Friday, April 30, 2010

Albany River Rats 1993-2010

After every season with every team you say goodbye.  But this season with the Albany River Rats was like saying goodbye twice, to the team and alas to the franchise.  Actually there were a lot of last goodbyes.  Last home game, last road game, last OT game, last hat trick, last fight, last goal, last save, last check, last playoff win, last playoff loss, last game period.  Unless some local owner steps up in say the next ten years or so and resurrects the name with another franchise and affiliate, this is it for the Albany River Rats.

Yes there will be AHL hockey in Albany next year and they'll be called the Albany Devils.  Oh sure they'll have the same familiar color scheme but the crest of their sweater will be different than those still likely to be spread out amongst the fans.  New Jersey's team once called the River Rats in the arena once called the Knickerbocker.

A lot of things change over the course of 17 years, especially on the Albany professional sports landscape for better or worse.  But the one thing you could always count on was being able to watch and enjoy Albany River Rats hockey.

And to that end a salute and look back on those 17 years:

When the River Rats first came into existence in 1993 I was only nine years old and was far from well versed in the game of hockey.  But I learned, we all learned in Albany.  From then to now I'd have to say aside from baseball, hockey is my favorite sport and I also have the River Rats to thank for converting me and saving me from being a New York Rangers fan all these years later.

The Rats had a cool new logo and mascot, one of the most popular in all sports.  As we recently found out apparently a juniors team named the Regina River Rats thought it was pretty cool as well.  There was Rowdy the Rat, there was the guy with the cheese-head who went up and down the isles, the chili guy who would come down to the stands with a mask and jersey waving a chili goal flag when the Rats were on the verge of netting five goals, people ringing cowbells and chanting let's go Rats.

There were souvenirs and autograph sessions where you learned yes while they are the toughest on ice, hockey players are the nicest most personable athletes off the ice as well.

That first season the fan favorites were guys like Bill Armstrong, Jim Dowd and David Emma.  Guys who have either stuck around or come back like Geordie Kinnear, Bryan Helmer and Scott Pellerin.  The I-87 rivalry between the Albany River Rats and Adirondack Red Wings would be born and play to record crowds still yearning to be duplicated by the latest incarnations.  In that season the Rats would also make the playoffs and win their first playoff contest against the Portland Pirates, but that season it was just a sampling of things to come.

The 1994-95 Calder Cup winning team was just like having an NHL team.  If the New Jersey Devils were the "A team" the River Rats were "1A," and much like the present day Hershey Bears, could have knocked off a bunch of NHL clubs.  That season the Rats had some awesome divisional rivalries against the Red Wings, Pirates and Providence Bruins.  Who doesn't remember the goaltending showdowns between Corey Schwab and Jim Carey (not the actor) went head to head when Albany and Portland squared off?  All of the brawls against the Bruins.  The sellout crowd of 13,941 against the Red Wings.

The entire roster was packed with guys who would go on to play in the NHL and win both Cups Calder and Stanley.  The River Rats and Devils did both in the same season that year.  Guys like Steve Sullivan, Brian Rolston, Sergei Brylin, Sheldon Souray, Brad Bombardir, Pascal Rheaume, Corey Schwab, Mike Dunham, Cale Hulse, Kevin Dean etc.  There were other guys who liked to throw their weight around like Krzysztof Oliwa, Reid Simpson and Matt Ruchty who were always good for a scrap.  I apologize for omitting names, I'd be writing a book if I detailed them all.

That group went on to win 46 games and racked up 109 points for best in the league.  Anyone who remembers, they literally did not lose on a Saturday night, so you got your money's worth.  There were a lot of other days they didn't lose much if at all either.

The Rats went on to sweep out the Red Wings 4-0, disposed of the Bruins 4-2 and swept the Fredericton Canadiens 4-0.  In front of 7,985 (myself included) the Rats took game one of the Calder Cup Finals 4-3 with Steve Brule netting the winner.  Bill Armstrong ended up getting suspended in a pre-skate fight but the Rats were no worse for the ware as the series rolled on.  Granted the clinching game four was on TV, the only flaw with this team if any, was they were so good that they ended up clinching all of their series on the road.  But a sweep is a sweep and a Cup is a Cup.  Corey Schwab and Mike Dunham ended up sharing the Hap Holmes MVP Trophy and Robbie Ftorek's boys had what it took.  There would be no practice tomorrow, because there was no one left to play.

