A new league, a new coach, plenty of new names on the roster — and sometime before the season starts — a new dressing room for the Colorado Eagles.
In preparation for its move up to the American Hockey League, the top developmental league for the NHL, renovations to the facility began two weeks ago, a project managed by Larimer County (which owns the Budweiser Events Center) in conjunction with the Eagles and the Colorado Avalanche. The two clubs are in the midst of forming their new partnership as the Eagles become the Avs' new top affiliate this upcoming season after winning consecutive championships in the ECHL.
In other words, the torn apart locker rooms inside the Bud Center in many ways symbolize the abundance of change the Eagles are experiencing as an organization right now.
The old dressing rooms weren't necessarily outdated; they just needed to be expanded since AHL teams tend to have a bit more of everything — more players, more coaches and more training staff. A weight room is also being added.
"Basically you have to expand everything a little bit to accommodate the extra people, both on the visiting team and the home team. That's the bulk of the reason why things are being done," said Chris Ashby, campus director for The Ranch, the complex that encompasses the Eagles' home arena. "Then there's a weight training facility space being added as well. So basically just renovating the first floor of the building a little bit where the team resides, trains and stores their equipment."
Ashby says the renovations will cost less than $1 million, a bill the county is sharing with the Eagles.
"As with any sort of tenancy relationship, if you have a large retail tenant, you tend to help with the build-out and things like that, so we're helping with the cost of it as well," he said. "All the changes we're making, or 99 percent of them, are not things the fans will notice because they're out of fan view. They're sort of back of the house for lack of a better term."
As Ashby noted, "the real change is the talent level that the Eagles will have playing on the ice here next year."
Team president and general manager Chris Stewart says the Eagles have always strived to be an elite organization, and that goal remains in place. The new relationship with the Avalanche should only make it easier to meet that standard.
Not every player is exactly thrilled to be playing in the AHL, but Stewart is confident the organization will do everything possible to make it an enjoyable experience for anyone who steps onto the Eagles' home ice this winter.
"I totally believe that the players walking into this situation will be totally happy. Obviously when they get the news that they're coming down into the American Hockey League from the NHL, they might not be pleased. But the day they walk into that locker room, they'll still feel like they're in an NHL organization," he said. "I don't believe we're going to have any player come in and have a look and be disappointed."
Stewart's title remains the same, but his role with the franchise is quite different now that Avalanche assistant general manager Craig Billington is overseeing all hockey-related decisions. That leaves Stewart, who has been with the franchise since its inception, as the team's first head coach starting in 2003-04, to focus more the business side of things.
It's a big change, no doubt, but one Stewart knew was coming and a shift that he's embracing no matter how different it feels.
So far the Eagles have hired a new coach in Greg Cronin, and signed a handful of players (including ECHL playoff MVP Michael Joly), but otherwise there's still a lot of work to be done before they make their AHL debut Sept. 28.
"Right now it's a feeling out process," Stewart said. "We want to be able to accommodate the things that are needed at the AHL level, and we also want to continue to do the things that have been successful for us. The money that we raise in this community is absolutely outstanding. It's a standard that hasn't been met by any other team in the league, so we have to continue to do what's been successful for us and still accommodate what's necessary for the AHL.
"So there's a lot of change."
Although personnel decisions are now up to Billington and Avs GM Joe Sakic, Stewart suspects Eagles fans will see plenty of familiar names on the roster come opening night in a couple months.
"It's still going to have that hometown feel in the sense that there are going to be some players that walk in here that the fans are used to seeing here," he said. "And that's a good thing, because when they get attached to those guys, and some new guys they get attached to, and all of a sudden they're seeing them play at the National Hockey League level, they're going to be pretty proud that they had a chance to see these kids grow and get better and kind of spread their wings here."