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Central league's Colorado Eagles extending minor-league attendance record

The NHL's Colorado Avalanche routinely play in front of capacity Pepsi Center crowds but they are not the only hockey success story in the Denver region.

The Colorado Eagles of the Central Hockey League have sold out the 5,289-seat Budweiser Event Center north of the city for a minor-league record 145 consecutive games. They love their hockey in Loveland.

"The success of the Avalanche and how well-run they've been since they arrived (in 1996) set the foundation," says team broadcaster Tori Holt. "Where we're located, hockey fans view us as their own team.

"They they don't have to drive 45 minutes or an hour and spend $100 to watch a hockey game. They can get an entertaining product for $18 or $20. The players are out in the community, and they've been winners on the ice."

Former NHL forward Greg Pankewicz of Drayton Valley, Alta., is the captain of a team that has won its regular-season division title every year in its four seasons in the league. It has won two championships. With that kind of on-ice success, the box office is always humming.

Pankewicz, 37, was in the NHL for three games with the Ottawa Senators in 1993 and for 18 games with the Calgary Flames in 1998. Like many of the Eagles, he goes on hospital and school visits, takes part in street hockey games arranged with youth clubs and makes other appearances to sign autographs and beat the club's drum.

Ralph Backstrom, a six-time Stanley Cup champion with the Montreal Canadiens, founded the franchise in 2002. The native of Kirkland Lake, Ont., is 70 now and he retired last summer. He's an Eagles shareholder, sits on the team's advisory board and can be found in the stands at games.

"Ralph ran it like an NHL operation and things just snowballed into this phenomenon," says Holt.

Chris Stewart of Red Deer, Alta., who coached the WHL's Prince Albert Raiders before moving into the pro ranks, is president, general manager and head coach. Most of the players are Canadians. The team currently is second in its division with a 21-9-5 record.

"His relationships with players are second to none," Holt, who is the KPAW-107.9 "The Bear" hockey voice, says of Stewart. "He doesn't take a vacation.

"He's always talking to guys about playing for the Eagles. He stays on guys. Guys want to come here. It gets around."

Ed McGrane of Hamilton, Ont., was leading Eagles scoring with 50 points including 17 goals after 35 games. Pankewicz had 45 points, Riley Nelson of Cranbrook, B.C., had 44, Seth Leonard of Nakusp, B.C., had 42, and Aaron Schneekloth of Calgary had 35.

In-arena team promotions help bring in the fans. Last season, Continental Airlines tickets to any locale frequented by the airline were given away six times during the regular season and at all 13 home playoff games.

The Eagles will continue flying high for years to come.


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