Saturday, 29 April 2017

Two Cities Gone

With the first round of the AHL's Calder Cup Playoffs nearing completion, there were two eras that ended on Saturday. Both eras were marked by highs and lows, successes and the odd failure, and some incredible moments as the doors closed on the playoffs for both the Albany Devils and the St. John's IceCaps and, in turn, ending the AHL's run of teams in those two cities. It's always bittersweet watching fans have their beloved team torn from their hands through no fault of their own as the IceCaps will move to Laval, Quebec and the Devils will move to Binghamton, New York for the 2017-18 AHL season. Both cities have hosted other franchises as well, so to lose the AHL altogether is rather disappointing. That being said, there have been some amazing moments over the years in these two great hockey cities.

In 1995, the city of Albany was on top of the world as the River Rats swept the Fredericton Canadiens to capture the AHL'S Calder Cup. The New Jersey-affiliated River Rats were dominant in the regular season, posting a record of 54-19-7 for a league- and franchise-best 115 points that saw them go 16-5-1 in their first 22 contests and rattle off a winning streak of 15 straight and an unbeaten string of 21 consecutive contests during the season. Members of that powerhouse team included netminder Mike Dunham, recently-retired Devil Patrik Elias, a young Steve Sullivan, defenceman Cale Hulse, and longtime AHL rearguard Bryan Helmer while the team was coached by Robbie Ftorek.

Another major highlight was Albany playing host to the longest game in AHL history!

In that game, goaltender Michael Leighton faced over 100 shots and got a standing ovation with his 98th save of the night!
Unfortunately for Leighton and the River Rats, the game-winner by Ryan Potulny - as seen above - would come nearly one minute as Leighton faced his 101st shot of the night. This one was not stopped. It wasn't the ending that the River Rats wanted that night in Game Five of their opening round series against Philadelphia, and, five days later, Philadelphia would claim the series with a Game Seven victory to end that Albany run. And just for the record, 62 of Leighton's 98 saves came in the five overtime periods.

The other city in question is St. John's, Newfoundland which has been affiliated with three Canadian NHL teams in Toronto, Winnipeg, and Montreal. They've had some magical moments as well, but none have resulted in a Calder Cup to this point. They went to the Calder Cup Final in 1991-92 as the Maple Leafs under the tutelage of Marc Crawford, but the most recent trip to the Calder Cup Final came in 2014 as the St. John's IceCaps as the affiliate of the Jets reached the penultimate series, but fell short.
While they just fell short in losing in six games to the Texas Stars, names like Jason Jaffray, Andrew Gordon, Will O'Neill, Zach Redmond, and Michael Hutchinson were outstanding in getting the IceCaps to this point, and Mile One Arena had never been louder. The fans packed the rink for both versions of the IceCaps, so it will be sad to see those passionate fans without a team.

I get that travel to and from St. John's is a little tricky, but that arena is packed every night. Albany lost money and didn't have any local ownership, but the real story is that the Devils were last in attendance this past season which added to the money woes. When asked how much money the Devils lost in Albany this past season, New Jersey Devils president Hugh Weber told Ken Schott of the Daily Gazette, "Let's call it multi-seven figure. We'll leave it at that."

I get hockey is a business. No business ever takes losing money easily, especially when it's in the "multi-seven figure" range. The fact that the Devils are moving to the city with the 29th-worst attendance this year is what makes their decision a little questionable. While I understand that fans of the Binghamton Senators may have stopped going to games once the Senators announced their upcoming move to Belleville, Ontario, Binghamton and Utica have been together in the attendance figures for each of the last three years, and none of those years saw either team exceed 4000 fans.

Laval, on the other hand, hasn't supported any teams at any level very well. They currently have the Laval Predators of the LNAH playing in the city, but those games are sparsely attended as well. The QMJHL had teams in Laval for a while, but the dwindling attendance in 1998 forced the Titan to move to Acadie-Bathurst. To move the IceCaps from a full rink to Laval where attendance is hit-and-miss at best seems like a questionable move.

We'll see how these new homes treat their teams in 2017-18, but both of these moves aren't about the fans. It's about the bottom line for both the Montreal Canadiens and the New Jersey Devils.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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