Sunday, 7 February 2010

Super Sunday

With the New Orleans Saints having secured the first major professional title for their city, there will be euphoria in the coming weeks as we approach Mardi Gras. If the city of New Orleans needed a major morale boost after dealing with Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath, the US Government's continued screw-ups in the relief efforts, and the pressures of having a large segment of their population homeless, the New Orleans Saints' win tonight was a shot in the arm for one of the prettiest cities in North America. I was interested in the city's history with hockey, and found that the former New Orleans Brass of the ECHL is the only pro hockey team in the city's history.

Understandably, there is a huge following for NCAA football and basketball, the NFL's Saints, and the NBA's Hornets in and around the New Orleans area, but it seemed odd to me that New Orleans has only had one pro hockey team in its existence. Since there is only one team, however, this will be a much more thorough article on the Brass' history, despite it being a short history.

The Brass were founded in 1997 as an ECHL expansion team, and began play in the 7853-seat Municipal Auditorium located in the Treme neighbourhood of New Orleans. The Auditorium opened in 1930, and has housed the ABA's New Orleans Buccaneers in 1969 and 1970, and the NBA's New Orleans Jazz before they moved into the Superdome. It was a major cultural center in New Orleans, and hosted many of the New Orleans Mardi Gras krewe parties.

The team was owned by Ray Nagin, the current mayor of New Orleans. Larry Kish was the first General Manager of the team, and he was replaced by Assistant GM and Assistant Coach Dan Belisle on June 3, 1999. Ted Sator was the only Head Coach and Director of Player Personnel in the team's history. If leadership starts at the top, the men in place were certainly there for the long haul. The franchise was also associated with the San Jose Sharks early on, but the Sharks changed affiliations midway through the Brass' history.

The New Orleans Brass broke into the ECHL wearing this style of uniform. They played in the Southwest Division of the ECHL, and had a serious rivalry with the Louisiana IceGators from Lafayette, Louisiana. The Brass played well enough to earn a playoff spot in their first year, posting a record of 36-24-10 to claim fourth-place in the Southwest Division, but bowed out in the first round of the Kelly Cup Playoffs in a 3-1 series loss to their divisional rival in the Pensacola Ice Pilots.

The 1997-98 Brass were led in scoring by former Boston Bruin Jeff Lazaro. Lazaro scored 37 goals and added 64 assists, ranking him sixth-best in the assists category, and fifth in overall scoring. Lazaro was 22 points better than teammate Joe Seroski, and the Brass liked what they saw. Lazaro would remain with the team throughout its five-year existence.

Goaltending was handed largely by Martin Villeneuve. Villeneuve played in 54 games that season, posting a record of 26-17-7 with a 3.32 GAA. Seven goaltenders suited up for the Brass that season, including former NHLer Mike Minard. Villeneuve never went on to greater heights in his hockey career, but he would return to the Brass in coming seasons.

The 1998-99 Brass slipped slightly in the standings. The Brass posted a record of 30-27-13, good for fourth-place in the Southwest Division. The Kelly Cup Playoffs were much better for the Brass this season as they advanced to the third round before being eliminated. The Brass eliminated the Jacksonville Lizard Kings 2-0 in the best-of-three opening round series. They advanced to play their state rivals in the Lousiana IceGators, and the Brass defeated the Gators 3-2 in the best-of-five series. They advanced to Round Three where they ran into the PeeDee Pride. The Pride bested the Brass 3-1 in that best-of-five series.

Darryl Lafrance emerged as the team's leading scorer in the regular season in '98-99. Lafrance scored 39 goals and put up 39 assists to lead the team. He finished the season eight points ahead of Jeff Lazaro for the team lead. Lafrance finished tied for second in ECHL goal-scoring that season with Dayton's Jamie Ling. The Brass also featured such past and future NHL players as Kimbi Daniels, Jesse Boulerice, and Gordie Dwyer.

Martin Villeneuve was the man between the pipes again in '98-99. In 43 games, Villeneuve went 17-14-8 with a 3.42 GAA. His backup, Chris Wickenheiser, played 35 games with a 13-13-5 record and a 3.60 GAA.

The 1999-2000 Brass moved into the brand-new New Orleans Arena, and looked to improve on the previous season's finish. The team finished third in the Southwest Division on a 36-27-7 record, giving them a spot in the Kelly Cup Playoffs. However, the Augusta Lynx pulled off the upset as they eliminated the Brass in the first round of the playoffs.

