And there is some confusion.
As in: Which
Eagles are which?
Or even: Is there one Eagles team … or two?
Last June, the Colorado Junior Eagles, a Tier II Junior A team in the Western States Hockey League, officially moved
from Windsor to Greeley and became the Northern Colorado Eagles.
They are finishing up their first
season in downtown Greeley’s Ice Haus, and I did a column on their two young Israeli players — Mark Revniaga and Denis Kozov — that is online and in the Sunday print edition.
Also, the Loveland-based Colorado Eagles, a wildly successful operation since 2003 as what largely was an independent
franchise in, first, the ill-fated Central Hockey League and then in the ECHL, moved up to the American Hockey League and
became the National Hockey League Colorado Avalanche’s top minor-league affiliate.
to to brag or anything, but I just got references to four hockey leagues in one sentence.)
make clear: The Northern Colorado Eagles and the Colorado Eagles are two different operations.
have a loose connection. The junior team has permission to use the Eagles’ logo. The Loveland franchise’s ownership
and business management still is supportive of the area youth hockey scene, including the junior team that has moved to Greeley.
Plus, the Northern Colorado Eagles’ general manager and coach, Steve Haddon, was a fan-favorite winger for the Colorado
Eagles in the CHL and ECHL for six seasons.
The Greeley-based Eagles are in the 23-team Western
States Hockey League, and junior hockey has players as young as 16 and as old as 21. The WSHL is not affiliated with USA Hockey,
but is sanctioned by the Amateur Athletic Union. In this case, the Eagles usually are seeking to move on to lower-level NCAA
programs or Canadian college hockey.
Almost without exception, these are not big-time
NCAA or pro prospects. That doesn’t mean the product isn’t entertaining or that the players aren’t talented.
You’re just not going to see these guys playing in the Pepsi Center or Madison Square Garden someday.
The top prospects at the junior level are in higher leagues, including Major Junior, which has stipends that make
its players ineligible for NCAA hockey. Those hoping to go to college hockey stick to non-stipend leagues, such as the United
States Hockey League, the British Columbia Hockey League or others under the umbrellas of USA Hockey or Hockey Canada.
Regardless, the top prospects there can be drafted by the NHL at 17 or 18, depending on where
their birthdates fall, and only the absolute elite go to the NHL right away. Otherwise, NHL teams draft and watch, then eventually
sign the prospects. Top NCAA programs, such as the University of Denver Pioneers, routinely have several NHL draft choices
on their rosters. The Northern Colorado Eagles aren’t heading for that kind of pro-in-waiting status. But they’re
looking to move on.
Now, the pro team based in Loveland.
No. 1 draft choice in 2016, center/wing Tyson Jost, spent nearly a month with the Colorado Eagles before rejoining the Avalanche
in mid-February. Here, he is at an Eagles practice in early February. He’s still only 20.
For the first time this season, the Colorado Eagles are a text or a call away from a call-up to the NHL.
Think of the AHL as the equivalent of baseball’s Class AAA, and the ECHL — and that’s another trick,
the league’s official name is the acronym — as the next level down.
Many fans from the Greeley area made the drive over to the Budweiser Events Center since 2003 for Eagles’ games, and have made the jump to the
AHL with the team.
Previously, the Eagles had some trickle-down players from NHL organizations,
including the Avalanche in 2017-18, but lined up much of their own roster in a strong salary cap system. Now, the hockey operation
is completely under the Avalanche control, with the Eagles’ ownership and previous management, including president Chris
Stewart, tending to the business end of the franchise.
In terms of talent, the AHL product
is better than that of the ECHL. That’s indisputable. Ticket prices went up, but so slightly, it almost isn’t
worth mentioning. But the transition for Northern Colorado hockey fans involves the Eagles being at the mercy of the Avalanche
to supply the talent.
The San Antonio Rampage never made the postseason in its three
seasons as the Avalanche top farm club and before that, the Lake Erie Monsters made the postseason only once in eight seasons
as the Avs’ AHL affiliate. The Eagles are 26-22-4 as of Friday, fighting for a playoff spot.
Andrew Agozzino, 28, is the Colorado Eagles’ leading scorer and top player. Here’s he’s playing
for the Avalanche during a recent four-game call-up. As in baseball, minor-league stars in hockey can get typecast as incapable
of long-term success at the major-league level, while “prospects” of lesser success in the minors move up.
The up-and-down player movement has been relentless, and the number of players who have suited
up for both the Avalanche and the Eagles this season has reached double figures. But that’s what AHL teams are for —
call-ups in time of injury, demotions when players are struggling, plus nurturing prospects.
Colorado’s No. 1 draft choice in 2016, Tyson Jost, recently spent a month with the Eagles. He’s also a working
example of how the system works: He played junior for the Penticton Vees of the BCHL, was drafted and then played his freshman
season at the University of North Dakota before signing with the Avalanche.
That all might seem complicated to the uninitiated. Also, hard-core, hockey-first fans tend to be as proprietary
as any in sports and often are dismissive of casual or new fans — those who like hockey, but might consider another
sport their favorite. It can be intimidating.
But don’t fret. There’s a safety net
When in doubt during any conversation about hockey, at an Eagles game or anywhere
else, this always works: Just quote from the 1977 movie “Slap Shot” and you’ll
already have made a friend. Or many friends.
You don’t even have to go into what a travesty
it was that neither Paul Newman, as player-coach Reg Dunlop, nor screenwriter Nancy Dowd were nominated for Oscars.
You don’t even have to know what these mean.
Paul Newman as Reg Dunlop.
But just say:
do that, you go to the box. Two minutes by yourself, and you feel shame. And then you get free.”
“I am personally placing a hundred-dollar bounty on the head of Tim McCracken.
He’s the head coach and chief punk on that Syracuse team.”
“They brought their $%#@% toys with them!”
“I was trying to capture the spirit of the thing.”
“Dickie Dunn wrote this. It’s gotta be true.”
“He challenged the Chiefs. Called us names. CALLED
“Get that stick in their
side, let ’em know you’re there!”
young man has had a very trying rookie season, with the litigation, the notoriety, his subsequent deportation to Canada and
that country’s refusal to accept him. I guess that’s more than most 21-year-olds can handle. Number six, Ogie
And a lot more.