I can pretty much talk about hockey 365 days a year, and do. When a friend asks me a question about the AHL or the Sound Tigers, they will get an answer. It took me a while to realize that because they asked me something about the game I love, did not mean they shared my enthusiasm. I first noticed it in the spring when a friend for years asked me to explain what a ‘developmental team’ was. Listening to my response as I explained the roll the AHL was intended to play in the development of players for the NHL, his eyes began to glaze over when I approached the V-260, V-320 (veteran of 260 or 320 professional games) grey areas. An “urgent call” took him from me, and the next day I was ‘un-friended’ on Facebook. That is when I decided it would best to write about the game. While it is still boring to many, at least the number of ‘Happy Birthday’ wishes I get from Facebook friends won’t diminish.
One of the most frequently asked questions I get is “How much do the players get paid in the AHL?” Were I a man of few words, the answer for this 2011-12 season would be a short “The league minimum is $39,000 the highest paid is getting $6,500,000.” This is true though misleading, and as I am not a man of few words and don’t want to mislead you, let me bore you from bottom to top.
I learned to love the game of hockey early in life. The first magazine I subscribed to was the ‘Hockey’ magazine, which became mine after my dad had read it. On the cover of the first edition was Maurice ‘The Rocket’ Richard, my first sports hero. Life was easier then. When you went to the store for cereal you had eleven to choose from; three were the hot cereals ‘Wheatena’, ‘Farina’ and ‘Rolled Oats’, none were instant. Cold varieties roared like tigers, were ‘shot from guns’ or would ‘snap, crackle and pop’ for your listening pleasure. Sugar Pops had yet to be given their more nutritionally acceptable name of ‘Corn Pops’ and nobody apologized for it.
At the end of the season in 2006 or 07, Jeremy Colliton cleaned out his locker and headed home. He had a long drive ahead going from Bridgeport, CT to Blackie, AB. Twitter was not created until March of ’06 and didn’t launch until that July but Facebook was available and Jeremy used it to chronicle his long drive home. His periodic status updates about which George Strait song he was listening to, or how he could not wait for the taste of Canadian beef, eased the pain that I and other hockey fans experience when the season ends. Today it’s Twitter that provides that catharsis.
Several of this years’ Sound Tigers club use twitter and most posted something about their journey. It was obvious from reading each of them that, though sad to leave, they were happy to be home. Kevin Poulin said he was glad to have some ‘home cooking’ and wished teammates Rhett Rakhshani (driving solo to California) and David Ullstrom (flying home to Sweden) well. Ullstrom was in touch with both Casey Cizikas and Trevor Frischmon about having them come to visit him over the summer. John Persson (remember this kids’ name) also from Sweden did not return home. He instead returned to his Canadian billet family in Red Deer, Alberta where he has the most adorable five(?) year-old blonde alarm clock.
The release of assistant coaches Scott Allen and Dean Chynoweth by the Islanders has led to speculation that Bridgeport Sound Tigers head coach Brent Thompson will be joining Jack Capuano and Doug Weight behind the teams bench. I hope this is not the case for three very good reasons. First, I think that coach Capuano should be allowed to select his own assistants and can’t think of any successful organization that doesn’t allow their head coach to do the same. Secondly, as remarkable a job as coach Thompson has done in Bridgeport, he has not finished his work here. Lastly, I am a selfish Sound Tigers fan and don’t want to lose him. (Okay, maybe that’s only two good reasons.)
Embarrassed. That is the only word I can think of that describes how I feel about Thursday nights’ Sound Tigers loss to the Whale. It has little to do with the way the team played or the outcome of the game. It has nothing to do with the embarrassment I felt for the singer of our National Anthem who forgot the words. It has everything to do with the small crowd in attendence. I can only recall one time I felt that totally embarrassed.
After years of living in the same house, I had just moved into a one-bedroom condo on the first floor of a well-lit building in Bridgeport. Prior to that, my normal routine for nocturnal emissions was, rise from bed, take a left, another left, quick right and close the door behind me. In my new environs this familiar routine left me buck-naked in the hallway where looking to my right I could see the entrance to St. Ambrose Church. I was able to escape my embarrassment; the Sound Tigers were not as fortunate.
With the possible exception of World Cup Soccer, there is no contest in sports more intense than playoff hockey at any level. Tonight at 7pm The Webster Bank Arena will play host to the AHL’s opening round of the Calder Cup Championships. This years contest starts with an historic battle between the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, proud affiliate of the New York Islanders, and Hartford’s Whale, the New York Rangers sister club.
While the two teams have met some 130 times in the last 11 years, they have never faced each other in the playoffs. While Bridgeport holds a slight advantage in this years’ regular season 10 game competition, the only advantage that earns them is home ice. This is only an advantage if the fans come out and make it one. The fans that do show up can expect to see professional hockey at its best. Here is how I see it:
Time to put up or shut up. The Bridgeport Sound Tigers team has given all for the fans this season. They had their faces battered, spilled their blood, suffered through concussions and other physical abuse to win the division title and the banner that comes with it. They also earned home-ice advantage against the in-state rival Whale-pack. That seemingly small advantage could be what decides who takes the next step forward, but it is only an advantage if the fans show up and support the team.
I live on a boat on the Housatonic River in CT. The river is the Mason-Dixon line, Berlin Wall and Forty-second parallel of the sporting world. East of the river you are apt to be a Red Sox, Patriots, Bruins fan. If you are from the western side of the river you probably root for the Yankees, Giants and Rangers. Mets, Jets and Islanders fans sprinkle the landscape on both sides of the river suffering their collective pain and abuse and nobody cares about the NBA.
On Friday the 13th, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers defeated the Providence Bruins 4 to 1 clinching the teams first Division Championship in ten years. Steve Oleksy posted a tweet minutes later that captures it all.
“Teammates come and go but banners last forever. @TheSoundTigers clinched the division tonight. It’s only a step!! #longwaytogo “.
Of the many perks offered to season ticket holders, my favorite is the end-of-season, Port Jeff Ferry cruise with the players. It also seems to be an event equally enjoyed by the players as well, and what’s not to enjoy? Free food and drink provided by the Sound Tigers organization and their sponsors and 3 hours of relaxed mingling of players and fans, priceless. This years’ cruise took place Monday evening and was once again a huge success. I was fortunate to spend a good bit of time talking to goalie Anders Nilsson, still on the mend from an ankle injury he sustained in the March 18 game against the Worcester Sharks.
After allowing seven goals in an onslaught of a hockey game, the final buzzer at the Nationwide Arena would not only sound the ending of a massacre, but also signify the end of what was a disappointing season for the New York Islanders.
It was a disappointing year for many reasons. With the rebuild entering its fourth season, many expected this team's fortunes to change. For plenty, that meant making the playoffs instead of falling into the draft lottery. For yours truly, that meant climbing out of the cellar but not high enough to reach 8th place. I am sad to say that we were both wrong. The Islanders finished the year out of the playoffs and 27th overall in the league, giving them the fourth overall pick going into Tuesday night's draft lottery for the second year in a row.
On paper you can call the 2012 season just the same as any other. At 14th place in the Eastern Conference, the Isles finished the season with a 34-37-11 record with 79 points. That's only a six point improvement over last season and the SAME exact record as the year before that in 2010. It would almost appear that the rebuild has established a trend of not going up or down, but rather staying put.