What has been speculated and talked about is a wonder no longer as the much anticipated official announcement of the Colorado Eagles becoming the 31st American Hockey League franchise and new Colorado Avalanche AHL affiliate beginning in the 2018-19 season has finally occurred. With this announcement a few additional facts came to light but many questions still remain which will become clearer in the months leading up to the inaugural season. Here is a look at what we currently know and what we hope to find out about in the near future.
First of all, two excellent pieces were published today from Cris Tiller of the Reporter-Herald in Loveland, CO and Terry Frei of Mile High Sports. Both helped immensely to fill in the details on this agreement and should be checked out.
Who owns the Eagles?
It’s an important distinction to understand how this partnership operates. It was announced that the Colorado Eagles with owner and CEO Martin Lind were the entity that was granted the 31st expansion AHL franchise. According to Tiller, the Avalanche have entered into a 10 year affiliation agreement with the Eagles. This means that the Eagles control the franchise and that they could conceivably affiliate with another NHL franchise in the future. This is not to alarm, clearly everyone’s plan and priority is to affiliate with the Avalanche but it is more in understanding to whom the Eagles continue to belong.
In Sakic’s comments to Frei he mentions that the Avalanche and Kroenke Sports were not interested in purchasing and owning an AHL franchise, although many NHL organizations have moved toward that model in recent years. It was conceivable that the Kroenkes might desire to add an AHL franchise to their supply chain portfolio but the Eagles already have an excellent business operations staff headed by General Manager Chris Stewart and will continue to do so.
What happens to the ECHL team?
An unfortunate byproduct of this exciting announcement and partnership is that the ECHL entity of the Colorado Eagles will cease to exist. This is not a “promotion” for them following success in the Northern Colorado market and with the Kelly Cup championship as far as moving the team and its operations up a level as it is instead a replacement with the AHL team, players, coaches and operations which currently reside in San Antonio as the Rampage. However no doubt that the Eagles’ success in the market and in business operations proved to the AHL board of governors that they could be a viable franchise as an AHL club. The Eagles management staff will continue to run the business operations with the Avalanche providing the on-ice operations.
The Avalanche currently have not announced plans for a new ECHL affiliate following the AHL move in 2018-19. The ECHL has already announced the Eagles are withdrawing from the ECHL concluding the 2017-18 season. As it stands now the ECHL will contract by one following this move although the ECHL states that Colorado is in fact looking at relocating their membership for the 2018-19 season. It is much easier to get an ECHL entity off the ground and perhaps at location in the Rocky Mountain region will become an option for a new ECHL franchise and Avalanche affiliate.
As it stands now, the Avalanche will have to find a new ECHL affiliate unless that new entity is created and while affiliations at that level change frequently, the most likely option is to share an affiliate with another NHL club. This isn’t a big deal as ECHL franchises typically only have a couple NHL contracted players and fill the rest out with their own signees. The Avalanche have been pretty friendly transacting with the Atlanta Gladiators and could see that evolve into more of an official partnership. Also an option is to not have an ECHL affiliate as not all NHL organizations have one.
What will change for the AHL team?
Obviously moving all personnel and operations from San Antonio to Loveland, Colorado is a main change. As far as the makeup of the team, coaches, trainers and hockey operations management nothing will change. It is essentially a relocation just like when they moved from Lake Erie to San Antonio. Those on expiring AHL contracts (almost all are one year deals anyway) will be able to sign with the Eagles over the summer. Those who the Avalanche have provided to the current Eagles are either on AHL or NHL contract as it stands. All those who are this season contracted Colorado Eagles players, coaches and staff will have to find other work but minor hockey pretty much runs on a year to year basis as it is and could find promotions as opportunities with the AHL version of the Eagles or a new ECHL franchise.
There’s several AHL logistical considerations to work out as well, especially considering the division and schedule the Eagles will operate under when they begin play in 2018-19. All the teams who have moved their affiliates to the west coast and play in the Pacific division have 68 game schedules, as opposed to 76 for the balance of the league. This allows for more practice time, less travel and three game weekends but also sees them play fewer opponents and not even the entirety of the Western Conference. Sakic indicated to Frei that he expects to join the other west coast teams with this type of setup and the AHL has hinted at a placement in that division but a formal announcement on AHL alignment and schedule will be made much closer to the summer.
As of right now nothing changes to either the Eagles or San Antonio Rampage. They will continue to play the season out as their last under their current agreements and leagues. The St. Louis Blues, who are currently the one NHL team without an AHL affiliation, will join up with the Rampage as their affiliate when the Avalanche vacate their partnership next season. In the meantime, the Rampage will continue to accept several Blues prospects as part of this transition in somewhat of a shared affiliation for this season.
How does the new affiliation benefit the Avalanche?
The clear answer is having the AHL branch of the organization 50 miles away as opposed to in another state and time zone helps the Avalanche keep tabs on their prospects and foster a better development environment. While the benefit of emergency callups probably wouldn’t come up too often as one team or the other is just as likely to be on the road and out of the state, the potential for regular callups in particular to younger top prospects could become much more frequent. Sakic mentioned this benefit to Frei and the enormous hope is that it is followed through on. When schedules allows, some prospects could even conceivably split time between the teams and going back and forth on a nightly basis. Several teams with close proximity affiliations such as San Jose, Winnipeg and Anaheim utilize this strategy frequently.
Another benefit is growing the hockey market in Northern Colorado. The Eagles ownership have a vision to keep building what they have started in the Loveland area with redevelopment planned around the arena as well. With the tie-ins now to the NHL franchise in the market, the reinforcement will only become stronger. Expanded radio and television even as a possibility would no doubt would benefit all parties if Avalanche fans could connect to their future players and affiliated team just miles away. Getting Avalanche fans interested in the organization at a grass roots level and the Eagles an expanded market is a win-win for everyone.
Where will the new Eagles play?
The plan is the continued use of the Budweiser Events Center but with some renovations and modifications made. The seating capacity really isn’t an issue at the AHL level as Tiller points out that the current capacity and attendance around 5,000 would register 19th in AHL attendance and wasn’t an issue. What is of more critical importance though was the renovation of the locker rooms and training facilities to reach an AHL level standard and that should occur prior to the 2018-19 season.
As some of these questions find answers and a clearer focus on the transition to a new expansion AHL team finally in the state of Colorado, other questions and issues will arise. We will tackle them one at a time as the exciting beginning of the 2018-19 season for the Colorado Eagles approaches. If you have any questions, please let us know in the comments.