Thursday, 23 September 2010

The "City Beautiful"

I spent a night in the city of Des Moines, Iowa and I have to say that I feel this city deserves the bright lights of hockey more than it has received in the past. The AHL has tried a few different faces here while the CHL and USHL have both stopped by for a taste of the Iowa capital. There has been one team that has been a consistent performer on the ice, though, and that is the team that will occupy most of this article. Granted, this team has also spent the most time in Des Moines, but we'll look at a few teams that have barnstormed their way through the most populous city in Iowa as well.

In 1969-70, the Minnesota North Stars shifted their CHL franchise from Memphis, Tennessee to Waterloo, Iowa, establishing the Iowa Stars. This is the first edition of the Iowa Stars, and, while not in Des Moines, needs to be touched upon from a historic standpoint.

The Stars only played one season in the CHL, but they were fairly successful. They posted a record of 35-26-11, making the playoffs in their first season in Iowa. They boasted future NHL greats in Rick Dudley and Marshall Johnston, and were led in scoring by Mike Chernoff and Bill Orban, both of whom scored 75 points in 1969-70. A young John Muckler was the GM of the Iowa Stars, and Parker MacDonald coached the squad.

The Adams Cup Playoffs were two rounds, and the Stars squared off with the Tulsa Oilers in the first round. Iowa jumped out to a 3-1 lead, but Tulsa battled back in Game Five to cut the deficit. However, Game Six saw goaltender Fern Rivard stand out as he led the Stars to a 4-0 win, helping the team earn the victory in six games.

The Adams Cup Final had the Stars against the Omaha Knights, but the series was far from similar to the previous one. Omaha and Iowa split the first two games, and then it was all Omaha for the next three games. After all was said and done, the Omaha Knights had downed the Iowa Stars in five games.

While it seemed the franchise had fared pretty well in its first season, the news behind the scenes wasn't as pretty. The North Stars decided that hockey in Iowa wasn't as profitable as they thought it would be, and uprooted the franchise from Waterloo to Cleveland, Ohio.

According to this website, the North Stars had every intention of making hockey work in Iowa if it was profitable. "Speaking for the North Stars," Muckler stated, "it was our feeling and good intention that this thing should become a success and obviously it never did.

"I would have to agree that a 30 percent increase in business next year, as suggested, would be possible, but it would still leave $130,000 cushion for us to make up. At Cleveland we will have none of this."

With that, the CHL days in Iowa would come to a screeching halt. However, hockey would return years later to the Iowa capital. With the return of hockey came an established commitment to winning.

In 1979, the US Olympic team, coached by the legendary Herb Brooks, visited Des Moines to play the St. Louis Blues in an exhibition game. After the game, concerned citizens and parents of hockey players asked Brooks how to keep the youth hockey program intact after it was announced that the Metro Ice Sports Arena may be sold. Brooks' advice was simple: get a permanent hockey tenant for the building.

In 1981, that tenant was found as the Des Moines Buccaneers took to the ice in their first season in the USHL, the Junior-A system in the United States. They finished in second-place in their inaugural season, and this would prove to be a harbinger of the Bucs' future success. However, it would take them a decade of building before they would bring home victory to Des Moines.

In 1991-92, the Buccaneers saw dramatic improvement as they finished the season with a 35-11-2-0 record. Jamie Adams led the team in scoring with 92 points, and head coach Bob Ferguson had his team ready for the postseason. They rolled through the playoffs, winning the Clark Cup as champions of the USHL, and then captured the Gold Cup as the top Junior-A squad in the United States! Des Moines saw its first two championships in the same season!

In 1993-94, the Buccaneers won the Anderson Cup for being the top regular-season team in the USHL at 36-12-0, but they fell short in the playoffs. The USHL Triple Crown still eluded the team, but they had captured all three championship statuses within three seasons under Bob Ferguson.

In 1994-95, the Buccaneers put it all together. They went an incredible 38-5-5 in the regualr season to capture the Anderson Cup as the top USHL team. After steamrolling the USHL in the regular season, they continued their dominance in the USHL Playoffs by winning their second Clark Cup in team history. The Buccaneers took their dominance into the National Championship and won their second Gold Cup, capturing the team's first Triple Crown in history! Brad Frattaroli led the team in scoring with 72 points, and was one of six Buccanneers to record more than 60 points. Balanced scoring and solid goaltending resulted in major success for the team!

The Buccaneers have also captured the National Championships in 1997-98 and 2005-06, making them a four-time US Junior-A Champions, but their staying power is what has made them a part of Des Moines. They consistently produce high quality players, including 2009 Dallas Stars' draft pick forward Alex Chiasson, Florida Panthers' goaltender Scott Clemmensen, Carolina Hurricanes' forward Erik Cole, New York Islanders' forward Kyle Okposo, and St. Louis Blues' forward Peter Sejna.

