Friday, 14 August 2009

O Captain My Captain - The IHL Years

Hockey Blog In Canada isn't turning into Poetry Blog In Canada by any means. The fact that the title and the image to the left refer to one of the most-referenced lines of poetry ever written means that I can tie hockey into the article. Walt Whitman, the man pictured, passed away in 1892, long before hockey became what it is or was. However, the choice of a captain in the game of hockey - the man picked to represent his team's voice on the ice - has been around for a long time. Today, I want to examine one team in particular who honoured their captains last season. The AHL's Manitoba Moose brought back the four former captains who have retired or moved on, and included the last two captains who still play for the Moose. Today, HBIC will examine the careers of the three men who have worn the "C" in Manitoba for their IHL days, and where they are today. Tomorrow, we'll look at the men who captained the Moose through the AHL years up to today.

The first man to have worn the captain's "C" for the Manitoba Moose was former NHLer Randy Gilhen. Gilhen sported the captaincy from 1996-97 for the IHL franchise. The former Hartford Whaler, Winnipeg Jet, Pittsburgh Penguin, Los Angeles King, New York Ranger, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Florida Panther returned home on November 25, 1993 when the Panthers traded him to the Winnipeg Jets for Stu Barnes. Gilhen played 106 games for the Jets from 1993 until 1996 when the Jets left for the Arizona desert.

His career didn't end, though, when the Jets left. Gilhen decided to stay in his hometown of Winnipeg and suit up for the IHL Moose. For a city that was entirely down on its luck after losing its only professional sports franchise, Gilhen's NHL experience and success was a perfect fit for the franchise's first year in Manitoba.

Gilhen was a part of the Stanley Cup-winning, Mario Lemieux-led Pittsburgh Penguins team in 1991, and played an effective checking role for the Penguins while notching 15 goals. The following season, he watched Wayne Gretzky lead the Kings in Los Angeles. He had some pretty impressive leaders to learn the trade from, and he used those in being named as the team's first captain in Winnipeg.

In 79 games with the Moose in 1996-97, he scored 21 goals and 24 assists to finish sixth in scoring on the team. The Moose, however, finished last in the IHL's Midwest Division with a record of 32-40-10 and missed the playoffs. With the Jets leaving at the end of the 1996 season and an unsuccessful first season in the IHL, hockey fans in Manitoba weren't exactly knocking over the turnstiles to watch this new franchise.

"There's no doubt it wasn't an easy year," Gilhen told Winnipeg Free Press reporter Tim Campbell. "No. 1 was that everyone was still bitter over the Jets leaving. It was a tough pill for people to swallow.

"And the real tough part for us was that you only get one chance to make a first impression and our first impression wasn't good."

Randy Carlyle took over mid-season in 1996-97 for Jean Perron who, in his short time with the Moose, made a number of enemies on every front - players, fans, media, executives - and criticized Gilhen publicly as a "traitor". While the season didn't end with a playoff run, the Moose made a valiant effort to get into the playoffs with a late-season surge.

Today, Randy Gilhen is 46, and is a successful distributor of orthopedic medical devices. He still lives in Winnipeg, and helps out with charity events when he can.

The following season, a new captain was named. Like Gilhen, the new man for the job also had considerable NHL experience. Scott Arniel was selected as the Manitoba Moose captain at the start of the 1997 season. Arniel played 10 years in the NHL for the Winnipeg Jets, Buffalo Sabres, and Boston Bruins before moving to the IHL's San Diego Gulls in 1992. After spending time in Houston and Utah in the IHL, Arniel joined the Moose in 1996. Like Gilhen, he went through that tumultuous first season in Winnipeg.

However, head coach Randy Carlyle took the squad to new heights in 1997-98 as the Moose made their first IHL Playoff appearance. Arniel ended up third in scoring on the team, posting 28 goals and 42 assists. The Moose finished the season with a 39-36-7 record, last in the Midwest Division, but over .500. A three-game sweep in the first round of the playoffs by the Chicago Wolves ended the 1997-98 season quickly, but the combination of Carlyle's coaching and Arniel's leadership in all facets of the game proved to be a good combination.

Arniel captained the team again in 1998-99 in what turned out to be the best season at that point for the IHL team. The Moose finished fourth overall in the IHL with a 47-21-14 record, and qualified for the playoffs. The Moose opened the playoffs with a 2-0 series win over the Milwaukee Admirals before running into another three-game sweep at the hands of the Chicago Wolves to end their season.

