Please excuse my belated thoughts on Ralph Backstrom, the legendary Colorado hockey figure who died in Windsor last week when I was away.
I can’t address this man by his last name only. It’s either Ralph or Mr. Backstrom for this space, and trust me, everyone who knew Ralph would agree he deserved such esteem.
Mr. Backstrom wasn’t a legend just because he won the 1959 Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year, helped the Montreal Canadiens win six Stanley Cups, was a six-time NHL All-Star, was the second-leading scorer at the 1974 Summit Series trailing only his Canadian teammate Bobby Hull, played for the WHL’s Denver Spurs, led the University of Denver to the 1986 Frozen Four when he won the Spencer Penrose Award as NCAA coach of the year, and founded Roller Hockey International and the Colorado Eagles.
(Without Mr. Backstrom, the Eagles don’t exist and the Avalanche probably doesn’t have its AHL affiliate in Loveland.)
Ralph was a genuine legend because, in addition to everything he accomplished in hockey, he was an extraordinarily kind man who seemingly had no ego.
“I WILL MISS MY FRIEND so much,” former Eagles coach and GM Chris Stewart said in a text message. “And so will many others.”
Mr. Backstrom, who was 83, died of complications from dementia. Because of COVID-19, a memorial will be planned at a later date.
Ralph should be memorialized in the Hockey Hall of Fame — as a player or a builder, and both supported by being an exceptional human being who always played to the fans and growing the game he loved.
“Such a positive demeanor,” Stewart said of Mr. Backstrom. “For me, he made coaching here fun. Our team never stopped at the bench. We encouraged our fans to be part of our team. He loved that. Adaptability is critical to success and Ralph always encouraged that and with Martin Lind as the owner, they gave the green light for us to grow from the CHL, ECHL, to the AHL.”
Born in Kirkland Lake, Ontario, in 1937, Mr. Backstrom played 17 NHL seasons with the Canadiens, Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks, then four years in the WHA with the Chicago Cougars, Denver Spurs/Ottawa Civics and New England Whalers.
He played 1,336 professional games — 1,032 in the NHL and 304 in the WHL. Combined, he had 378 goals and 892 points. Ralph also played in 15 postseasons.
Mr. Backstrom retired from playing shortly before his 40th birthday in 1977. The following year, he began his coaching career as a DU assistant under Marshall Johnston.
Ralph left Denver after one year to begin what became a one-year stint as an assistant for the L.A. Kings. He then returned to DU as head coach, where he and former Pioneers All-American goalie Ron Grahame worked together.
“I have a special spot in my heart for Ralph. He gave me an opportunity to coach,” said Grahame, who became a longtime DU administrator after his coaching stint. “I don’t think you’re going to run into too many people that didn’t have a good thing to stay about Ralph. He’s a pretty special individual.
“He was also a very accomplished individual, given what he did in the NHL, the Original Six, the success that he had there, and all of the things he touched outside of (playing) hockey, in Roller Hockey International and the Colorado Eagles. There are a lot of former players who really kept in touch with him over the years and I think they all really respected him.”
Rest in peace, Ralph.
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