Sunday, 3 February 2013

Baltimore's Jacks

Congratulations go out to the Baltimore Ravens who captured the Super Bowl tonight over the San Francisco 49ers. I'll be quite honest in telling everyone that I watched all of 1:43 of the game in the dying minutes as San Francisco's late drive stalled. The hype over Ray Lewis, the hype over Colin Kaepernick, and the hype over the game really means nothing to me, so I can't tell you any meaningless stats about who scored first, which player caused the first fumble, and which player's mouthguard hit the turf first. The only thing I know is that Baltimore is the best football team south of the border, and they deserve congratulations on their efforts.

When it comes to extraordinary efforts, Baltimore has seen a few in hockey with respect to teams staying in Baltimore despite any drama surrounding the team. There have been a number of iterations of hockey in Baltimore, from the ECHL to the Southern Professional League to the Eastern Hockey League. The one team that seemed to have any sort of longevity to their stay in Baltimore, though, was the Baltimore Skipjacks of the AHL. We'll look at this team in honor of the Ravens bringing home a championship to Maryland.

The Skipjacks were founded in 1981 as a member of the Atlantic Coast Hockey League. The team went 22-23-3 on the season under head coach Morris "Moose" Lallo, finishing third in the ACHL. John Meredith was the leading scorer with 14 goals and 33 assists for 47 points and Gary Conn scored 23 goals to go along with 23 helpers as the team's leading goal scorer.

The ACHL in that season saw two teams drop out midway through the season. The Fitchburg Trappers only lasted six games, while the Schenectady Chiefs lasted a mere nine games. A seven-team league became a five-team league after a few weeks into their inaugural season. To make matters worse, the Cape Cod Buccaneers closed up shop after 39 games, leaving the remaining four teams to battle for the championship.

In true minor-pro hockey fashion, the playoffs featured incredible scoring and very little defence as the third-place Skipjacks faced off with with the second-place Mohawk Valley Stars. Check out these scores of the seven-game series between the Skipjacks and Stars:
  • Stars win Game One in overtime by a 5-4 score.
  • Skipjacks respond with an 8-7 overtime win in Game Two.
  • Skipjacks throw another eight-spot on the board with an 8-3 win.
  • Stars even the series with a 5-1 win.
  • Stars down the Skipjacks 7-5 to take a 3-2 series lead.
  • Skipjacks force Game Seven with a 4-3 win.
  • Stars win the series on the strength of a 9-3 victory in Game Seven.
If you're brushing up on your math, the Skipjacks scored 33 goals and gave up 39 in the seven games they played against the eventual ACHL champions. That, readers, is downright ridiculous in terms of "defence winning championships".

While the ACHL would last for another five seasons, the Skipjacks would leave the ACHL for bigger leagues. The Erie Blades, playing in the AHL's South Division, and the Skipjacks merged together with the Skipjacks retaining their name while taking Erie's spot in the AHL. Erie, for what it is worth, had a pile of talent despite their 22-52-6 record. Players such as Mike Krushelnyski, Dave Hannan, Craig MacTavish, and Jim Craig played for the Blades, but they couldn't string together wins against some of the better AHL teams.

The Skipjacks jumped into the AHL by finishing fifth in the AHL's South Division with a 35-36-9 record. Despite missing the playoffs, the Skipjacks showed that they had some good, young talent coming up as they featured youngsters such as Phil Bourque, Ian Turnbull, and Rod Buskas on the team. Mitch Lamoureux was named as Rookie of the Year, and defenceman Greg Tebbutt was named as the AHL's Best Defenceman. Things were looking up for the first-year squad. The 1982-83 season would be the only season the Skipjacks were affiliated with the Boston Bruins.

The Skipjacks took the AHL by storm in 1983-84 as they jumped to a 46-24-10 record as the affiliate for the Pittsburgh Penguins, and that record was good for first overall in the AHL. Head coach Gene Ubriaco was named as the AHL's Coach of the Year, and he guided the Skipjacks into the Calder Cup Playoffs against the Springfield Indians. After a four-game sweep, the Skipjacks ran into the defending Calder Cup Champions in the Rochester Americans. The Americans would handle the Skipjacks in six games, sending the regular season champs home without hardware. The Skipjacks served notice, though, that they had arrived.

