By MIKE CHAMBERS | [email protected] | The Denver Post
PUBLISHED: February 9, 2019 at 6:00 am | UPDATED: February 9, 2019 at 11:08 am
LOVELAND — Go South, young man.
Czech Republic countrymen Martin Kaut and Pavel Francouz of the Colorado Eagles might be in their first year in North America, but it’s hard to get lost with directions so simple.
After Tuesday’s practice at the Budweiser Events Center, all they needed to do to get to that night’s Avalanche game was drive straight on Interstate 25 until they saw the Pepsi Center on their left — an example of the convenience and fluidity the Avs’ new American Hockey League affiliate, the Colorado Eagles, provides.
Logistically, having your AHL affiliate 50 miles up the road has connected the big club and its top prospects like never before. Goalie coaches Ryan Bach (Eagles) and Jussi Parkkila (Avs) had a meeting in Denver last week when rehabilitating Avs defenseman Conor Timmins was sent to Loveland to practice with the Eagles while the big club began a road trip.
The long-distance relationship the Avs used to have with the AHL is over.
“It’s really been a dream for it to all come together,” said Avalanche assistant general manager Craig Billington, who previously oversaw the team’s AHL affiliates in Cleveland and San Antonio. “We can do face time — and I’m not talking from an iPhone. When you look at what we created here, it helps facilitate the development operation, the NHL operation, the player connectivity to the franchise, plus the coaches and personnel. It’s just a lot more connected than it’s ever been.”
Related: Tyson Jost, the Avalanche’s 2016 first-round draft pick, sees the bright side of AHL demotion
Kaut is the Avalanche’s 2018 first-round draft choice and Francouz is the organization’s No. 3 goalie. Both could become Avalanche regulars next season, but are enjoying their time with Colorado’s first-year AHL affiliate — the state’s first “Triple-A” hockey team. The Eagles, formerly of the Single-A Central Hockey League (2003-11) and Double-A ECHL (2011-18), are now comprised of the NHL team’s top prospects who can regularly attend Avalanche games like Kaut and Francouz did Tuesday when the Avs played the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“I love it here,” Kaut, 19, said from the Budweiser Event Center after practice Wednesday.
After this weekend’s series against the visiting Stockton Heat, the Eagles will have sold out 20-of-22 home games at the 5,289-seat BEC. The Eagles ranked 15th in average attendance (5,223) through 20 home dates, and were second only to the Utica Comets in average capacity (98.8 percent). Utica’s area seats just 3,840 for hockey.
“It’s awesome. It’s a great facility here and the fans are awesome,” said Eagles forward Tyson Jost, the Avs’ 2016 first-round draft pick who played his first 46 games this season with the big club. “It’s pretty cool to have it right up the road from Denver. Obviously, you want to be in the NHL. But it’s cool. It’s definitely a pretty awesome AHL experience from other places I’ve seen on the road. This is one of the best, for sure.”
Most Eagles players live in Fort Collins, which borders Loveland to the north, and where a considerable amount of fans reside. They are often treated like rock stars around the BEC by a mature fan base that saw its previous two teams win back-to-back ECHL championships.
“The fans have been a huge support for us,” O’Connor said. “I’d say they’re the best in the AHL, which makes a huge difference night in, night out. It’s fun to play here and feed off their energy.”
In some ways, the Eagles and the Budweiser Event Center is a better combination than the Avalanche and the Pepsi Center, because the NHL team has two homes — its practice facility in Centennial and the arena where it plays games. Transferring equipment is a daily process, whether they’re playing at home or on the road.
The Eagles, however, practice and play at the renovated BEC, which features new lighting and an entirely new underbelly for players and staff. Their locker room is bigger and nicer than what the Avs have at Family Sports Center in Centennial and the other components of a player’s needs — rooms to receive medical treatment, lift weights or relax — are similar in quality.
The Avs play before bigger crowds, collect far bigger paychecks and travel in luxury. But the intimacy of Eagles games can be equally as exciting. Both squads play the same systems and Eagles players watch every Avalanche game on the NHL club’s Front Range television network, Altitude.
“Being a student of the game is crucial at this point, because minuscule details and intangibles separate NHL to AHL players,” said first-year pro Logan O’Connor, a former University of Denver forward who has played five games with the Avs this season.
Added defenseman Anton Lindholm, who has had AHL homes in Colorado and Texas: “San Antonio being Texas and all, it’s not a hockey town … But the fans here are unreal and we have a really good owner (Martin Lind) who backs us. It’s better than San Antonio.”
By all accounts, the Colorado Eagles are the perfect fit for the Avalanche.