Last season, Utah celebrated 50 years of minor league hockey shared between both the Salt Lake Golden Eagles and the Grizzlies. This year, another celebratory benchmark occurs with the 25th anniversary of the Grizzlies playing between the International Hockey League (IHL), American Hockey League (AHL), and ECHL in both Salt Lake City proper and the suburb of West Valley City along the Wasatch Range.
However, there was a season that the Grizzlies played elsewhere before moving to Salt Lake — in 1994-95 as the Denver Grizzlies. With that in mind, we take a look back at how the minor league hockey scenes in both Utah and Colorado have sometimes paralleled and oftentimes overlapped since the Grizzlies’ inception over 25 years ago.
A BRIEF PRE-HISTORY
Before the creation of the Denver/Utah Grizzlies, the minor league connection between the two states was slim. Aside from a couple IHL playoff series between the Golden Eagles and Colorado/Denver Rangers in 1988 and 1989, the two markets coexisted in the minor-pro Western Hockey League from 1969-1974 and original Central Hockey League from 1974-75 (Denver Spurs) and 1982-84 (Colorado Flames).
INCEPTION OF THE GRIZZLIES
The Grizzlies’ connection between both Colorado and Utah began long before sharing an AHL affiliation with a very similarly-named team from their former Golden minor league hockey predecessors. The IHL granting a Denver-based expansion franchise to Dave Elmore and Donna Tuttle in 1993 began a much more substantial line of minor league ice hockey threads between The Centennial and Beehive States.
THE YEAR IN COLORADO
The Denver Grizzlies came into the IHL for their inaugural season in 1994. Rostering borderline NHL talent like Kip Miller and Chris Taylor; the defensive presence of Doug Crossman, Gord Dineen, and Normand Rochefort, scoring enforcer Jeff Madill, and young prospects for the NHL’s New York Islanders in Zigmund Palffy & Tommy Salo, the Grizz went 57-18-6 in the 1994-95 regular season. Denver then defeated the Minnesota Moose, Phoenix Roadrunners, Milwaukee Admirals, and then the Kansas City Blades in the Turner Cup Finals to capture the IHL Championship.
The Grizzlies also accrued their fair share of accolades in their debut campaign. Head Coach Butch Goring earned Coach of the Year honors, Miller won Playoff MVP, and Salo raked in the awards for Regular Season MVP, Rookie of the Year, and Best Goaltender. Alas, even with all the hardware to their credit, the 1994-95 season would be the one and only campaign the Grizzlies would have in the Mile High City.
JUST A YEAR?
Wait, why just one season in Denver? The club had captured a championship in its very first year of existence, the product on the ice was fantastic, and the Grizzlies averaged over 12,000 fans per game in attendance at McNichols Sports Arena. So why did Denver head further west to become the Utah Grizzlies after just a season of play?
THE GRIZZ GO (FURTHER) WEST
A few factors brought the Grizzlies IHL franchise to Utah.
First, the Salt Lake Golden Eagles were sold in March 1994 by former Utah Jazz owner Larry H. Miller. The Michigan-based business group that purchased the team allowed the Golden Eagles to finish out their 1993-94 season in Utah, then moved and rebranded the franchise as the Detroit Vipers for 1994-95. Utah actually went without professional hockey that season as Denver made their debut.
Second, after the “year of darkness” for Utah’s pro hockey fans, the Grizzlies were ultimately pushed into Salt Lake because of a new tenant at McNichols. The COMSAT Entertainment Group purchased the Quebec Nordiques in May 1995 with intentions on moving the team. With COMSAT owning the NBA’s Denver Nuggets, it was no surprise then that they brought the franchise to join the Nuggets in Colorado to become the Avalanche.
Elmore was under the impression that the COMSAT Group was going to wait until the NHL’s planned expansion between 1998 and 2000 to possibly bring a team to Denver. He figured the planned Pepsi Center — the arena that would host said new NHL franchise in Denver after completion — would free up McNichols of their major hockey tenant and keep the Grizzlies in Colorado.
Alas, with the move to purchase the Nordiques, Elmore had no choice but to move the team. While Sacramento, San Antonio, and San Diego all emerged as possible landing locations, it was Salt Lake City and the Delta Center that ended up with the displaced franchise.
UTAH’S IHL TENURE
Even after the move one state over, the Grizzlies continued their winning ways in Salt Lake City, posting a 49-29-4 record during the 1995-96 regular season and running through the playoffs for their second consecutive Turner Cup Championship. Utah continued their affiliation with the New York Islanders through 1998, going a year without an NHL affiliate before the Dallas Stars picked up the mantle in 2000. In Colorado, the nearby Avalanche utilized the AHL’s Hershey Bears as their ‘AAA’ affiliate from 1996-2005.
The Utah Grizzlies played five total seasons in the IHL, making the postseason three out of those five years before the league announced they were folding in June 2001. Thankfully, the American Hockey League granted franchises to Utah and five other markets to continue their existence in the AHL.
