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Two seasons in, Colorado Eagles and Utah Grizzlies reflect on ‘tremendous’ affiliation

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A rash of early-season injuries to the Avalanche has proven how well the organization can develop, from the Eagles in the AHL down to the Grizzlies of the ECHL

Photo courtesy of ECHL

Rewind to Oct. 13, 2017. It’s Friday the 13th and the Colorado Eagles are set to open the 2017-18 season at Budweiser Events Center against their Rocky Mountain rival Utah Grizzlies. The result is a 3-2 win after Michael Joly ices the game in the second period. The following night, the Eagles travel to Utah for the second half of the home-and-home set, where they edged the Grizzlies once more by a 2-1 margin.

Little did the two teams know at the time, those two tightly-contested one-goal games would be among the last times the rivals would face-off against each other. By the season’s end, the Eagles and Grizzlies would skate for the same organization, the Colorado Avalanche.

For a bit of historical reference, the affiliation between the Grizzlies and Colorado is a partnership that dates back even before the Avs found a home in Denver. Before that, the Denver Grizzlies had staked the claim of being Colorado’s No. 1 hockey team. In 1995, the Grizzlies lone season in the state, the team won the Turner Cup as champions of the now-defunct International Hockey League. When the Avs moved to town from Quebec, the Grizzlies too were relocated, this time to their current home in Salt Lake City.

Now amidst the second season of this newest iteration of Colorado-Utah affiliation, it’s been nothing but positive, especially from a developmental standpoint.

“The partnership is just tremendous,” said Grizzlies head coach and general manager Tim Branham. “It’s everything you could ask for. Colorado cares so much about player development.”

A couple weeks later, I enter Eagles general manager Craig Billington’s office at Budweiser Events Center. I tell him I had just returned from making the trip to Utah to catch up with a few Grizzlies players and Avalanche prospects.

“Ah, how is Timmy doing?” he asks me, referring to Branham, his GM friend in Utah. We share stories about how beautiful — albeit, desolate — the drive on I-80 is from Colorado to Utah, and how nice of a guy Branham really is. After we exchange pleasantries, I ask for his opinion on how he’s felt the partnership has gone.

Utah Grizzlies GM and coach Tim Branham and his relationship with Avs assistant GM and Eagles head man Craig Billington are key to Colorado development
Photo courtesy of BelowTheHashMarks.com

“I think it’s been a tremendous relationship,” Billington says. “I think when you enter into an affiliation and you look at the organization and what they stand for and support as far as their players and their coaching and their players and personnel, and you look at what Utah has in Timmy Branham and his staff there and their passion to develop and win — it’s a really good setup for our players to go and get minutes and ice time.”

“Timmy” and Billington are in constant communication. Branham tells me it’s a daily thing that the two talk, whether it be with Billington or Brett Clark, the latter of whom is the Avalanche’s director of player development.

“They’re unbelievable,” Branham enthuses of Billington and Clark.

The strong relationship the two respective GMs have is probably one of the many reasons this partnership has been such an early success. It’s also a sign about how much the two heads and organizations truly care about player development.

And this season really has been a prime example of how important development is. In November alone, nine different Eagles players either made their NHL debut or skated in the NHL with the Avs in some capacity. When there’s a depleted roster at the top with your NHL team, the strength of the organization’s development one and two levels down in the AHL and ECHL, respectively, is put to the ultimate test.

With the Eagles then missing a good portion of their players loaned to the Avalanche, Billington and Co. rely on calling up their ECHL Grizzlies forwards to slot in for depth in Loveland. As a result of that strong development from Salt Lake City to Loveland, the Avalanche was able to maintain their strong position in the standings, thanks to their Eagles prospects, while the team in Loveland was also able to finish their November with a winning record, thanks to their friends in Utah.

It’s a testament to how much the Avalanche franchise and their ancillary developmental organizations in Loveland and Salt Lake City care about the bigger picture, and it shows just how important it is to develop from the all the way from the bottom to the top.

“I mean, yeah, they care a lot about their NHL-contract guys (and) their American League-contract guys, but they care a lot about everybody as well,” Branham says of the Avalanche. “Coaching development, as far as it is for me; the help that they give us as far as players, as far as player development, sending skills coaches and guys like that — It’s tremendous. You couldn’t ask for much more than that. Craig Billington is an unbelievable management guy and he does an excellent job managing these two groups.”

Now two years into this partnership, it’s clear it’s working out pretty well for both teams. However, creating and securing this so-far successful affiliation was no easy task.

One thing I noticed throughout the Utah crowd at Maverik Center during the Grizzlies-Florida Everblades matchup I attended was the lack of Avalanche jerseys, and the surprising dominance of Vegas Golden Knights and Marc-Andre Fleury jerseys speckled through the seats of the arena. I mentioned my observation to Branham following the game and asked, given the proximity of Utah to Vegas and the Knights’ need for an ECHL affiliate once they entered the league in 2017-18, how is it that Colorado managed to secure the affiliation with Utah?

As it turns out, it really is about who you know and making the right connections in this business. Thanks to a prior relationship the Grizzlies owners had with Colorado, there was a mutual interest in a potential affiliation, despite Vegas also coveting Utah as their closest developmental destination.

“When I first came here, it was Anaheim,” Branham said of Utah’s affiliate. “I had a relationship with Bob Ferguson, who was kind of like the Craig Billington of Anaheim. Our owner has a relationship with Colorado, either with Colorado ownership or something else there. When we got wind of the Eagles going to the American League, we reached out and just kind of put it all together. And it just makes sense as far as proximity, and with Loveland being 45 minutes from Denver, and there are some many flights from Denver to here and only about an hour away. It’s just really convenient.”

Thanks to a little competitive advantage, Utah’s partnership was officially terminated with Anaheim and the Avalanche stepped in as their new affiliate.

“We are in a very competitive business as a whole,” added Billington of securing the partnership with the Grizzlies. “The National League is our end product, as we see on TV, but then through the minor leagues, through the development systems, through personnel, the parity that’s been created in our leagues has been so tight that (you need) any competitive advantage that you can have.

“I think it’s healthy. I don’t see it as a negative and it keeps you sharp and it keeps you motivated and hungry to create situations of competitive advantage. I think everyone would agree it’s a healthy thing.”

Now two years in, The Grizzlies have proven to be an integral part of the success of the Colorado franchise, from the Eagles one level up in the American League to the “end product” that is the NHL’s Avalanche. The symbiotic success of Utah and Colorado’s development has already proven its mettle by helping the Avs through an injury-plagued first month-and-a-half of the season. It’s a very positive sign of strong development, and it’s a telling sign of how well this affiliation has worked so far.

“We feel it’s an important piece in our development wheel,” Billington said of Utah. “Geographical proximity to us here, and what being in the mountain range somewhat simulates — between the Avalanche, the Eagles and Utah — it’s a really good fit.”