The 1995-96 season would be one of even more wins and more stars to come.  This squad recorded a franchise best 54 wins, 115 points and 322 goals scored.  The club was paced by Bobby House with his 86 points.  House along with Pellerin, Sullivan and Brule all notched 30 plus goals on that campaign.  New stars such as Patrik Elias, Dennis Pederson and Ricard Persson would emerge.  Dunham and Peter Sidorkiewicz were stellar all season between the pipes, winning 30 and 19 games respectively.  The team also set an AHL record for most consecutive road wins at the time.

I still remember Stevie Sullivan racking up a wrap around hat-trick against the Cornwall Aces in game one of the playoffs.  However that year a lot of the guys got called up late by the Devils and were healthy scratches, so the team not being able to jell back together, coupled with the clutch and grab play of the Aces to inhibit the Rats wide open offense, led to a shocking first round upset.

But there would be back to back deep runs in the playoffs and division titles during the first two years of the John Cunniff era.  During the 1996-97 season, Rats fans got to see Brule, Elias, Rheaume and Brylin work their magic again.  There were also new guys on board such as Petr Sykora, Sergei Vyshedkevich and Ken Sutton.  Eric Bertrand and the Shariff were in the mix too.  That Bertrand-Brule combo line was a fan favorite as well. 

One moment that stands out to me from that season was the first round series against the Red Wings.  The Rats and Wings had split up north and in one of the games there was a brawl where Oliwa ended up getting a suspension.  Here's the kicker, he appealed the suspension and the next game went on to score two goals in the Rats 7-3 victory in game three in Albany.  Following that, Oliwa was suspended by the league and was sitting about a section and a few rows away from me during game four, mingling among his supporters and after that it was all handshakes and high-fives as the Rats took their first home playoff clincher 4-1 against the hated Red Wings.

They also played an epic seven game war against the Rochester Amerks and were the last team to win a game seven in that building up until this season, 6-2.  Unfortunately that series completely sapped them, as did that Adirondack series to an extent and they were ousted in short order by the Hamilton Bulldogs.

The 1997-98 Rats were pretty stacked as well.  The last great team to really make a deep run into the playoffs until this year's squad.  Those squads boasted Brendan Morrison, John Madden, Brule, Helmer, Bertrand, Brylin, Colin White, Peter Zezel, Jay Pandolfo, Jiri Bicek and Shuey and El Sid in goal.  That year we also got an introduction to franchise favorite fighter Rob Skrlac and his 256 penalty minutes.

In the playoffs that year the Rats made quick work of the Red Wings and exacted revenge on the Bulldogs, sweeping both.  However once again the Rats fell in the Conference Finals, this time to the Philadelphia Phantoms in six at home.  They didn't win a home game in that series and I contend that if Peter Zezel was still on that team during that playoff run, he would've given them the leadership to put them over the hump to hoist another Calder Cup.  Zezel who passed away last summer will be dearly missed.

The 1998-99 Rats were the last winning squad for a long time around these parts.  They garnered 46 wins and 100 points that season.  Johnny Madden who the Devils scouted and signed as a free agent because he happened to be Brendan Morrison's teammate at Michigan, posted a then franchise record 98 points.  Bertrand and Brule each totaled 30 goals and Jeff Williams had a career year with a franchise record 46 tallies.

Two things stand out to me from this season.  There was the best old school brawl I've ever seen between the Rats and Bruins.  The scrap involved Geordie Kinnear and Rob Skrlac along with others and Skrlac took Aaron Downey into the Rats bench and started pounding him with uppercuts.  Downey was stumbling to the locker room like a drunk on North Pearl at 3AM.  Then there was a kid you might know, a young defenseman named Willie Mitchell.  The Red Wings started to try something with Williams and the youngster stepped in and proved his worth by sticking up for his new teammates by pummeling the Red Wings.

There were also players who were fun to ride or get a rise out of, Mark "Major" "Loser" Major, Dennis Bonvie, Brian McGrattan, Doug Houda "Houda sucks!" Drew Fata, Jody Shelley, Jon Mrasty and I'm sure there's a whole host of others who enjoyed the mutual agitation.

That season would end in a heartbreaking 3-2 OT loss at home at the paws of the Bulldogs in game five of the first round.

The 1999-00 campaign was an end of an era with the Devils, namely the playoff and Steve Brule era.  Gone were all of the original Rats and most of the players who'd contributed to division titles of the past.  New edition Steve Kelly would have a nice season for the Rats.  Sasha Lakovic gave them some grit and muscle.  And Freddy Henry was steady in net.

