The Colorado Eagles have been a big success as a minor-league hockey franchise since their inception in 2003, and last year achieved a longstanding goal of having an East Coast Hockey League affiliation agreement with the Colorado Avalanche. But in the perfect world of Eagles part-owner and CEO Martin Lind, his team would be the Avs' American Hockey League affiliate.
"If all the moons could align the right way, that would be our happy, swan-song destination," said Lind, the CEO of Water Valley Land Co., based in Windsor. "I don’t think there’s a minor-league hockey team in the United States that doesn’t dream of being in the AHL. That’s the pinnacle. that's the next-best level to the NHL. But you have to be accepted, you have to be proven. You can’t just buy your way in."
The Eagles may be on the right path toward gaining acceptance into the AHL, however. Although the Eagles play in an arena, Loveland's Budweiser Events Center, that has a modest 5,289-seat capacity for hockey games, pending plans are in place that, if approved by Larimer County commissioners, would expand the arena and make it more viable as a potential AHL franchise.
The Avalanche currently has an AHL affiliation with the San Antonio Rampage, but that may change after this coming season, if not sooner. The St. Louis Blues, currently in an expiring AHL affiliation with the Chicago Wolves, are said to be searching for a new affiliate city of their own after a planned move to Kansas City, Mo., at Kemper Arena fell through earlier this year. The Blues are said to be interested in using San Antonio as their AHL affiliate, which would leave the Avs free to move elsewhere. The Avs currently have a contract with the Rampage to continue operations for the coming season, but it's unclear if the agreement extends beyond that.
With Loveland less than an hour's drive from Denver, it has long been an unstated goal of the Avs and their fans to have their top prospects play closer to team headquarters, for obvious financial and logistical reasons.
"How great would it be for players to be able to take an Uber to get to Denver and join the Avalanche, instead of going to airports and getting on airplanes?" Lind said. "And, for Avs fans to be able get in the car and see their top prospects. But, like I said, moons would have to align right. There are some things that would be out of our control, if it were to happen."
Bob Herrfeldt, Larimer County director of The Ranch Complex that includes the Budweiser Events Center, said proposed expansion changes to the arena wouldn't necessarily add a large number of new seats, but more of an expanded mobile atmosphere, where fans can walk around and not only see the game as it's ongoing, but drop in at various planned bars and club lounges and hang out with friends.
"The days of the sporting experience where you're just planted in your seats the whole time are over," Herrfeldt said. "Teams are finding now that fans, especially younger ones, don't want to just be chained to their seats. The trend now is for more open area bar tops and rooftops, where maybe you want to gather easier with friends at a club lounge and have the freedom to experience the event from different areas and angles. That's something we can do, that we plan to do. What we can't do, what we don't wants to do, is just do something like add 2,000 fixed seats."
Even after 14 years of play in the lower rungs of minor-pro hockey, the Eagles have been a smash success in all aspects. The Eagles, currently in the Western Conference finals of the ECHL, have played to mostly sold-out crowds and won multiple championships. Larimer County and surrounding areas have a large concentration of average household incomes at $100,000 and above, and Lind and his partners have $1.5 billion plans to build new shopping and entertainment developments in and around the Bud Center. All of which could make the area more attractive to the AHL.
The AHL has expanded more westward in recent years, with a handful of teams relocating to California cities in arenas comparable in size to the Bud Center.
Lind cautioned, however, that the Eagles won't consider taking things to the AHL level if it would mean pricing out the fans who have helped build the team into a strong regional success.
"On our side of it, we would have to honor our fans first," Lind said. "The family and affordability thing, the loyalty they’ve shown us, that's paramount to us. But we’ve proven ourselves at every level, from puck drop to last whistle. Our ECHL is doing great, and with our current relationship that we have with the Avalanche, I can't say enough good things about them and how they've treated us. So, obviously, it's a relationship we want to keep and grow even bigger if possible."