Chris Stewart is a man caught between two worlds. But don’t feel sorry for the president/general manager of the Colorado Eagles. Both are looking extremely bright.
Stewart’s hockey team is transitioning this summer to the American Hockey League after an eight-year run in the ECHL. It is the pinnacle for the 15-year-old franchise, which now becomes, at long last, the primary farm team for the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche in the 2018-19 season, joining a Pacific Division that has been wildly successful since its formation in 2015.
But before the Eagles build their new nest in the elite of minor league hockey leagues, there is one final bit of ECHL business to complete. The defending Kelly Cup champions are looking to repeat, taking on the Fort Wayne Komets in the Western Conference Finals. Entering Wednesday’s Game 3, the series is tied 1-1.
“Old is new again. Old school is new school and new is old,” Stewart said hours before last Saturday’s Game 1. “It’s a lot of fun, to be honest. It’s quite exciting, in a sense. We have players now who could be playing for us next year at the American League level. And at the same time, they’re going for another Kelly Cup, so it’s a unique situation for everyone involved.”
And because of the continued success at the ECHL level, the final stages of the transition to the AHL will be unique, as well. The Eagles will continue to play their home games at the Budweiser Events Center in Loveland, CO, but the 7,200-seat arena (5,289 capacity for hockey) requires several upgrades in its infrastructure to meet the conditions set out in the AHL’s collective bargaining agreement, such as modernized and expanded locker rooms and training facilities, as well as designated areas for visiting NHL scouts to watch the games.
But the longer the Eagles keep playing – perhaps another three weeks if the playoff run cuinates in a seven-game Kelly Cup finals series – the less time the Eagles have to make those improvements. It’s a good problem to have, and Stewart said the organization is well-equipped to handle a shrunken window.
“Right now, we’re crossing the T’s and the I’s are dotted,” Stewart said. “We’re starting to work on the Event Center to accommodate the American Hockey League level. It’s a triage deal. We’re looking at the things that have to be done first, and that is meeting all the criteria within the CBA. To miss that would be irresponsible. We have to nail that. Anything that’s required for the players, the coaches, the visiting teams, that’s where our focus is right now.
“At the same time, we’re getting ahold of our loyal season-ticket holders, letting them know where their contracts stand and we’re honoring those contracts and getting new people in all the time. So, we have both sides going.”
Last October, the AHL announced that the Eagles of the ECHL would join the AHL for the 2018-19 season to become its 31st franchise. In the corresponding move, the San Antonio Rampage, which had been the Colorado Avalanche’s AHL team, will become the farm team of the St. Louis Blues, leaving the Chicago Wolves as the lone affiliate for the Vegas Golden Knights.
“We are thrilled to begin this partnership with the Eagles franchise,” Avalanche Executive Vice President/General Manager Joe Sakic said in a statement last October. “The Eagles are a first-class organization with a history of winning. We are excited that Avalanche fans can now see our top prospects competing and developing in an outstanding environment just up the road.”
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