NoCo’s landscape boosted by pro, college, junior, youth programs
Tucked away in the reaches of Northern Colorado is a vibrant hockey landscape that includes pro hockey, as well as ACHA college hockey, Junior A hockey and a growing youth association.
Add that all up and the Colorado Eagles (ECHL), Colorado State University (two ACHA clubs at Division I and III), Colorado Jr. Eagles (Western States Hockey League) and Northern Colorado Youth Hockey (NCYH) all lend a certain viability to the successful growth of the sport the northern part of the state.
And all have tasted glory as the years have gone by.
Take the Eagles, for instance. Before joining the ECHL in 2011, the franchise had exemplary eight-year run in the now-defunct Central Hockey League that included two Ray Miron President’s Cup playoff titles, three regular-season championships, six division crowns and five conference titles.
Eagles coach-GM Chris Stewart has always said that the Loveland community has been a huge supporter of the club since Day 1.
“When we first came here, we came in at the grass roots level,” Stewart said. “The hockey scene was in disarray and it wasn’t going in any one particular direction. I like to think that having the Eagles in town has given the area some stability and we have been woven into the fabric of this community. People here know hockey and we’ve invested a lot in the youth hockey organization here. We put things in layman’s terms so people here can understand and follow the game. I think that helps to grow the game and the fan base, when people know what the heck you’re talking about.”
The Eagles skate out of the Budweiser Events Center and regularly finish close to the top of the ECHL standings in terms of attendance figures. For the 2014-15 season, Colorado was seventh in the league with an average of nearly 5,300 fans through the turnstiles each night.
Now in their third year of existence, the Jr. Eagles, who along with the NCYH call the NoCo Ice Center in Fort Collins their home rink, came into the WSHL back in 2013 with the goal of introducing junior hockey to the fans in the area and to develop and advance their players to higher levels of juniors, college hockey and pro hockey.
Steve Haddon has been the coach and GM since the inception of the Jr. Eagles and loves the atmosphere Northern Colorado offers day in and day out.
“I think in terms of where we fit in the overall landscape here, we’re the middle ground,” Haddon said. “You have kids from the youth program that age out and come play for us and after we send those kids on to college and they come back, the ultimate goal would then be for them to play for the Eagles and see the whole process go full circle. We have kids on our team now that grew up watching the Eagles and going to games, so there is no shortage of hockey around here, that’s for sure.”
Haddon added that when the idea was first brought up to put a Junior A team in Fort Collins, there was some head scratching and not everyone was on the same page. Clearly, that is no longer the case.
“This area is so big, but so small in some ways when it comes to hockey,” said Haddon, a former Eagles pro player from 2006-13. “People would ask if we can have a competitive team and after going to the Mountain Division finals the past two years, I think that answers that question. When I played here for the Eagles, I saw talented kids leave to go try and play juniors on the East Coast – they needed a place in their backyard and for the three seasons we’ve been here, they now have that opportunity.”
At Colorado State in Fort Collins, 2014-15 ACHA Division III Coach of the Year Aaron Bain noted that playing in Northern Colorado is certainly a selling point for potential recruits that are looking to play college hockey for the Rams.
“This is such a beautiful area with all the foothills and national parks and that’s no doubt a huge draw,” Bain said. “The hockey here goes along with that and those that live here or that have come here really appreciate what we have from top to bottom. For us at Colorado State, it’s obviously more than hockey that we hold our players accountable for. As student-athletes, there are certain academic standards these kids must uphold and that also attracts great students to come to CSU.”
According to Bain, great students also make for great players on the ice. This season’s captain, Ben Reaman, agrees.
“The atmosphere here is so friendly, so laid-back,” Reaman said. “You get the best of everything here.”
“The No. 1 goal we strive for every year is to obviously win a championship,” added Bain.
The youth of Fort Collins and the surrounding areas get their start with the NCYH, an organization that has been around since 2007 under the Jr. Eagles moniker.
For the 2014-2015 season, the NCYH was comprised of more than 550 members and offered 14 travel teams, 12 recreational teams, three skill levels within the 8U division and a pair of 8U travel teams.
In 2007, the NCYH purchased the Providence Ice Center with the help of the Eagles and merged with their membership to create an association that since that time, strives to provide the best possible hockey for all of Northern Colorado. During this merger, the NCYH changed its mascot from the Grizzlies to the Jr. Eagles.
Then in the summer of 2013, the NCYH and Mountains States Youth Hockey Renegades merged together under the NCYH umbrella, unifying both recreational and travel hockey offered in Northern Colorado.
“The Eagles are obviously the top dogs around here, but the youth program is growing and just getting better and better every year,” said NCYH executive director Aaron Grosul. “We have ‘Try Hockey For Free’ days and events like that to raise awareness and we know we have a long way to go, but everyone involved here just does a tremendous job to keep the organization running smoothly. We’re limited in our resources, but the kids we have are some of the most dedicated players I have ever seen at any age level. It’s just incredible to see.”
And if a player can progress through the youth system, into the WSHL program and after college come home, that would make a fantastic story, said Haddon.
“These kids all have goals and dreams,” Haddon said. “Like I said, I’m hoping to see a player from the youth program one day come home a man and play for the Eagles.
“In all of Northern Colorado, the support for all the programs here is just outstanding.”
Photo – Players from the ECHL’s Colorado Eagles, Western States Hockey League’s Colorado Jr. Eagles, ACHA Division III Colorado State University and Northern Colorado Youth Hockey gather at the NoCo Ice Center in Fort Collins to show that hockey is alive and well in the northernmost reaches of the state. Pictured top row, from left to right, are Blake Gudahl (CSU), Nick Davidson (Jr. Eagles), Peter Gormley (CSU) and Cade Warner (Jr. Eagles). Pictured bottom row, left to right, are Darryl Bootland (Eagles), Gabe Eckdahl (NCYH), Owen Eckdahl (NCYH) and Sean Zimmerman (Eagles). Read more on Northern Colorado’s hockey landscape on Page 6. Photo/Melinda Bauer Photography
— Matt Mackinder