UTAH’S AHL TENURE
The Grizzlies served the Salt Lake City metro market in the AHL from 2001 to 2005. Their four seasons in the “A” were two less than their time in the IHL, splitting their NHL affiliation between the Dallas Stars (2001-04) and the Phoenix Coyotes (2004-05). Quick side note: the latter affiliation birthed the red-colored logo aberration that stands as the one and only time in their 25-year history Utah steered away from green in their primary color scheme.
While earning a winning record and playoff appearances in their first two seasons, the Grizzlies did not qualify for the playoffs in 2003-04 or 2004-05, posting a league-worst 23-50-7 record in the 04-05 regular season. Elmore, confessing that he’d been losing money between the IHL and AHL the past ten seasons, agreed with the AHL to suspend their franchise for the 2005-06 season while looking for a group to buy the rights.
Elmore debated between “moving” the Grizzlies to either the ECHL or Central Hockey League, having potential nearby opponents in both leagues (California, Nevada, Idaho, and Alaska in the ECHL; Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and…Loveland, CO in the CHL). In the meantime, Utah’s AHL franchise rights were purchased by Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert in May 2006. The Lake Erie/Cleveland Monsters began play the following 2007-08 regular season.
In a strange coincidence, the Monsters’ NHL affiliate from their inception in 2007 to 2015 was…the Colorado Avalanche.
THE GRIZZ AND THEIR ‘AA’ DECISION
In June 2005, Elmore announced that he had purchased the dormant franchise rights of the former Lexington Men O’ War and would have the Grizzlies join the ECHL for the 2005-06 season. Utah would remain independent for their first two ECHL seasons before linking up once again with the New York Islanders and their AHL affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. And, while some fans protested the bump down to ‘AA’ hockey, attendance at the E Center was only below an average of 4,000 fans for three of the Grizzlies’ first four ECHL seasons.
A CENTENNIAL CHALLENGER
Utah spent their first six seasons in the ECHL facing off against West/Mountain Division rivals like the Idaho Steelheads, Las Vegas Wranglers, Alaska Aces, Victoria Salmon Kings, Phoenix Roadrunners, and Fresno Falcons. There wouldn’t be another Utah/Colorado minor league hockey tie-in until May 2011, when the CHL’s Colorado Eagles made the lateral leap over to the ECHL for the 2011-12 regular season.
The Eagles spent seven seasons in the ECHL before moving up to the AHL for the 2018-19 campaign. During those seven years, Colorado and Utah faced off 86 times during the regular season, with the Eagles boasting a 46-25-15 record over the Grizzlies. The two clubs only faced off once in the postseason — a first-round match-up in the 2016 Kelly Cup Playoffs that ended in Utah’s four games to two series victory.
UTAH-COLORADO CONNECTION COMES FULL CIRCLE
As the Colorado Eagles announced their plan to join the AHL in October 2017, they also made known their brand new 10-year affiliation agreement with the Avalanche. During their time in the ECHL up to this point, the Utah Grizzlies had been affiliated with the Islanders, Calgary Flames, and Anaheim Ducks (as well as their corresponding AHL affiliates: Bridgeport, Abbotsford, Norfolk, and San Diego). However, after a full 2017-18 season of conjecture as to who the Eagles’ ECHL affiliate would be in 2018-19, the announcement was made in June 2018.
The Avs and Eagles would have the Grizzlies complete their NHL-AHL-ECHL affiliation tree.
23 years after the Avalanche basically forced the IHL Grizzlies out of Denver, Colorado and Utah were now officially affiliated for the first time ever.
Two seasons into their partnership, the Avalanche, Eagles, and Grizzlies are all prospering from their recent affiliation. Players like Martin Kaut, Logan O’Connor, and Conor Timmins have been solid call-ups to the NHL level when the Avs suffered a slew of injuries in February 2020. Likewise, skaters like Tim McGauley, Ryan Wagner, and Griffen Molino all contributed to the Eagles remaining competitive in the Pacific Division last season when the aforementioned group was with the Avalanche.
CONCLUSION: THE ROCKY MOUNTAIN WAY
Of course, the overarching storyline in 2020 is COVID-19 and the resulting global pandemic. With the most unique hockey season on the horizon for the Grizzlies, their 25-year celebration will have an air of gratitude for this year being possible at all. Slated to start on December 11 against the Rapid City Rush, Utah will also play against the Tulsa Oilers, splitting their first ten games between the two Mountain Division rivals in a staggered start to the ECHL season.
The Grizzlies have come a long way from their successful beginnings in the IHL, truly connecting the dots between their Mile High genesis and Deseret incarnations across three leagues. While the Coronavirus threatens to change the sports landscape for the foreseeable future, the enduring presence of minor league hockey in the Salt Lake metro area will hopefully help Utah ride out these difficult times and continue supporting the game for years to come.
AHL Editor C.C. Hawkley covers the Colorado Eagles and (occasionally) the Eagles’ ECHL affiliate, the Utah Grizzlies. He hosts The Sin Bin’s flagship AHL show, the In The Corners Podcast, with Sean O’Brien and also hosts the Colorado Eagles: Tape to Tape Podcast with Scott MacDonald.