On January 6, 2023, Colorado officially received approval for their first-ever North American Hockey League team. The Colorado Grit became the 30th member of the NAHL set to compete in the South Division.
At the helm, an ownership tandem of Bob Bowden and David Clarkson merged Bowden’s savvy business acumen with Clarkson’s ten seasons of pro-experience and budding coaching resume.
The NAHL is one of the top junior hockey leagues in the United States behind the USHL. With several high-end triple-AAA options in Colorado already, there wasn’t a stepping stone for older players to boost their visibility and improve their chances of earning a D1 commitment or professional opportunity.
Many homegrown players found themselves leaving to chase their dreams outside of Colorado.
Though their paths to hockey were vastly different, Bowden and Clarkson’s motives in investing in junior hockey were rooted in an unshakable foundation: a profound love of the game.
For Bowden, he didn’t grow up a hockey guy. After selling his business in the early eighties, he wanted to find the perfect place to train for his next marathon. Think: clean air, nice weather, and the advantage of training at altitude. He was led back to Aspen, Colorado – where he lived once before.
Growing up, his son Quinn faced challenges: difficulty paying attention and disconnected, often content to do things on his own. When he discovered hockey, everything clicked for him.
“We found hockey,” said Bowden. “We put him on the ice, he didn’t want to come off. He was making friends. He wanted to play every day, and it was the first thing he became passionate about. I saw then: for him to want to play also gave him structure, gave him a desire – he wanted to perform better.”
Since then, hockey has been a blessing in Quinn Bowden’s life. So much so, his dad wanted to invest in it so that its benefits could reach even more young players.
While he was taking the real estate industry in Aspen by storm, Bowden met David Clarkson. The pair met for breakfast and their vision took shape.
“We talked about what good this game had done for my kid, and it resonated with him because he said that’s what he chases. We got to talking about how Colorado could use an upper-level team. As these kids get better, it separates the family and it’s not always ideal. Parents can’t watch the games. Six of our kids are from the area. They drive up from Colorado Springs, they came up from Denver, and they’re thanking us.”
“We did it for that reason.”
Before the Grit could take to the ice a few things had to come together, and it started with getting the best people.
Behind the bench for the inaugural season is Head Coach Steve Haddon. Haddon had nine years of pro-experience with the Colorado Eagles. He’s spent the last ten seasons coaching junior hockey and helped over 100 players move on to the NCAA and professional levels.
“The Eagles brought me here, so to have this and have three division-one schools in our backyard, it’s needed. Hockey is growing from the Avalanche, the Eagles – now with us having a North American team, it’s amazing that players have the opportunity. Kids don’t have to leave the state of Colorado. I think the biggest thing is that I’ve been lucky to see and grow (during) my time here, to have a chance to work with these young guys and, and try to build something here long term for guys to play and and move on.”
Gaven Bickford was brought in as General Manager to oversee things from the top down. Bickford joined the Grit with five years of junior hockey experience working as an Assistant General Manager and Associate Head Coach in the USHL last year.
Before that he was a Director of Scouting, held positions in front office management, and helped to facilitate over 100 D1 commitments and seven NHL draft picks.
His ambition aligned with the ownership’s vision for the Grit.
“First and foremost you want to make it a spot kids want to play,” said Bickford. “We want to develop kids. You want to move kids onto the next level. The ultimate goal of this league is to move guys on to division-one (and/or) move (them) on to the USHL. That’s the same goal that ownership has. With player development comes wins, but first let’s take care of the kids and get them where they want to be.”
Next, the players were assembled. Roughly four weeks ago, the roster was set. But first, 102 young men were interviewed one-by-one.
Bowden emphasized the importance of getting the right players. “Be on time, work really hard, and be a good person,” he said.
“That’s what you see with winning teams,” Haddon corroborated. “They understand that it’s not just about the best players or moving up the ladder quickly. It’s about your community and helping guys.”
Their Director of Hockey Operations, Mary Bowe, has been working hard to line up opportunities for players to be involved with their communities and work with local schools running hockey and fitness workshops.
“A lot of people told us we were crazy, ‘It’s not gonna work. It’s not a town that supports teams – they’re not a hockey town.’” Bowden shared.
The Grit play in the Ice Haus in Greeley, Colorado. Even competing with UNC football’s first home game, the Grit’s attendance totals from their opening weekend sold out and left standing room only for many.
The on-ice product showed promise too. Though they’re still in search of their first win after a series sweep against a competitive El Paso team, it was not a blow out.
The Grit looked dangerous off the rush, and by the third period of game two, their passes were connecting. You could see the desired execution take shape: players driving inside ice and cycling the puck.
Each time they were short handed, the bench rallied around their penalty killers with encouraging stick taps and yells. They played with heart every shift in search of the game winner.
Like any new team there will be growing pains. Their namesake, the Colorado Grit, appropriately captures the essence of the team and the community that has embraced them.
Hockey is viable in Colorado. With the Colorado Eagles as neighbors just down the interstate, there’s no better time to grow the game following the success of 2022: the Avs’ Stanley Cup win, the University of Denver’s national title, Denver East’s USA High School hockey championship, and the PeeWee Jr. Avs victory in the Quebec International Pee-Wee Junior Hockey Tournament.
Today the Grit are off to the NAHL Showcase at the Super Rink in Blaine, Minnesota to compete in games against Springfield, North Iowa, Fairbanks, and Danbury.