LOVELAND, Colo.--A new era of hockey has finally arrived in the Centennial State, and two proud and successful franchises in Denver and Northern Colorado are finally connected via the "Hockey Highway."
The Colorado Eagles began their first campaign in American Hockey League over the weekend, as they hosted the Chicago Wolves for two games at the Budweiser Events Center. Chicago won both contests, defeating Colorado in overtime on Friday before earning a regulation victory on Saturday, but the higher level of play was evident for the players and fans alike.
"We're kind of a well-rounded team," said forward A.J. Greer. "We're big, we're fast, we're skilled. I think we're going to do really well, especially with fans like that, it's going to really help us down the stretch."
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 franchise and the Colorado Avalanche formed an ECHL partnership prior to the 2016-17 season, and the Eagles went on to win consecutive Kelly Cup championships.
The Eagles are in their first season as the Avalanche's top minor-league affiliate, joining the 83-year-old AHL as an expansion club. It is only 50 miles and less than an hour on Interstate 25 from Denver to Loveland.
While the level of play might be different, one thing that hasn't changed is the raucous crowd and cowbells at the BEC. Colorado owns the minor-league hockey record for consecutive sellouts and averaged about 5,000 people for each game on opening weekend.
"It's is a great crowd. It is like having a sixth skater on the ice when you have that support," said Eagles head coach Greg Cronin. "It's very unusual in the American League, in most buildings, to have a crowd in there (like that). It's uplifting. They have a great tradition here, there is a lot of history, the fans have a lot of passion. For us, it's a huge asset. It's a huge bonus."
Video: Greg Cronin after the Eagles first AHL game
The Eagles' first game in "AAA" began with the passing of a torch in a way.
Minutes after Colorado raised its 2018 ECHL Kelly Cup banner on Friday night, Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic, assistant general manager Craig Billington and Eagles owner Martin Lind joined AHL president David Andrews for a ceremonial faceoff at center ice.
The Eagles had six members from last year's ECHL championship squad on its AHL opening-night roster in Travis Barron, J.C. Beaudin, Joe Cannata, Nicolas Meloche, Julien Nantel and Michael Joly.
"I think everyone is excited for the AHL coming here," said Beaudin. "It was fun in the ECHL and close it out with a championship. Now it's a new chapter and everyone is excited."
After a fairly quiet first period between both teams in the season opener, the cowbells came out in full force in the second frame after Greer scored the first goal in Eagles AHL history. The Joliette, Quebec, native chased down a loose puck in the offensive zone and scored from a tough angle below the left circle to tie the outing at 1-1 after Chicago had scored 66 seconds earlier.
"I poked the puck behind the defenseman and hustled and tried to protect it," Greer said. "I got slashed and sort of just used my body, pulled it to my forehand and shot."
Video: Greer after the Eagles inaugural AHL game
Greer was among 10 players on Colorado's opening-night roster with NHL experience, and the Northern Colorado faithful will get plenty used to seeing those type of high-skilled individuals this season.
As the main feeder system into the NHL, the AHL's primary purpose is development, and the Avalanche used that to its advantage for opening weekend. With the Avs in the midst of a two-game homestand as well, several players who might have been scratched at Pepsi Center were instead competing in meaningful minutes up the road.
The Avalanche will do that a lot this season if both teams are at home at the same time. Head coach Jared Bednar has said he would rather have players play in Loveland instead of watching games in Denver.
"The good thing is that they're good players," Cronin said of having NHL talent rotate onto the Eagles' roster frequently this season. "We may lose a little bit of that chemistry and developing your line combinations during the week, but you're gaining talent."
Mark Alt is one of those players that is expected to play a major role with the Eagles and be a key depth defenseman for the Avs during the season. Hours before the puck dropped on Friday, the Eagles named Alt their first AHL team captain and seventh in franchise history.
"He's a veteran, he's a leader," Cronin said. "The organization has a lot of respect for him, and I think he is a valuable asset."
The American League squad will also have its fair share of youth and possibly future NHL stars.
The Eagles had four players making their professional hockey debuts in North America on Friday, as Martin Kaut, Ty Lewis, Logan O'Connor and Igor Shvyrev all suited up for the first time. Kaut (Czech Republic) and Shvyrev (Russia) had both played in top men's leagues in Europe last season, while Lewis and O'Connor participated in major-junior and college hockey, respectively.
Just like for the fans, the higher level of play will also be an adjustment for the rookies.
"One of the things that these guys are going to have to learn is the pace of the game is going to have to be built into their habits," Cronin said. "You see that Chicago plays with a lot of pace, they've got a veteran team, and we're going to have to develop that type of identity that is mirroring on with the Avalanche."
Knowing that they are just a short car ride from the NHL will surely be a motivating factor for Eagles players this season, but it's the organization's strong tradition and established support that will be vital on game days.
That much was evident on opening weekend.
"It's an amazing feeling to play in front of these fans, in this building. It's awesome," Greer said. "It's such a great facility, and we have the honor to play here with this great organization. I've only been here for a week, but I feel like I'm really taken care of and loved here. It's really nice to put on this jersey and go in front of the packed crowd. I hope it's going to help us in the long run to get that second wave."