A Look Back on 20 years...Where are they now?
This is the first edition of a series that explores what our former Eagles are up to now.
In this edition we look at Riley Nelson, Kyle Kraemer, Matt Garbowski and Kevin Ulanski.
By Kitt Amundson
As the story goes, a legendary Canadian hockey player (who if he were the
kind of guy to tell you, could tell you that only a handful of guys in the history of
the game, have won the Stanley Cup more than him) and a land developer
came together with a vision about bringing hockey to Northern Colorado.
Interest in hockey had been growing since the Colorado Avalanche won the
Club's first Stanley Cup. It grew even more after the second Cup in 2001 and
there was no better time than 2003 to breath life into that vision.
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of that vision. In those twenty years,
the Colorado Eagles have played over 1,440 combined regular season and
playoff games, played in three different minor professional hockey leagues, had
three regular season titles, eight division titles, seven conference titles and 4
league championships. Like proud parents, Ralph Backstrom, Martin Lind,
Chris Stewart and the rest of the organization watched as their vision grew into
the American Hockey League affiliate of the Colorado Avalanche.
The level of play and skill may have changed as the Eagles moved from league
to league, but the same qualities and values in place when the team was
created remained. It would be a fair bet to say, that had their ages and bodies
allowed them to do so, many of the former Eagles players would still be playing
for the Eagles if they could.
Eagles leading scorer of all time, and former captain in both the CHL and
ECHL, Riley Nelson, started with the Eagles during that inaugural season. His
retired number hangs from the rafters in the BEC. "From day one, the support
we had in the community and at our games, was heard all over the country.
This was considered one of the best places to play in minor pro hockey. In
addition to our initial success, we were always able to compete at a very high
level, and be in a position to make a run for a championship. I remember the
first ownership group had something like fifty investors, and after a win they
would all come into the dressing room after a game to say hello. That was the
nice thing about being a player then, you got to know so many people in the
community. I think our team fit a perfect niche here in northern Colorado. It
was easy for folks in the area to come watch a game, they could do so during
the middle of the week, not spend a fortune and still get home at a reasonable
hour. It was just a fun time to play hockey here in northern Colorado. Being
from western Canada, Colorado was like being home to me. It is gorgeous and
I think that is why so many players came to play here and never left. It was an
attractive place to be and the organization was top notch. I never dreamt that I
would have my number and sweater retired but when it happened it was
amazing. It is kind of funny now, because I coach under-eight youth hockey,
and if some of my kids go to an Eagles game and see my number hanging from
the rafters, they come back and ask if that was me. After I finished playing, I
stayed on with the team for three or four years in various capacities while
simultaneous working in the oil field. Then I got into youth hockey and I've
been working there ever since. I coach the players under eight years old, and
also at Fort Collins High School. The number of little kids wanting to learn to
play this year was off the charts. It is great to coach these kids. When I have a
bad day, I just remember that I get to go out and teach 5, 6 and 7 year old kids
how to play hockey. The best part is the conversations you get to have with
them, most not even hockey related. I am fortunate that I was able to play for
the Eagles as long as I did, and to play in front of a sold-out building regardless
of what night of the week, was special.”
Kyle Kraemer played for the Eagles from 2013 through 2016. He first played
against them as a visiting Ontario Reign team member and then as an Eagle
when he was traded by the Reign to Colorado.
“The Eagles organization was just a class act. The fan base at that arena; I
don't know that there is anything that compares to it. Whether I was on the
visiting team or playing for the Eagles, it was just the best experience to play
there. From the minute you arrive at The Ranch complex until you walk into
that arena, it is something to experience. It seems like everyone wants to play
in Colorado no matter what League. It was a perfect fit for the CHL and then
the ECHL. If I could have played in Colorado another 10 years, I would have
played there. Obviously, age and my body had a different idea and I needed to
move on unfortunately.