It was the Rats first losing season ever, but boy oh boy did they push Rochester to the brink.  After dropping the first two contests in Rochester, there was thought that they weren't even going to bother printing up playoff tickets for game four.  But the Rats came out like gangbusters in game three, slamming the Amerks and throwing their weight around with Lakovic leading the charge playing like a man possessed.  They crushed the Amerks on the scoreboard in that game too, by a count of 5-1.  Game four had a lot of drama as both teams tightened it up on defense.  The Rats were eventually awarded a penalty shot and Stan Gron beat Mika Noronen with a backhander that touched off the post and in for what turned out to be the game winner.  Brule then iced it away with an empty netter for his last goal as a Rat and the last playoff goal that would ever be scored by a Devils affiliated Rats team.  Unfortunately they couldn't muster a goal in Rochester the entire series and went down valiantly in five.

After that the River Rats went into the sewer for the better part of six years under the Devils.  They did have some guys who played all out like Mike Rupp, Bicek, Mitchell, Sascha Goc and Mike Commodore.  Henry made a record 60 stops in a game against Hartford that year.  The Devils tried to remedy that defense by bringing back Geordie Kinnear to man the blueline.  However "Champ" went down with a career ending injury, but his leadership and tutelage of young Rats would be invaluable to the franchise to their very last whistle.  Kinnear had his number four jersey retired, the only Rat to have that distinct honor and along with his former coach John Cunniff and teammate Steve Sullivan was inducted into the River Rats Hall of Fame this season.

There were other young players along the way who tried to stem the tide, like Stephen Guolla, Christian Berglund, Rocky Rochefort and Brian Gionta, but even they couldn't stave off a 14 win campaign under Bobby Carpenter.

They tried to right the ship by bringing back Dennis "Red" Gendron as coach and local star Craig Darby into the mix.  Picked up Ray Giroux, Greg Crozier, Joe Hulbig and another old friend in Ken Sutton.  Those groups fell short too.

After returning at the tail end of the prior season, Robbie Ftorek was back for the full grind during the lockout season to try and conjure up some old magic.  The Devils brought in Dean McAmmond and brought back Pascal Rheaume and the Rats fans had one reason to be lucky with the lockout, because Zach Parise would have never seen the light of day in Albany given the Devils developmental philosophy at that point and time.  Parise the future U.S. Olympic and Devils star couldn't do it all alone or make up for a poor defense which is now rearing it's ugly head in New Jersey after being ignored for so long.  And while other teams in the AHL got their stars during the lockout, the Devils didn't force Brian Gionta down to Albany until late in the season when it was all but over.

The 2005-06 campaign was the end of the Devils first era in Albany.  The only bright spots so to speak were David Clarkson, Alexander Suglobov and Nicklas Bergfors.  One very memorable moment from this season occurred when Rats enforcer Mike Sgroi, after a fight went across the announcers table from his box and into the other penalty box to continue whaling on his Providence Bruins counterpart.  Albany fans did get to see the end of Alexander Mogilny's career, which in a way was emblematic of the Devils first run in Albany.

Then in 2006-07 Mr. Robb and the fans said enough is enough and swapped affiliates, banishing the Devils to Lowell and bringing in the Carolina Hurricanes as the new parent club.  The Canes brought the Rats out of the shadows and back into the light, back onto the AHL map!  They promised playoffs and boy did they deliver.  Three out of four years to be precise.

Their first year would be a dual affiliate between Carolina and the Colorado Avalanche.  Coach Tom Rowe and the boys added new life to the franchise.  The Stanley Cup was back in our building on full display opening night, which our new parent club had hoisted for the first time the previous spring.  Mike Commodore's "red wigs" were a hot selling item and a new winning attitude and atmosphere was abound.  Rattitude was back, even Rowdy had a new look!

Speaking of mascots a side note here if you will.  I thought the incorporation of Rude-E was one of the most brilliant ideas ever as far as mascots go.  Have you ever heard a mascot talk?  Not only talk but insult the home fans as well as opposing players?  Remember when Rude-E supposedly had Rowdy kidnapped and tied up one night and they did this whole production where Rowdy got freed and fought and took Rude-E out?  Rude-E was actually a mistake, born from a defective mascot but man did they put it to good use.  Rowdy turned Rude-E into a well trained good mascot ultimately in the end, but always remember this: "You don't boo me, you stand up with your thumbs up and salute me!"  Ah Rude-E.

