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Going to Eagles’ hockey game? OK … which Eagles? After reading this, you’ll be in the mood to watch “Slap Shot”

March 1, 2019


Terry Frei 


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 hockey scene.

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.

(Not to to brag or anything, but I just got references to four hockey leagues in one sentence.)

To make clear: The Northern Colorado Eagles and the Colorado Eagles are two different operations.

They 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.


 The Avalanche’s 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.

Even 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 here.

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:

“You 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 US NAMES!”

“Get that stick in their side, let ’em know you’re there!”

“This 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 Oglethorpe.”

And a lot more.