LOVELAND — The “RB” patch on the back of each University of Denver jersey means so much to so many people at this weekend’s NCAA West Regional at the Budweiser Events Center.
Ralph Backstrom was a top-flight NHL player, a successful DU head coach, and a legend in the Northern Colorado hockey community. He founded the Loveland-based Colorado Eagles, now the AHL affiliate of the Avalanche, during a lifetime of making friends wherever he was.
Backstrom died in Windsor at age 83 on Feb. 7, 2021, but will be forever remembered as a six-time Stanley Cup champion who had a huge impact on Front Range hockey.
“Ralph was an amazing man with an amazing legacy in professional hockey, as a player and in management, and in college hockey, but most importantly a great human that touched thousands of lives in a positive way,” said former DU center Don Mercier, who played for Backstrom when the Pioneers advanced to the 1986 Frozen Four.
Mercier watched DU defeat UMass-Lowell in Thursday’s regional semifinals and also had tickets for Saturday’s championship game against Minnesota-Duluth. He said Pioneer alumni from his era have flocked to Loveland this weekend to honor Backstrom in a city he helped turn into a hockey hotbed.
“Ralph was not only a coach to me but a great friend. He brought me to Denver and I never left,” said Mercier, a 56-year-old native of Edmonton. “I was with him until his last day on Earth as I was honored to be called by his family to say goodbye to him.”
DU has given a black RB patch on the back of its jerseys all season, and that patch resonates more than ever this weekend during postseason play.
“This is a great hockey community, and Ralph was a huge part of it, and he’s someone that’s very strong in the tradition of Denver hockey,” DU coach David Carle said. “So it was very fitting to have a lot of people in the building in the crimson and gold jerseys.”
Backstrom, born in Kirkland, Ontario, won the Calder Trophy in 1959 as the NHL’s best rookie and concluded a 1,032-game NHL playing career in 1973. He then played 304 games over five seasons in the World Hockey Association, including a stint in 1975 -76 with the Denver Spurs. Backstrom spent 12 years in coaching and dabbled in roller hockey and NHL scouting before founding the Eagles, who originally played in the Central Hockey League, in 2003. He served as team president from 2003-07.
The Avalanche is undoubtedly appreciative with its AHL affiliate now just 50 miles north of downtown Denver.
Thanks go to Backstrom and the people he partnered with and hired in establishing 19 years of success in the Loveland area.
Footnote. Avalanche assistant general manager Chris MacFarland was spotted here at the West Regional. The Avs have just one draft pick among the four teams, but DU freshman Sean Behrens, 18, is now its No. 1 defenseman prospect after 20-year-olds Justin Barron and Drew Helleson were used as trade chips ahead of the recent NHL trade deadline. It’s unlikely MacFarland and his boss, GM Joe Sakic, will attempt to sign Behrens — the Avs’ 2021 second-round draft pick (61st) overall — after this season, because developing at DU is as good or better than turning pro with the Eagles .