But back to those new look Rats who finally made it back to the playoffs.  Keith Aucoin ended up breaking John Madden's team point record with 99 on the season.  RPI product Matt Murley scored 23 goals while Ryan Bayda netted a team leading 29.  Shane Willis was also a part of the 20 goal club.  The Colorado guys weren't too shabby in their own right, a lot of NHLers in that mix too: Ben Guite, Johnny Boychuk, Jeff Finger, Kyle Cumiskey, Mitch Love, Cody McLeod, Cody McCormick, Chris Stewart, Tyler Weiman, etc.

There were also some "core four" favorites who were the heart and soul of the team during their four year stay here.  Guys like Pat Dwyer, Brett Carson, Tim Conboy, Mike Angelidis, Casey Borer, Nicholas Blanchard and Justin Peters.

The Rats got hot late that year and edged out Bridgeport for the final playoff spot.  The first winning Rats team to make the playoffs and eclipse the 80 point mark to make the playoffs in what seemed like forever.  In those playoffs, the Rats did manage to steal one in Hershey but unfortunately they were forced to play every playoff game that round in Glens Falls and they lost them all.  Albany would have to wait another year to see playoff hockey downtown.

The 2007-08 River Rats proved to be even better.  Crossing the 40 (43) win plateau and 90 (93) point threshold for the first time in over a decade.  The Rats in a steal of a deal acquired Michael Leighton for a seventh round draft choice.  As a result the Rats allowed the lowest total of goals in a season in franchise history with 198, the first and only time they've allowed under 200 in a season.

Meanwhile the Rats boasted a very balanced scoring attack with Jaime Johnson, Brandon Nolan, Aucoin, Jakub Petruzalek and Jerome Samson with his first of three straight 20 goal plus campaigns leading the charge.  With Leighton picking up seven shutouts, solid two-way forwards and a defense with additions of Mark Flood, Joey Mormina and an emerging Bryan Rodney would lead the way to many a low scoring tilt.  And of course they had the added toughness of Trevor Gillies.

I believe the Rats would've gone further that season had Aucoin not been called up and injuries not occurred to Nolan, Borer, Flood and Hamilton. 

Regardless it was a very fun and entertaining season and the playoffs were back in Albany!  Everyone had their rally towels and the Rats smoked the Philadelphia Phantoms in game one, reintroducing themselves to the Calder Cup playoffs with a 4-0 win.  There of course was another legendary brawl that game where Tim Conboy beat the living daylights out of the Phantoms.

That was just the start of a wild series.  Scott Munroe returned serve and game two, 3-0.  After four games the series was down to the best of three, 2-2 going into game five.  The epic game five.  No Albany didn't have home ice in that series, but some could argue there were four games played in Albany that round.

Michael Leighton would make 98 saves on 101 shots.  The game went five overtimes at the TU Center and lasted 142:58, the longest in AHL playoff history and one of the longest in professional hockey history.  With both teams dead, Leighton made a spectacular save in the fifth overtime and the fans who were there were on their feet going wild.  Yet just after he made that 98th save, Philadelphia scored off the face-off on a Ryan Potulny shot to end it.

Down 3-2 in the series after a demoralizing loss the Rats didn't hang their heads.  Game six in Philly Leighton stood on his head again with a 1-0 shutout, as former RPI standout Kirk MacDonald scored in overtime of that game, pushing the series to seven.

Both teams clearly gassed to that point, the home crowd gave the Phantoms just enough energy to stave off the Rats in game seven, 2-0.

The 2008-09 season would be a turbulent one on and more so off the ice during Jeff Daniels first year as the River Rats new bench boss.  The Rats that year were led by Jerry, Petro, Michael Ryan, Dwyer, Nick Dodge, with Carson, Rodney, Flood, Borer and Conboy doing the heavy lifting on the blueline. 

Gone were their top snipers and all-star goalie, though Peters was making some big time strides.

Then the worst happened.  Back on a bus trip from Lowell (ironically), the team bus goes sliding off of I-90 as the players, coaches, broadcasters and equipment are thrown around violently and in some cases creating life and career threatening injuries.  Players suffer concussions, broken ribs, a broken neck, and numerous other cuts, bumps and bruises.

