Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series that will run every Monday taking a look at semi-professional sports teams and their attempts to become successful it in northern Colorado.
In 2002, Ralph Backstrom was awarded a franchise in the Central Hockey League, a filler minor-league to the NHL. Having played and coached in the state, he knew Colorado was a perfect place for a team.
The only question: where in Colorado would the CHL team be placed?
Luckily for northern Colorado sports fans, it was around the same time that a new arena called the Budweiser Events Center was being built in east Loveland.
“It wouldn’t have happened (in northern Colorado) if the Budweiser Events Center hadn’t been built,” Backstrom said. “It was initially built as a rodeo arena, but we were able to convince them to put some ice in there.”
It was then that the Colorado Eagles were born.
The Eagles have become the standard-bearer for minor-league sports in the region ever since they were brought to northern Colorado in 2003 by founder and part-owner Backstrom along with president, general manager and head coach Chris Stewart.
Immediately, the team outdid the expectations of even its most confident supporters. Crowds turned out in impressive numbers from the beginning, and the team is currently riding a 153-game sellout streak at the BEC.
“I think it was just the right place at the right time,” said Tori Holt, who has been doing play-by-play TV for the Eagles since their arrival. “It was really surprising how well they did right away. At the time, I didn’t know much about the CHL – there weren’t a lot of teams in a Colorado-type market at that time.”
Backstrom carried with him an enormous hockey resume, having won six Stanley Cups with the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens. Backstrom also played briefly for the now-defunct minor league Denver Spurs in the 70s and was head coach for nine years at the University of Denver in the 80s.
Bringing that experience, Backstrom immediately set Stewart to work piecing together a strong front office and squad.
“When we dropped the puck (in 2003), we already had a year under our belt,” Backstrom said. “(Stewart) had already been out recruiting for a year. We have the best staff in the league, and I think that’s because they were all well-prepared.”
Backstrom, who retired from president and general manager duties in July, retaining an ownership position, said he and Stewart were focused on building a not only a strong franchise but a quality team.
Both aims have been successful. The team has won two CHL championships, and are currently in first place in the northwest division with seven games to play this season.
More than that, the Eagles have created a huge following in the northern Colorado area and have become increasingly involved with the community.
“We wanted to create a strong ownership group, a successful team and then also partner with the community,” Backstrom said. “We felt it was important to invest in the community.”
Betsey Hale, business development manager for the city of Loveland, said the Eagles have made incredible strides in connecting with the community through their support of local hockey, including helping to fund the new Windsor Ice Park.
“Their outreach to the community is huge,” Hale said. “My son is 5 years old and (the Eagles) were in his school several times this year just to talk with the kids.”
All of this adds up to what Holt said is by far the best atmosphere for hockey in the entire CHL.
“It’s not even close,” Holt said. “There are some places with good programs, Arizona and Oklahoma City have done a great job, but nobody compares to what the Eagles have.”
A recent study done by the University of Northern Colorado found that the Colorado Eagles have generated over $29 million in revenue since their arrival. Upwards of $90 million has been pumped into the local economy by the Events Center and its broader locale name, The Ranch, which has hosted numerous concerts, rodeos and other events.
Hale said that these teams have hit a region that not only loves sports, but is interested in affordable, family-friendly entertainment.
“For kids, I don’t know if it’s hero worship, but there’s something there that gives them that interest,” Hale said. “And then it’s affordable. It’s affordable family fun. It’s just the right fit for northern Colorado.”
“I think people in northern Colorado are generally pretty sports-minded,” Backstrom said. “We felt that. if we created an affordable, family-friendly atmosphere and a good product on the ice people would support us.”
Hale said the economic benefit of the Eagles has been enormous, calling the Eagles’ success an “economic catalyst.”
“The real impact with a baseline entertainment center like the Budweiser Events Center is that it has led to other development,” Hale said, citing the addition of restaurants, hotels, gas stations and other businesses around the BEC.
“We’ve had a significant, if not 100 percent, sales tax increase there because of the Budweiser Events Center,” he added.
Hale said this type of economic impact has opened the door for a wave of even more professional teams.
The United Indoor Football league’s Colorado Ice are under way in their second season at the BEC, while the National Women’s Basketball League’s Colorado Chill -currently not playing – are seeking entry into the WNBA.
Northern Colorado also has semi-pro baseball, women’s soccer and newly forming football teams.
Simply put, the Eagles have proven sports can be a huge success in this region, and many are following suit.
“In terms of the future, (the Eagles) have had a huge impact when you say that it sets all these other things into motion,” Hale said.
In the growing sports scene of northern Colorado, there is no question that the Colorado Eagles are king.
“It’s been a great success so far,” Backstrom said. “The Eagles are my pride and joy.”
Sports writer Jeff Dillon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.