I could sit here and tell you all day how great the Eagles organization is. I see
this organization getting better and better and their possibilities are endless. I
know I keep saying it, but there just are not many minor league hockey
organizations like the Eagles. If you put the Eagles jersey on, it was pretty
special to say that you had put it on.
After hockey, I decided to get involved in real estate. My wife and I work in
residential real estate together. I buy and sell apartments here in St. Louis, so I
am a landlord. I have two dogs and my wife and I want to start a family soon.
If I had a message to the Eagles fans, it would be "keep it going”.”
Former Eagles Captain Matt Garbowski found his way to play professionally in
Austria after being a member of the back-to-back champion ECHL Eagles
team. "Obviously, it would be hard to speak about the best memories I have
about being an Eagle without speaking about the two Championships back-to-
back. I don't think that we were expected to win the first one, and then going
after it a second time we sort of had a target on our back. That type of
experience makes you close as teammates, and even thought you don't stay in
touch with everyone, when you see one another it is like no time has passed.
No one can ever take that experience away from you.” Now that he is retired
from hockey, Matt is enjoying his time as a construction project manager with
former Eagle Colin Bowman's construction company. "It is a fairly new
company, so we are learning a lot along the way but we built several complexes
in Greeley last year. I have two sons, Rory and Calen. Rory was born while I
was playing in Austria which is sort of neat, and Calen, my youngest is nine
months old. I took them both to an Eagles game, but they were a little bit too
young. Rory is just learning to skate, which is a lot of fun." Matt enjoys his time
in northern Colorado. His wife works for UCHealth so they are still very much a
part of the community. He and his wife built a house here and are raising their
family not far from the Budweiser Events Center where he played.
Kevin Ulanski retired as one of the Eagles leading scorers. He was also the
MVP of the league while the team was in the CHL. "I obviously loved my time
here playing for the Eagles. I played for six years. I came back out to this area
originally because my daughter and her mom had moved out here from
Wisconsin. I knew some guys who had played for the Eagles in the past and
having played at DU, I knew a bit about the organization. I had already played
minor pro hockey for a couple of years, so my plan was to go play where my
daughter was living was for a year, and then find a job. But when I got here,
the fans were awesome, the organization was awesome. I had played some
games in the AHL, and I honestly felt that as an Eagles player we were treated
better as a CHL team than some teams in higher level leagues. Being here in
Colorado was a comfortable place for me to come and the guys were great.
Every year I would wonder if I should come back, and then I would end up
coming back to play for another year and repeat that process again during the
offseason. It turned out that coming out here was the best decision I could
have made. Even though the leagues and players’ skills have changed, I
believe that the commitment from the Eagles to be a part of the community,
and the commitment from the Avs to continue that community commitment of
the Eagles has not changed."
Kevin just built a house with his girlfriend in nearby Longmont, but still coaches
youth hockey. " I think what I learned from my time in coaching kids who are 9
and 10, and playing hockey is that I don't want to take away the love of the
game for them. I want them to have fun, and if they have fun playing then they
will want to play more and the more you play the better you get. I try to help
them understand that everyone has a piece in team success and you don't
have to just score goals to be a part of that success. When I played for the
Eagles we had a lot of really good guys, so we all had to learn to be a part of
the piece of our success and not always the one who has to score a goal. I like
assists maybe even more than I like a goal. A lot of the kids I coach know
about my time with the Eagles, but it is fun to watch the ones that don't know
and then come talk to me after someone tells them or they have been to watch
an Eagles game."
The modern day gift to celebrate a 20th anniversary is platinum. Platinum is a
symbol of among other things true love, rarity and strength. Ralph Backstrom's
vision left a legacy of all three for the Colorado Eagles. There is an absolute
love fest between the players who played here and the fans for whom they
played. There is a strength among the organization in the desire to continue to
grow and improve and make decisions, that don't always make things easier, in
order to win. The combination of those two strengths and a bright future is a