A version of the following story appeared in the 2018-19 second edition of AVALANCHE, the official game magazine of the Colorado Avalanche Hockey Club. For more feature stories, purchase a copy of the magazine during Avs home games at Pepsi Center. All proceeds from game-magazine sales support youth hockey associations in Colorado.
For the first time, the Colorado Avalanche has its American Hockey League affiliate nearby.
The 2018-19 campaign marks the first of a AHL partnership with the Colorado Eagles, who became the 31st team in the league and play in Northern Colorado.
"The Eagles are a first-class organization with a history of winning," Avalanche executive vice president/general manager Joe Sakic said of the connection. "We are excited that Avalanche fans can now see our top prospects competing and developing in an outstanding environment just up the road."
The Eagles spent their first 15 years of existence at the "AA" level of the minor leagues, first in the Central Hockey League and then in the ECHL. The Avalanche formed an ECHL partnership with the Eagles prior to the 2016-17 season, and the franchise went on to win consecutive Kelly Cup championships.
The boisterous Budweiser Events Center in Loveland is home for the Eagles, and only an hour drive on Interstate 25 separates them from Pepsi Center.
"To have our team 50 miles up the road, players don't have to get on a plane, they can just come up and down," says Sakic. "Our development staff, we are really happy and hands on. Just to have everybody within 50 miles, it is a perfect thing for our development."
The San Antonio Rampage had served as Colorado's AHL affiliate since 2015-16. Prior to that, the Avalanche had an eight-year run with the Lake Erie Monsters in Cleveland, Ohio, from 2007-08 to 2014-15.
The Cornwall Aces (Cornwall, Ontario) were the club's primary affiliate during the Avalanche's inaugural season of 1995-96, followed by 10 years with the Hershey Bears in Hershey, Pennsylvania (1996-2005). The Avs then split an AHL affiliate with the Carolina Hurricanes for two years, spending the 2005-06 in Lowell, Massachusetts (Lowell Lock Monsters) and the 2006-07 campaign in Albany, New York (Albany River Rats).
San Antonio was the closest of the previous affiliates to Denver, but prospects still had to travel more than 900 miles to get from one team to the other when being recalled or reassigned.
Now, having the AHL team in such close proximity to Pepsi Center not only allows fans the chance to see the up and coming players in the Avalanche organization first hand, but also gives the prospects an opportunity to have a deeper connection with the NHL team.
On days where the Eagles are home and are not playing a contest of their own, Avalanche prospects can drive down to Pepsi Center and see the game played at its highest level.
"The Avalanche brand is here. It will continue to be here," says Avs assistant general manager Craig Billington. "They can see it, they can come to games. The coaches can communicate. They won't feel like they're not being seen… When our farm team is 50 minutes up the road, there's a lot more visibility that happens. We'll feel a lot of accountability and connectability, which is so important."
The Avalanche's goal for the past few seasons is to get younger and faster, and that identity is the same at the minor-league level.
Colorado began the season with six prospects in their first professional seasons at the AHL level. For these rookies, as well as the rest of the team, the ability to have more access to the Colorado development staff and the same resources that the NHL players have is invaluable.
"To have your players in the state of Colorado, and to be able to have the Avalanche parent team up the road gives great benefits," says Billington. "We're training at altitude, and we're 50 miles away from the development staff and players. Then you get into the coaches and trainers and the operation, really feeling as one entity is critical and important.
"When you study the success of other franchises--whether hockey or other-related--they have that connectability. I'm excited for us to have that as a company and really take us to another level that we haven't been able to do."
Because of the closeness of the clubs and travel time from one location to the next is minimal, the Avalanche management and coaches have an opportunity to send players back and forth more often than in years past, even if it's just to partake in a practice.
"Having them up the road, I think it's really beneficial for our team because of where we're at," says Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar. "We have a number of guys that are all kind of on the same level. They're all knocking on the door, they're young guys, we need to keep them playing, but we also want them involved up here.
"They'll be big pieces to their roster down there, they'll be impact players and help them win. To be able to move them up and down and have them stay in games and be sharp, I think is the biggest plus to them being 50 miles away."
The juxtaposition has given the players making a strong case for themselves to be on the NHL roster an ability to continue developing and growing with the Eagles before the call-up happens. It also allows the players to continue to get game reps, which is a benefit for their progress and ultimately gives an advantage to the NHL club.
"We don't want guys sitting around here not playing for long periods of time, especially if the circumstances work," says Bednar. "If they're at home this week and we're at home, there's flexibility there. We have the ability to send guys down and recall them if we need them."
Greg Cronin is in his first season as the head coach of the Eagles and brings 30 seasons of experience in coaching to the position, including time in the AHL and NHL. He has also developed players at the college level and with the U.S. National Team Development Program, and his extensive background will help the Eagles progress.
"These guys have to learn that the pace of the game is going to have to be built into their habits," Cronin said at the beginning of the season. "We are going to have to develop that type of identity that is mirroring what is going on with the Avalanche. The Avalanche, it's terrific watching them create pressure on the puck and back pressure, we have got to develop that type of identity too."
The Eagles primary purpose is to help players grow to their full potential and be ready to make the jump to the NHL when the time comes.
Cronin and Bednar have worked together to assure that the message being sent to the players is the same at all levels, and that the prospects are prepared to transition from the AHL to the NHL when the time comes.
"We've sat down on multiple occasions and gone through our system and handed it over to them," Bednar says of the continuity between coaching staffs. "I want them to be confident in what they're going to coaching… It's going to be real similar to the way we play, which is a positive. The closer we can kind of align our systems, the better off they'll be."
The Eagles began their AHL era on Oct. 5 against the Chicago Wolves after Sakic, Billington and Eagles owner Martin Lind joined AHL president David Andrews for a ceremonial faceoff at center ice.
The raucous crowd at Budweiser Events Center was in full force when A.J. Greer scored the first goal in Eagles AHL history in the second period. The Joliette, Quebec, native chased down a loose puck in the offensive zone and scored from a tough angle below the left circle to light the eruption.
"Its unbelievable here, the energy and the passion that these fans bring every time. Even in the preseason, we had amazing fans and it was really a good feeling to play in front of them," Greer said after the game. "We are a well-rounded team. We are big, we are fast, we are skilled, so I think we are going to do really well in this league. Especially with fans like that, it's going to really help us along the stretch."
Ultimately, the goal for the prospects playing with the Eagles is to get the call that they need to make the 50-mile trek on the hockey highway to join the Avalanche.
It is a short trip that they hope to take.