Under Arniel, the Moose were led to an 86-57-21 record in two seasons. They advanced farther in the playoffs than they had ever been before, and posted the best record in franchise history to that point.

Arniel is now entrenched behind the bench of the Manitoba Moose as the team's head coach. After retiring at the end of the 1998-99 season, Arniel moved into coaching. He was an assistant coach with the Moose alongside Carlyle and Stan Smyl from 2000-02, moved on to the NHL ranks as an assistant coach with the Buffalo Sabres before coming back to Manitoba to take the reins in 2006 after Alain Vigneault was promoted from the AHL's Moose to the NHL's Canucks.

Arniel's foray into the head coaching gig in Manitoba has proven to be extremely successful. In his three seasons as the man at the helm, Arniel has posted no less than 45 wins in any of the campaigns, and has not missed the playoffs. Last season, he guided the Moose to the best record in the AHL with a 50-23-7 mark, and earned the Louis A. R. Pieri Memorial Award as the best coach in the AHL. He will return for his fourth season behind Manitoba's bench in 2009-10.

The third man to take the captaincy job in Manitoba might be one of the most respected men to ever skate in Winnipeg. Defenceman Brian Chapman held the captaincy from 2000 until 2003. Chapman had a very brief career in the NHL, playing in a mere three games with the Hartford Whalers. However, he was a mainstay in the AHL and IHL, logging ice-time for the AHL's Springfield Indians, the IHL's Phoenix Roadrunners, and the IHL's Long Beach Ice Dogs before arriving in Manitoba in a trade in 1997-98 for Russ Romaniuk.

The rugged defenceman didn't score a lot of goals or put up gaudy point totals, but he played with his heart on his sleeve. Chapman never had more than 37 points in his six seasons with the Moose, but he was the anchor on Moose blueline - never caught out of position often, and routinely playing against the opposition's best players. He was a "nose to the grindstone" player, throwing his body around and never backing away from a battle in the corner. Because of his willingness to do whatever was asked of him, Chapman's popularity skyrocketed in the blue-collar town of Winnipeg.

A fond memory, recalled by teammates and fans, of Chapman is the amount of guts he showed in the IHL Playoffs in 2001:

"Hobbled badly to the point where he had trouble moving around when not on the ice, Chapman captained the Moose to the Western Conference finals in the spring of 2001. That playoff run featured a Game 7 win over the Houston Aeros in the conference semifinal after Manitoba fell behind 3-1 in the series. Chapman was at his best in the post-season and he found a way to rise above injury and lead his club in this memorable spring."
"We had a real good shot that year," Chapman said to Sun Media's Ken Wiebe. "We lost to Chicago in Game 5 of that series and came back here and had a 4-1 lead before we blew that game 6-4 or whatever it was. That was as close as we got while I was here, so that was a little disappointing."

Chapman was heavily involved in charities around the city through the Manitoba Moose, and he was literally the face of the franchise for his four seasons as captain. Chapman is still second in games-played for the Moose franchise with 447 under his belt, third in shots-on-goal with 619, and is third in penalty minutes with 725. Everyone - teammates, opponents, fans, coaches, and management - said that there is only one word to describe Brian Chapman: "warrior". Isn't that exactly how you would want your captain to be described?

In 2000-01, Chapman won the IHL's Ironman Award which annually is awarded to "the player who plays in all of his team's games and demonstrates outstanding offensive and defensive skills". He was one of two players that the Canucks opted to keep from the IHL Moose days when the Moose jumped from the IHL to the AHL in 2001, the other being fan favorite Jimmy Roy. He mentored several key players who have graduated to the NHL level, including Nolan Baumgartner and Philippe Boucher, as he patrolled the blueline in the AHL.

Chapman retired from hockey in 2005 after spending the 2003-04 season with the Rochester Americans, and the 2004-05 season with the Springfield Falcons. The 41 year-old lives in Brockville, Ontario, his home town, and was recently inducted into the Brockville Sports Hall of Fame. He currently works as a scout for the Vancouver Canucks.

There are the three men who took the Manitoba Moose through their IHL days into the AHL. Three captains in five seasons seems like a lot, but, as with any minor-pro hockey team, there is a lot of player movement. Without a doubt, though, the Moose had laid the groundwork in showing players what is expected of a captain while in a Moose uniform, and the next three guys follow in these three men's footsteps.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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