Yet the team showed its resolve and some real guts and toughness as they eventually took back to the ice.  Some players suiting up because they knew nothing better than to get right back up, suit up and fight.  You could see that there were some guys who were visibly hurting and probably had no business being out there, nor would anyone fault them were they not.  But they were playing for teammates who couldn't, attempting to play because otherwise the team would be short.  They battled back and the community embraced them more than ever.  In their return to the ice, they notched a 4-2 win over the Norfolk Admirals.

Finally there was the 2009-10 campaign, the last season in Albany River Rats history.  One of the best in Albany River Rats history, certainly under the Carolina affiliation and as a franchise in over a decade.  This season saw the River Rats win 43 games and total 94 points, their most since the 1998-99 campaign.  During this season the Rats saw 16 of their players up in the NHL at one time or another.

Also continuing to blossom were Jerome Samson, with a 37 goal season good enough for AHL first team all-star honors, Justin Peters setting a career high with 26 wins and Bryan Rodney along with Peters was named an AHL all-star.

There were plenty of solid rookies abound like Chris Terry, Jamie McBain, Zach Boychuk, Drayson Bowman, Zac Dalpe and Mike Murphy. 

Coupled with new favorites, Jacob Micflicker, Zack Fitzgerald and Steven Goertzen and old reliable in Dodge, Angelidis, Blanchard, Conboy and Borer, the Rats were deep and flush with talent.  They were always resourceful, always finding new ways to win no matter what the lineup it was a different hero every night.  They had a well balanced attack and could beat you in so many different ways.

Everyone knows the story by now.  The Rats were a hard charging bunch, who even beat the Hershey Bears twice this season, once shutting them out at home.  They got within three points of the Bears until Dwyer and Carson got called up and the Bears started rolling.  Meanwhile the Rats maintained a firm grip on second place for the majority of the year.  They renewed their rivalry with the new team in Glens Falls, the Adirondack Phantoms and absolutely smoked them to win the Time Warner Cable Cup.

The Rats might have been the best team in the league not named the Bears.  Not by points but then the Rats were never about style points, but the way they played, while I didn't see all the western teams, they were certainly better than the rest in the east save one.

Albany made quick work of the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins in the first round with plenty of excitement and some grind it out wins in their 4-0 series sweep.  In game one with a little over a minute and a half to play the Pens tied it up.  Then the Rats Nick Dodge scored the game winner with about 50 seconds to play in the third as the Rats kept the aggressive attack going full throttle.  In game two it was much of the same formula, Pens score late to tie, Rats bounce right back and ward them off.  The Rats finished off the sweep on the road and all games save the final one with an empty netter, were decided by a single goal.

It was the Rats first playoff series victory and sweep in 12 years when they took out the Hamilton Bulldogs in four during the 1998 post-season.

Unfortunately we all know the ending.  As much as they fought the Bears and the refs, the Rats just couldn't hang on in the third period.  They took the Bears to overtime three times, they scored in every period of the series except for overtime and the Bears only led for less than 30 minutes in the entire series.  The Rats led in the third in every game, but couldn't make it hold up when it counted most, nor could they clear the zone.  They played about as well as any team getting swept can play, which makes it a little bit harder to swallow because you're not losing every game 8-2.  The River Rats were right there every time in the end, but alas it was not to be and the team that ended the Hurricane affiliated Rats first season here, will be the one's to end their last stint in Albany.  Jerome Samson is now part of a trivia question for all-time, the last River Rats player to score a goal.

There's a lot of other memories and people and moments with this team:  From my internship and actually donning the Rowdy costume for charity events, getting to go out on the ice for autographs and promotions, the t-shirt tosses, Rowdy towels, the booster club 50/50, the ice mice, that stupid blimp that would drop coupons and fall out of the air countless times itself, sling shot tosses, getting pucks in the stands, pounding on the glass as a kid, listening to games on the radio from John Hennessy to Jon Scherzer, watching a stupid polyp mascot throw rolls of toilet paper into the stands once during intermission, making bulls-eye target signs for the intermissions as a kid, getting pictures taken with players, meeting Ray Bourque and countless other future NHL stars, the crowds the cheers, that old doppy Rats theme song, the old boys are back in town intro when they'd skate out, the times they used to play the smurfs theme song when the other teams came out, that one lady who screams after every Rats goal is announced, shots shattering the glass, all the on ice promotions, watching with friends and family alike.

There is so much to cover here and I have likely failed to cover it all.  One thing is for certain over these 17 years, no matter what happens going forward, the chant "let's go Rats!"  That for Albany will always be uniquely ours.  Thanks for the memories River Rats!