The 1984-85 Skipjacks featured a pile of characters that led them to second-place in the South Division with a 45-27-8 record. The Skipjacks set a record of sixteen straight wins in February and March, finally seeing this streak snapped by the Hershey Bears on March 24 in a 5-3 loss. Steve Carlson, Bob Errey, Marty McSorley, and Phil Bourque scored and played some inspired defence, and the fans saw some incredible goaltending from Jon Casey. Casey posted a 2.63 GAA and a .908 save percentage which was incredible considering the era, but his record of 30-11-4 is still one of the most impressive goaltending records of all-time. Casey captured the Best Goaltender and Lowest GAA Awards in helping the Skipjacks capture Baltimore's imagination.

Baltimore downed Rochester 4-1 in the opening round of the Calder Cup Playoffs before taking down the AHL regular season champion Binghamton Whalers in a four-game sweep. However, the Skipjacks ran into a Sherbrooke Canadiens team that featured Brian Skrudland, Ric Nattress, Serge Boisvert, and a young goaltender named Patrick Roy. Roy and playoff MVP Brian Skrudland led the Canadiens to a 4-2 upset of the Skipjacks, but the Baltimore franchise was making a name for itself in only its third season.

For all the good that the Skipjacks had done in '84-85, the 1985-86 season was quite the opposite. The 'Jacks went 28-44-8 to finish dead-last in the AHL's South Division. Jon Casey had moved on, some of the scoring threats had left, and there was a plethora of excellent young coaches in the AHL this year including Bill Dineen, Terry Crisp, John Paddock, and Robbie Ftorek. While Gene Ubriaco was one of the veteran coaches, he couldn't will his team out of the cellar, and the '85-86 season closed with disappointment in Baltimore.

Baltimore was looking to rebound in the 1986-87 season, and they saw improvement as Alain Lemieux racked up 97 points to finish second in league scoring. However, Lemieux finished an incredible 47 points ahead of the next highest Skipjacks scorer, and the goaltending was still spotty at best. Ubriaco helped his team to a 35-37-8 record, but the fifth-place finish in the South Division meant another quiet spring for hockey fans in Baltimore. Another low point struck when the Penguins announced they would not be renewing their affiliation with the Skipjacks.

If fans in Baltimore were expecting another season of improvement, the 1987-88 season may have been the most disappointing yet as they went into the season with no affiliation. The Skipjacks were the worst team in the AHL from start to finish as they finished 13-58-9, a full 28 points back of the next worst team in the Springfield Indians. They started the season with sixteen straight losses, prompting head coach Gene Ubriaco to say, "It's like being dead without being buried." In short, this season was one of the worst ever turned in by any AHL team ever. Despite having solid talent like Doug Shedden, Stephane Richer, and Claude Julien, the Skipjacks were felled by some of the worst goaltending and defence anyone has ever seen. The six goaltenders that stood in the blue paint for the Skipjacks put up a horrific 5.79 GAA for the season. If you surrender five or six goals a game, consider yourself lucky to have won thirteen games.

After the worst season in franchise history, Gene Ubriaco was replaced by Terry Murray behind the bench to start the '88-89 season as the Washington Capitals started up an affiliation with the Skipjacks. An overhaul in the goaltending department saw Don Beaupre, Alain Raymond, and Jim Hrivnak backstop the Skipjacks to a 30-46-4 record - an improvement, but still a sixth-place finish in the AHL South Division. Mike Richard finished fourth in league scoring, but the Skipjacks would miss the playoffs for the fourth straight season.

