LOVELAND, Colo. – For the past sixteen years, the first full weekend in February has had the sports world celebrate American football and its zenith of competition, the Super Bowl.
For Colorado Eagles fans, however, the mood during this year’s Super Bowl weekend was bittersweet and somber.
Within the span of two days, both the retirement of president / general manager Chris Stewart (Friday) and the passing of team founder Ralph Backstrom (Sunday) signaled a symbolic end of an era for a club that has spanned eighteen years and three different leagues.
Stewart served 11 seasons as Eagles head coach between the Central Hockey League and ECHL iterations of the team. He established the franchise as a CHL powerhouse during his six seasons behind the bench, with two CHL President’s Cup Championships as head coach (2005 & 2007). Stewart helped the Eagles make the jump from the CHL to the ECHL in 2011. His five seasons coaching in the E wasn’t nearly as prolific, but did manage to take Colorado to the postseason in each year. He retired from coaching in 2017 to focus on his president / general manager role. As Eagles GM, he presided over back-to-back ECHL Kelly Cup Championships for Colorado in 2017 & 2018.
Stewart’s guidance as both head coach and president / GM made the Eagles one of the best franchises in CHL history. With five straight CHL Northwest Division titles plus a winning record (and playoff berth) in each of the 11 years he coached the team, the Eagles’ sustained success is due largely in part to Stewart. While fellow Colorado CHL teams in Denver (Cutthroats) and Broomfield (Rocky Mountain Rage) lasted two and three seasons respectively, the Eagles endured and excelled, carrying the best overall record in the CHL (213-77-26) during their eight seasons in the league.
Backstrom was the visionary that brought professional hockey to Northern Colorado. He began his professional career playing for the Montreal Canadiens from 1957 to 1971. He also won the Calder Memorial Trophy as NHL Rookie of the Year in 1959. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment on the ice, he is also one of only nine players to win six Stanley Cup championships since 1893.
After stops with the Los Angeles Kings, Chicago Blackhawks, and a handful of WHA teams, he retired from play to begin coaching at the University of Denver as an assistant in 1978. Serving as an assistant with the LA Kings for a season, Backstrom took over as head coach of the Pioneers from 1981 to 1990. His strong ties to hockey and the Front Range led him to found the Eagles in 2002, serving as owner, president, and general manager for four seasons before retiring in 2007.
Backstrom’s goal to put a pro team in Loveland was unprecedented. Any and every minor league hockey team in Colorado’s history had staked their claim in either the Denver metro area or Colorado Springs. The drive to put a team approximately an hour north of Denver was bold…and it paid off immensely. The Eagles home arena, the Budweiser Events Center, has had its 5,289 seat-capacity met time and time again, rarely dipping below a season average of 5,000 fans per game (drawing averages of 4,906 per game in 2015-16 and 4,751 per game in 2016-17). Fan support is so ardent that Eagles CEO Martin Lind plans to build a new 10,000-seat arena for the team in the coming years.
A LASTING IMPACT
Do the Eagles make the jump to the ECHL in 2011 or the AHL in 2018 without the success they had under Chris Stewart? Does NoCo even get a pro hockey team if it weren’t for Ralph Backstrom?
Thankfully, these theoretical questions don’t have to be answered in Eagles Country.
The Eagles are set to begin their third AHL season on the road against the San Diego Gulls on Saturday, February 13 . After a five-game road trip in California, Colorado will play their home opener on Wednesday, February 24 against the Tucson Roadrunners.
During the Eagles first home game, the organization will no doubt pay homage to both Stewart and Backstrom for their contributions to the team and the region. And, they rightfully deserve such an honor for bringing professional hockey — ‘AA’ and now ‘AAA’ — to Northern Colorado.
The two laid a foundation that the Eagles can continue to build upon for years to come.