High time for hockey in lower minors

Updated: May 5, 2005, 11:22 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

LOVELAND, Colo. – Nearly a half-century ago, Ralph Backstrom was so proud.

As a precocious center for the Montreal Canadiens, Backstrom was saving money by living in the home of junior coach Scotty Bowman's parents in Montreal. In fact, Backstrom took over Scotty's bedroom while Bowman was off getting his feet wet coaching the Peterborough Petes.

Ralph Backstrom
Colorado EaglesFormer player Ralph Backstrom, who fled from the restrictive NHL to the WHA, favors a salary cap.

In 1957-58, Backstrom was named the NHL's rookie of the year and got to hoist the Stanley Cup, still a bit awestruck to find himself celebrating among Rocket Richard, Jean Beliveau, Doug Harvey and Jacques Plante.

Then the Canadiens, always benevolent, offered him a raise! He went from the $7,000 he earned as a rookie to $8,000, with general manager Sam Pollock reminding him that one of the perks of playing for the Canadiens was regularly earning the champions' share of around $3,500.

"The guys in the NHL today, they lose that much in hotel lobbies in sofas," Backstrom recalled wryly last week.

Backstrom's hair is gray, the lines in his face pronounced, his experiences in the game myriad. At age 67, he has found himself a gold mine as founder, co-owner, general manager and the public face of the Colorado Eagles, who closed out the Laredo Bucks in the hardscrabble Central Hockey League's championship series on Wednesday night. Colorado's 1-0 victory in Game 5 at Laredo, Texas, fashioned on Karlis Zirnis' second-period goal and Paulo Colaiacovo's 36-save shutout, earned the Eagles the CHL's Ray Miron President's Trophy and Backstrom his first title as an owner.

The irony? As the NHL remains locked down in the battle over a salary cap, Backstrom – who scoffed at the ridiculously restrictive NHL system of his time and jumped to the WHA – is presiding over a wildly successful franchise that has sold out every home game at the 5,200-seat Budweiser Events Center in its two seasons of existence. One of the reasons it is wildly successful is the CHL's $8,500-a-week salary cap. The Colorado Avalanche payroll, in contrast, was about $2.3 million a week during the 2003-04 season.

"I was for the players in this kind of thing for a long time," Backstrom said. "But I think management is heading in the right direction now because I think salaries just got outlandish."

Meanwhile, hockey goes on in Colorado. The University of Denver won its second consecutive NCAA championship, and the Eagles remain a hot ticket in the new arena 50 miles north of Denver's Pepsi Center, drawing mostly from the booming Northern Colorado corridor of Loveland, Longmont, Windsor and Fort Collins.

A walk through the stands on Eagles game nights gives one the impression of a real amalgam crowd – a combination of true hockey connoisseurs and, yes, many fans who might be stumped to name any NHL players beyond Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg. And one often-heard sentiment is similar to what we heard at DU games this season: At roughly 20 percent of the cost of an Avalanche ticket, this is a great bang-for-the-buck show. (And the beer is cheaper.)

The Eagles have a bona fide minor league superstar in 34-year-old winger Greg Pankewicz, the CHL's most valuable player this season. Pankewicz has been tearing it up in the second-tier minors for the past five seasons – after refusing to walk away from the sport when it became apparent his three games with Ottawa in 1993-94 and 18 with Calgary in 1998-99 were all he would play in the NHL. After a game earlier in the series, Pankewicz nodded over at the locker of diminutive winger Fraser Filipic, who had scored two goals.

"If he was 6-2, he'd be in the NHL and making about $5 million," Pankewicz said. "He's got that much talent. But that's what this is about, being around these guys and still being able to do something I love to do."

Is that what he would tell the locked-out NHL players? Pankewicz laughed.

"It's unfortunate," he said. "Everyone's to blame. If you're going to pay a guy that kind of money, you're not going to turn it down and sooner or later it's going to tap itself out. I think it's going to play out and we're going to have guys playing for the love of the game again."

Pankewicz's wife, Charmaine, is working as a nurse in the area and the couple is thinking of settling their family in Northern Colorado.

"I'd like to play four or five more years," he said. "I've found a great organization here, great people, a lot of class, and they treat you like gold."

And then there's still that thought, albeit way, way, way in the back of his mind. That's the dream about returning to the league that plays 50 miles down the freeway.

"You never know," he said. "That's why you play. It boils down to opportunity. There are late bloomers all over the place. There are quite a few guys in here who, if given the opportunity, could play in the NHL.

"Don't get me wrong. If Sakic and Forsberg need a winger, I think I could get it done."

In more realistic moments, he often talks with Backstrom about a possible future in the game beyond his playing days. The thing about hanging around with Backstrom is he never runs out of stories – from his days with the Canadiens, Kings and Blackhawks, his brief run in the crazy WHA, his coaching stint with the Kings and at DU, his time as the organizer and mogul of Roller Hockey International, to his days as a Blues scout and administrator, and now his time in the owner's box.

One interesting tale: When Backstrom was with the Kings, he remained in Southern California in the offseason, and he found a new way to train. He put roller skate-type wheels on skates, which was revolutionary at the time. His neighbors looked at him skating down the street and reacted as if he had just stepped off a spaceship. He patented the design and tried to sell it to a Canadian sporting goods manufacturer.

"I skated through the factory past these ladies working on their sewing machines, and I was going backwards and doing crossovers and all those things," Backstrom said. "They said, 'Thanks, but nothing will ever replace the roller skate with the wheels on the four corners.'"

Later, he wrote roller hockey's original rules, which still are in use, and as the commissioner of Roller Hockey International, he presided over a league that hired a handful of former NHL enforcers as coaches, including Tiger Williams, Nick Fotiu and Dave "The Hammer" Schultz.

Eventually, he sold his rights to the patent. But he was astute with his money all along, and now the Eagles are one of minor league hockey's biggest success stories.

"There's no reason to slow down or step aside," Backstrom said. "I'm enjoying this. And I'm just sitting in the crowd, knowing I'm not going to be walking home with a shiner or something like that. It's still fun."

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

Terry Frei

Special to ESPN.com
Terry Frei is a columnist for the Denver Post. He is also the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."