The Skipjacks entered the 1989-90 season looking to break out of four-season slump they were in, and they jumped out to 26-17-2 record under Terry Murray. Murray, however, was plucked out of Baltimore to coach the Washington Capitals, leading to Doug MacLean's hiring. Goaltending continued its upward swing as Jim Hrivnak provided solid netminding with a 24-19-2 record and a 3.06 GAA. Baltimore would finish in third-place in the South Division with a 43-30-7 record, earning them a playoff date with the Adirondack Red Wings. Despite the high scoring of the Wings, Baltimore would move into the second round after a 4-2 series win. Unfortunately, the Skipjacks ran into the Rochester Americans again, and Rochester would oust the Skipjacks from the playoffs after six games. After four dark seasons, the Skipjacks appeared to be turning the corner once more.

Rob Laird would be behind the bench to start the season as the Skipjacks experienced another coaching change. Alongside Laird would be a young Barry Trotz as the 'Jacks assistant coach. Players such as Tim Taylor, Reggie Savage, and Joel Quenneville helped to keep the Skipjacks above .500, and the tandem of Jim Hrivnak and Olaf Kolzig were solid in the net. Baltimore would finish in third-place in the South Division again, compiling a record of 39-34-7 in '90-91. Baltimore would draw the newly-named Binghamton Rangers in their opening series, but wouldn't find the same success as the previous year. The Skipjacks fell to the Rangers in six games, but certainly had something to build on for the following season.

The AHL split the teams into three divisions for the 1991-92 season, and the Skipjacks would find themselves with the Binghamton Rangers, Rochester Americans, Hershey Bears, and Utica Devils in the South Division. Needless to say, this new division had some powerhouses in it, and Baltimore would need to be at their best if they hoped to grab a playoff spot. Three goalies would share duties in Baltimore this season as Byron Dafoe, Olaf Kolzig, and Jim Hrivnak would all play more than 20 games.

Compared to the other teams in their division, the Skipjacks simply didn't have the firepower or the defence to hold their opponents at bay. They played hard, won a few games, but finished in the cellar of the South Division with a 28-42-10 record. The Skipjacks missed the playoffs after two seasons of improved play. Simon Wheeldon was a bright spot as he finished ninth in league scoring with 91 points, but the Skipjacks didn't have much to celebrate beyond that.

Current Predators head coach Barry Trotz took over for the 1992-93 season, and his impact would be seen immediately as the Skipjacks began playing more aggressive. Players such as Steve Konowalchuk, John Slaney, and Jason Woolley played solid roles this season, but the 'Jacks record saw a slight improvement as they finished 28-40-12. The big difference was that both Hershey and the expansion Hamilton Canucks faltered, allowing the twelve-games-below-.500 Skipjacks to make the playoffs!

If goaltending wins playoff games, it should be noted that Byron Dafoe, as the anointed starter, went 16-20-7 with an abysmal 4.38 GAA and an .865 save percentage. The Skipjacks, with their sub-.500 record, met the Binghamton Rangers who had only set the AHL record with 124 points in the regular season on the strength of a 57-13-10 campaign. And wouldn't you know it, but the Baltimore Skipjacks and Binghamton Rangers needed all seven games to determine a winner. A 5-3 victory in Game Seven would send Binghamton into the second round, but the plucky Baltimore Skipjacks showed everyone that all a team needs is a chance.

Unfortunately for Baltimore hockey fans, that would be the last chance the Skipjacks had to win a Calder Cup in Maryland. Citing lagging attendance and community support, owner Tom Ebright decided to move the franchise to Portland, Maine for the 1993-94 season, just one season after the Maine Mariners moved to Providence, Rhode Island. To add a little salt to the wound, the newly-located Portland Pirates would go on to win the Calder Cup in their first year in Maine.

Franchises continue to come and go from Baltimore, and it seems that none have the staying power that the Skipjacks did. The Skipjacks saw a ton of great players work their system, and it is clear that Baltimore has a solid hockey history.

I'll leave you with a bench-clearing brawl between the Skipjacks and Rochester Americans that is very reminiscent of old-time minor league hockey. Enjoy, and maybe we'll see the return of hockey to Baltimore, Maryland in the near future!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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