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The opponents' sweaters will say "Flint," but they'll be Ranger red, blue and white, and there's no way the Golden Eagles can look at those uniforms tonight as anything but "Denver."

As the Eagles play the first home game of their 21st season in the Salt Palace tonight at 7, across the ice from them will be the faces they've seen the most the last two IHL years.When Denver's IHL franchise folded after playing the Eagles and losing in the Turner Cup quarterfinals in April, the New York Rangers moved the farm to Flint, an independent city last year.

Sixteen men who played for the Spirits on the IHL's 1989-90 opening weekend - losing twice - were Denver Rangers last year, some for two years.

There's Simon Wheeldon, Kevin Miller, Paul Broten, Peter Laviolette, Mike Golden, Stephane Brochu, Jayson More, Jason LaFreniere, James Latos . . .

"As soon as we step on the same sheet of ice, a lot of rivalries will be renewed," predicts Eagle Stu Grimson.

"Yeah, I still think of them as being Denver," says Eagle Rich Chernomaz.

Chernomaz notes that, because of the move to Flint, in the Eastern Division, the Eagles will play the Spirits only nine times this regular season instead of the 14 times (plus four playoff games) they met Denver last season and the 23 times (including three exhibitions and six playoffs) that they met the first year the Rangers were in Colorado.

That first year, when they opened with six straight games (three preseason, three to open the regular season), got the rivalry boiling. One exhibition game saw more than 400 minutes in penalties, and once into the regular season, coaches Paul Baxter of the Eagles and Peter Mahovlich of the Rangers got into a verbal feud.

Friendly rivalry? Hardly.

Besides, Colorado won eight of the first 11 games, including preseason. Since then, starting on New Year's Eve 1987, the Eagles went 23-7 against Denver.

Which is now Flint.

And now it's 89-90. And both coaches are new. The Eagles' Bob Francis makes his home debut tonight, and it's the first time in the Palace for Flint's Paul Theriault, who comes out of Canadian Junior A. "I don't know him at all," says Francis. His only clue is that Theriault was good in juniors.

A Flint spokesman says Theriault is known for a defensive penchant, which would address the biggest problem this club had last year.

Francis surmises Flint will be a hot-scoring team with Wheeldon (106 points last year), Miller (76 in 55 games) and Broten (59), plus the additions of LaFreniere from the N.Y. Rangers, Lee Giffin from Muskegon/Pittsburgh and the signing of free agent Darren Lowe.

Lowe played for Flint two seasons ago, when the Eagles beat the Spirits for the Turner Cup.

Flint also has goalie Rick Knickle, thanks to a trade with Fort Wayne. Knickle, 29, was an IHL first-team all-star last season. He led Flint to a Turner Cup with an 8-0 playoff record in 1983-84 when they were the Generals.

Another major addition is eight-year NHLer Joe Paterson, a left wing and former Francis teammate at Adirondack (AHL). Francis raves about Paterson's character and team spirit and his two-way play that could help Flint lower its goals-against, even without goalie Mike Richter, who graduated to the NHL.

The Eagles and Spirits meet again in the Salt Palace Friday and Saturday as the Eagles enjoy a five-game homestand.