Jeff Lazaro led the team in scoring for the '99-00 season, posting 24 goals and 56 assists. Lazaro once again had a massive lead over the rest of his teammates as he finished 20 points better than second-place Andrew Taylor. None of the New Orleans players were close to the leaders of the ECHL's statistics. In an interesting turn of events, Lazaro is named as an assistant coach despite still being a player. I've heard of this in other sports and a few European leagues, but it's the first I've heard of it in a North American minor-pro league as high as the ECHL.

Goaltending took a change as Doug Bonner was given the reins. Bonner appeared in 50 games, posting a 25-17-5 record with two shutouts and a 2.76 GAA. His partner, Terry Friesen, appeared in 26 games with a 11-10-2 record with two shutouts and a 3.36 GAA. Goaltending improved, but scoring fell off. The wash was that the Brass saw only marginal improvement.

The 2000-01 Brass finished fourth in the Southwest Division on a 35-25-12 record, but had a new look and logo for themselves. Once again, the Brass qualified for the Kelly Cup Playoffs, earning themselves a first-round matchup with the Augusta Lynx. This time, the Brass helped their own cause by defeating the Lynx 2-1 in the best-of-three series. However, the Brass' arch-rivals in the Louisiana IceGators ended the season in the next round as they eliminated New Orleans by a 3-1 margin in the best-of-five series.

A new scoring leader emerged this season as Adam Edinger led the way for New Orleans this season. Edinger scored 31 goals and added 45 assists in leading New Orleans. Lazaro, in contrast, finished sixth in scoring for New Orleans in '00-01. Again, none of New Orleans' players cracked the leaderboard for stats.

Alexei Volkov was the goaltender of choice this season for the Brass. Volkov played in 29 games, putting up a 12-9-5 record with one shutout and a 3.08 GAA. However, a mid-season trade brought in Ron Vogel from Toledo, and he established himself as the go-to guy. Vogel appeared in 27 games with a 17-7-3 record, two shutouts, and a 2.43 GAA. Vogel would play all eight games in the playoffs that season. Doug Bonner would play in 20 games for the Brass, but his 6-6-4 record and 3.46 GAA quickly saw his stock drop.

The Brass introduced a new alternate logo at the start of the season. The Brass also held a couple of nights where they wore special jerseys. The New Orleans Throwback night featured these gorgeous jerseys, while the Jester jerseys had their new alternate logo morphed into a chest logo.

The 2001-02 Brass finished fifth in the Southwest Division with a 36-32-4 record, but still qualified for the Kelly Cup Playoffs. In a one-game playoff against the fourth-place Jackson Bandits, the Brass fell by a 3-1 score, and the playoffs were over.

George Awada would lead the Brass in scoring in their final season. Awada scored 29 goals and 30 assists for the lowest total as a lead scorer in five seasons. There were two players in the ECHL who had as many assists as Awada had points. Needless to say, no New Orleans' players appeared in the league leaders of any statistic. Lazaro only played 11 games this season, posting four goals and four assists.

Ron Vogel logged the majority of the games for the Brass in '01-02. Vogel appeared in 53 games, posting a record of 25-19-3. Vogel's goaltending was very good that season as he also recorded three shutouts and a 2.61 GAA. The lack of scoring on the Brass roster was a large reason for the slide down the standings. Vogel's play was just as good as the season before, but there was simply no one who scored with any regularity.

After the 2001-02 season, the franchise was suspended. Honestly, the team was playing in front of large sections of empty seats, and there wasn't a lot of hockey interest in the city for a minor-pro team with limited success.

I really like their throwback jerseys, however, so they did do some good in the fashion department. The original jerseys looked somewhat similar to the scary Blues uniforms of the 1990s, and their new uniforms didn't make much of an improvement. And, honestly, their original logo is infinitely better than the modernized logo. Then again, aren't the minor leagues all about scary uniforms?

There's your profile of the only hockey team to call New Orleans home. Congratulations go out to the New Orleans Saints for their win in the 44th Super Bowl! Enjoy the party this week, New Orleans!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

1 comment:

Sage Confucius said...

Their original logo is so wrong. Why do you name a team 'Brass' and then put a woodwind in the logo? Silly.