Pucks Come to the Barn

Mike Gorman

Five or six years ago, the Montreal Canadiens got around to sending Ralph Backstrom a chunky, diamond-encrusted gold ring to commemorate the six Stanley Cup championships the Habs won when he was a quick-skating, high-scoring center on the team, from the late 1950s through the 1960s. Backstrom cherishes the memento, but his long playing career with the most storied franchise in hockey is not the true source of his joy these days.

"Anybody who's ever played the game dreams of someday owning their own hockey team," he says. "For me, that dream came true August 13 [2002], when we signed the deal." Backstrom, who played nineteen seasons of professional hockey and coached for fifteen more (nine as head coach at the University of Denver), shares majority ownership of the new Colorado Eagles franchise in Loveland with a local real-estate developer. But in most of the important ways, the Eagles are a team in Backstrom's own image -- from their hard-skating, free-flowing playing style to the players' gentlemanly, community-savvy conduct off the ice. "We'd rather win 5-4 than 1-0," the 66-year-old general manager and team president says, the glint of an unreconstructed old scorer in his eye. "The fans like to see goals and they like to see action, and these guys play hard. Scoring is down in the NHL. We play a little more wide open and take a few more chances."

Slap Shot's hard-knocking Hanson brothers would love it. In their November 7 game against the visiting New Mexico Scorpions, the Eagles stung Scorps goalkeeper Danny Lorenz for five goals -- in the fight-marred first period, that is -- en route to an 8-2 win. The next night, they combined with the home-standing Wichita Thunder to commit 37 penalties before winning again, 4-3. Talk about wide open. In the seventeen-team, no-holds-barred, double-A Central Hockey League, the final scores can look like Coors Field on amphetamines, and the rough stuff rivals the undercard at Caesar's Palace. The circus also includes a huge yellow-beaked mascot called Slapshot who skids across the ice on three-foot yellow rubber talons. The team has cheerleaders, the Eagle Chicks, who, uh, dance. One of their between-period promotions, called Chuck-a-Puck, involves throwing soft rubber hockey pucks out of the rafters at a bucket set down at mid-ice.

The Montreal Canadiens might cringe at such brazen trespasses against hockey tradition. But as Backstrom points out, this is 2003, and you gotta go with the flow.

So far, Northern Colorado's new hockey faithful are eating it up. Two tickets to an Avalanche game down in Denver (if you can get them at all) go for the price of a good used car. By contrast, an individual Eagles seat costs $16 ($21 for the glitzier club level), and for that, you get to see the Bossier-Shreveport Mudbugs or the Lubbock Cotton Kings slash and cross-check their hearts out against the home team. The new Budweiser Events Center -- aka the "Bud Barn" -- may be 48 miles north of the Pepsi Center on I-25, at the edge of cornfields, but every Eagles home game has sold out, and the 5,211 screaming fans who fill the place are definitely not the shy type. "Sometimes it looks like a train wreck down there on the ice," says Bob Hamilton, a fan from Greeley wearing a $90 Eagles jersey from the souvenir stand. "And it feels that way up here, too. Go, Eagles!"

That's just fine with co-owner Backstrom. "We're getting the same reaction here that the Avalanche gets from their crowds," he says. "Sellouts every night and the phones ringing off the wall. For me, this is the most pleasure I've ever gotten from hockey, and I've been in the game a long time." Since last summer, Backstrom and his handpicked head coach, Edmonton, Alberta-born Chris Stewart, have been putting in a lot of twelve-hour days assembling a team -- and a concept -- that works. Before the Eagles' first season, management cut season-ticket sales off at 4,300 (60 percent of those were sold in Fort Collins, fifteen miles north) so that single-game purchasers could get a shot. They blitzed schools and chambers of commerce, conducted youth hockey camps and sold themselves to businesses, including the local Subway sandwich shops, which promised to give Eagles fans free six-inch subs whenever the home team scores six goals or more in a game. Well, the Eagles did it in two of their first four games, and Subway wound up laying the roast beef and mayo on more than 7,000 freebies.

This is mid-minor league, so some of the players are raw junior-hockey hopefuls who earn $300 a week, with room, board and road-meal money thrown in as a bonus. A few, the $8,000-a-week guys, are hard-nosed ex-big-league players who find themselves late in the third period of their careers -- like team scoring leader Greg Pankiewicz, who skated in 21 NHL games in the 1990s, and 33-year-old Phil Crowe, who scored four goals and had five assists in 94 games with four NHL teams. Most of the Eagles are twenty-something kids with big dreams and bruising attitudes, hoping to scrap their way up to the Red Wings, the Avalanche or the Maple Leafs.

"The CHL is a developmental league," Backstrom explains. "We hope to move players up to the triple-A level and, hopefully, from time to time, this league will provide a player for the NHL. People forget: Less than 1 percent of all the [pro] hockey players in the world play in the NHL. But this is a talented bunch here. And hungry."

Witness Lee Arnold, a 25-year-old who grew up in Fort Collins, played junior hockey in Madison, Wisconsin, and college pucks at the University of Findlay, in Ohio. After a summer tryout camp, the 6'2", 220-pound left-winger is now on the Eagles practice squad, waiting for a possible roster spot -- and for destiny. "This is definitely a rough brand of hockey," he says. "People trying to make it to the next level, and the next. Everybody's got something to prove, and intimidation is definitely part of the game. I've made it this far, and I'll take it as far as I can go, because this is pretty much my passion."

Arnold sat at a recent game, in street clothes, with his fourteen-year-old brother, Casey, who is also a left-winger. "I hope he goes somewhere," Casey said. "The NHL maybe." At that, Lee Arnold smiled and tousled his little brother's hair.

Eagles fans weren't thinking about the NHL during the 8-2 rout of New Mexico. Instead, they shouted their lungs out and reveled in every devastating rush against the outclassed Scorpions defenders. Friends and longtime hockey fans Scott Radewan and Roger Gardner had driven to the Bud Barn from Longmont, forty miles away, and they were delighted with the noisy spectacle. "I'm 34, and I've been watching hockey since I was three," Radewan said. That means he's too young to recall Denver's early, ill-fated experiments with pro hockey. The Denver Falcons, born 1950, died 1951. The Denver Mavericks, born 1959, died 1959. He doesn't know much about the Denver Spurs, of the old Central Hockey League, who went on a road trip in 1976 and simply never returned. But Radewan saw every game ever played by the Colorado Rockies, Denver's first NHL team (now the New Jersey Devils). He remembers the Colorado Flames and the Colorado/Denver Rangers and the Denver Grizzlies, and until three years ago, he and his father even had two of those expensive Colorado Avalanche season tickets.

Now, it's all Eagles for Scott. "We had to give up the Avs seats because they were just too expensive," he explains. "But this is really enjoyable. The level of play may be a little bit less than, say, the Grizzlies, but they probably had only three weeks of practice and a couple of months of playing together. It will get better."

And even if it doesn't, who cares? Gardner, who paid $860 for a pair of 32-game Eagles season tickets, remains in his glory at the Bud Barn. "I saw my first hockey game back in 1994, and I was hooked," he explains. "The quality of play isn't the important thing. If you're a hockey fan, you're gonna be a hockey fan."

On the plains of northern Colorado, next to the cornfields, thousands of newly minted puckheads are discovering just that, and Ralph Backstrom is smiling in newfound joy.

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