In 2005, Howard Baldwin and Bob Schlegel took the dormant Louisville Panthers franchise, and relocated it to Des Moines, Iowa. The new team signed an affiliation agreement with the Dallas Stars, and the Iowa Stars were born in the look of their NHL affiliate.

In the 2005-06 season, the Stars posted a 41-31-0-8 record under Dave Allison, leaving them fourth-place in the seven-team AHL West Division. They did qualify for the playoffs in their first season, though. Toby Petersen led the team in scoring with 73 points, while Loui Eriksson showed his NHL mettle by leading the team with 31 goals.

In the opening round of the AHL Calder Cup Playoffs, the Stars met the Milwaukee Admirals who had finished fourth overall in the AHL that season. Milwaukee and Iowa split the first two games before Milwaukee won Games Three and Four in Iowa. With their backs against the wall, the Stars went to work. They won Game Five by a 5-1 score, and went into Game Six in Milwuakee and won Game Six by a 4-2 score. However, the bottom would fall out in Game Seven as the Admirals downed the Stars by a 4-1 score to close out the series. The Stars showed that they could run with the top teams in the AHL by scaring the Admirals, and they took that determination into the following season.

The Stars looked to improve their standing in 2006-07, but found themselves in the same spot as the previous season as they finished in fourth-place in the AHL West Division. Dave Allison led the team to a 42-34-3-1 record, and Junior Lessard led the team in scoring with a mere 52 points. However, eight players scored 30 or more points that season, and the Stars idea of defensive hockey would help them in the playoffs.

The Stars opened the AHL Calder Cup Playoffs against the West-leading Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights. The two teams split the opening games, but Iowa took a stranglehold on the series after winning the first two games in Des Moines. Omaha won Game Five by a 3-2 score in overtime in Omaha, but Iowa closed out the series in Game Six with a 5-2 score to give the Stars their first AHL Playoff series victory.

The Stars moved on to play the Chicago Wolves in the second round. The Wolves wasted no time in establishing their dominance, winning the three of the first four games of the series by a combined score of 23-8. Iowa's 5-4 victory in Game Two made up for half of their offence. The Stars fired back in Game Five with a 5-1 victory, but the Wolves closed out the series in Game Six with their own 5-1 victory. Again, hope was high for the Stars after closing out the season with some excitement.

The 2007-08 season was not the culmination of two seasons worth of building excitement. The Stars finished eighth in ultra-competitve AHL West Division, missing the playoffs for the first time in their existance. Dave Allison led the team to a 35-37-5-3, and Marty Sertich led the team in scoring with just 52 points. Tobias Stephan had a solid season statistically, but the team's defence-first philosophy couldn't score enough to put them on right side of the scoreboard most nights.

In February 2008, with the Iowa Stars looking like they would miss the playoffs, the Dallas Stars announced that they would be starting their own AHL franchise based in Cedar Park, Texas at the start of the 2009-10 season. Because of this, the Stars pulled their affiliation from the Iowa franchise. However, the Anaheim Ducks were in need of an AHL affiliate, and they signed an agreement with the Iowa franchise for the 2008-09 season.

With the change in the affiliation, the Iowa Stars reinvented themselves as the Iowa Chops, a desperate attempt to "illustrates Iowa’s agricultural heritage" as per Kirby Schlegel, CEO of Schlegel Sports, who owned the franchise. Look, I still can't believe they named the franchise as "Chops", but there is a history in Iowa of that term. Let's take a look at the Chops' legacy.

Gord Dineen was hired to coach the Chops in the 2008-09 season, and he led them to seventh-place finish in the AHL West Division with a 33-33-0-14 record, finishing just ahead of the San Antonio Rampage. TJ Trevelyan led the team in scoring with just 47 points. They missed the playoffs, and really were looking forward to the 2009-10 season.

However, hard times fell on the franchise. In May 2009, the Ducks abruptly ended the affiliation agreement after the Chops failed to make contractual payments as part of their agreement. Following that, the Chops franchise was involuntarily suspended by the AHL's Board of Governors after it was discovered that the club "had used the franchise as collateral to obtain a loan in March, 2008, from a North Carolina branch of Wachovia Bank", according to the Des Moines Register newspaper. Those funds, $1.99 million, had been used to cover operating costs, something that the AHL strictly forbids. As a result, AHL CEO David Andrews suspended the franchise for the 2009-10 season for violating the league's constitution. As such, AHL hockey would come to an immediate end in the Iowa capital, and the USHL's Des Moines Buccaneers would remain as the only hockey franchise in Des Moines.

So there is some hockey history from Iowa. Lots to digest, but there has been some very good NHL talent that has passed through the state of Iowa and, specifically, Des Moines. I have a few days left on my whirlwind tour of the US Midwest, so check back in when possible for more info!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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