Hockey for the fun of it
A four-games-in-four-nights binge proves that hockey doesn't revolve around the NHL.
BOSTON -- Four days. Four arenas. Four games. And four leagues that focused on playing hockey instead of debating the definition of cost certainty.
While the NHL took its four-day break from playing what passes for the best hockey in the world, I decided to take my own four-day break from the St. Paul spin cycle to go find hockey players who play the sport without demanding escalator clauses in contracts that already average seven figures.
After checking out the hockey calendar and a road atlas, I decided on the following itinerary:
Feb. 6: AHL - Manchester Monarchs at Springfield Falcons
Feb. 7: UHL - Richmond Renegades vs. Adirondack Icehawks
Feb. 8: QMJHL - Shawinigan Cataractes vs. Lewiston MAINEiacs
Feb. 9: Beanpot final - Boston College vs. Boston University
On paper it provided a nice mix of professional and "amateur" hockey and in reality it proved to be a good mix of characters you know by name and others you may come to know down the road.
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- Before the start of the game at "The Nest," Springfield president and general manager Bruce Landon watches the Falcons and Monarchs go through their warm-up paces from a public walkway and he spends nearly as much time talking to fans who don't hesitate to walk up and start a discussion.
The conversations aren't long but it's still amazing that the man in charge of hockey operations for a last-place team is willing to put himself out in front of the paying public to hear what they have to say. Think the Bob Clarkes and Pierre Lacroixs of the NHL spend any time before a game on the concourse level? Think again.
"After a while the losing catches up with everybody," Landon said. "We don't have to be in first place but we need to be competitive. Our fans are knowledgeable hockey fans who want a hard working team, and as long as you're competitive and can make the playoffs, that's all they ask for.
"There's no question that there's a rich tradition and when I think over the years of all the great players that have come through Springfield and gone on to play in the National Hockey League it's pretty incredible."
AHL hockey in Springfield goes back to the days of Eddie Shore as a player/owner in the 1930s and there's been a team continuously operated in town since the '54-55. In its current configuration, the Falcons are celebrating their 10th season in the AHL.
On this night, it's really the Kings vs. Coyotes because most of the players on the ice are property of those respective NHL franchises. Springfield manages to post a 4-0 win on the strength of two Erik Westrum goals and the second shutout of the season for goalie Jean-Marc Pelletier. That sends an announced crowd of 2,932 (the weather probably knocked 1,000 off that number) home happy for at least one night.
But the big news in town was the announcement made a day earlier that the Falcons and Coyotes were severing their working agreement effective at the end of the season. In Phoenix's place, Landon signed an affiliation deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning to supply a full roster and a coaching staff.
That means wholesale changes are on the horizon for head coach Marty McSorley and his players, who will find themselves in another hockey outpost next season.
"That's very realistic," Landon said. "There's going to be a few free agents but these players here right now are under contract with Phoenix. I would say for the most part you're going to see a complete change right from coaching on down to the ice."
But McSorley, whose two-year contract with Phoenix expires at the end of this season, isn't concerned with anything beyond his current situation.
"I look at the affiliation change the same as I do the building changes," McSorley said, referring to the $20 million renovation going on at the Civic Center. "It's going on all around you. The affiliation is next year. All of these guys want to be in the National Hockey League yesterday. It's about the now for these guys. They want to be in Phoenix, so I don't see next year as being a concern right now."
His boss' concerns range from getting through this season to building Springfield -- which is home to the league office -- back up to an upper-echelon franchise.
"I'm slowly starting negotiations on a 10-year extension," Landon said. "I have good partners and a good ownership group. What we have to do is build our fan base back up. But we're going to be here for the long haul."
And that starts next season.
Return of the Mullet
A lot of bills, not to mention player and staff salaries, weren't getting paid and one of the team's creditors put a seizure order on the team. The players -- whose salaries average in the $500 a week neighborhood -- and the staff hadn't been paid for most of the month of December, and the police raid appeared to put the club on the brink of folding.
But shutting the doors was the last thing the UHL wanted, which already had a first-place team (Columbus, Ohio) fold in December and had another team (Missouri) taken over by the league this season. To save the IceHawks, the league organized a new ownership group that included area resident and ESPN analyst Barry Melrose.
Melrose coached in Adirondack when it was an AHL town and led the Red Wings to the Calder Cup title in 1992. He left to become the coach of the L.A. Kings but didn't sell his house and has remained a prominent member of the community ever since.
So much so, that the hottest selling piece of merchandise at the IceHawks souvenir table is a $14 black t-shirt with a picture of Melrose and the headline "Return of the Mullet."
According to Melrose, who spent the weekend at the NHL All-Star Game, "The UHL is a league where the family can go together and see young, talented players work their butts off to get to the next level. It is a great bang for the buck."
Also in the ownership group is ESPN's Steve Levy, Glen Morelli and Dr. Eric Margenau, who has owned several franchises in this league -- including being the current owner of Saturday's opponent, the Richmond RiverDogs.
"To have the chance to partner with Barry and Steve was certainly a plus," Dr. Margenau said. "Barry is a significant person in this community that people know and respect. That's going to play an important role in this franchise's potential success."
The IceHawks won at the gate on this night, posting a season-best crowd of 4,353, but they lost on the scoreboard after giving up three first-period goals in four minutes en route to a 3-1 defeat. The loss dropped Adirondack to 3-8-3 against Richmond, but the two clubs still have eight more meetings -- meaning the IceHawks and RiverDogs play a staggering 22 times in a regular season that consists of 76 games.
Such is life in a now 11-team league where eight of the teams reside a 12-hour or more bus ride away in the Midwest.
After the game, Dr. Margenau made his way down to both dressing rooms and talked to the players and coaches (Adirondack's Marc Potvin and Richmond's Rod Langway) that he employs.
"It's going to come together," Margenau told Adirondack right winger Frank Littlejohn. "We'll get you a couple more guys, a couple more pieces." The alternate captain responded: "We'll get it going, we'll work hard for you."
Despite the loss, there were a few smiles to go around in the IceHawks dressing room, thanks in part to an ownership group that's paying the bills and the players.
"It's changed completely around here, it completely did a 180," Littlejohn said. "All the guys moods are pretty good and they know they don't have to worry about anything money-wise."
As one IceHawks fan put it: "Bringing Melrose in was a sigh of relief for this community. He brings stability and isn't going to get embarrassed, so we feel good about this franchise again."
A high Q rating
The 19-year-old defenseman from Providence chose the latter when he made the drive to central Maine in August for a tryout with the Lewiston MAINEiacs, a QMJHL franchise that was relocating from Sherbrooke, Quebec.
"In the beginning it was kind of rough," Gates said. "I didn't know who spoke English and who spoke French, so during training camp I kind of stuck to myself and did my own thing."
As it turned out, half of the players that made the team spoke English and the other half were bilingual. Gates is the only American on the only U.S.-based team in a league that has 15 other teams located in Quebec and the Maritimes. The Q tried an American-based franchise in 1984 but the Plattsburgh (N.Y.) Pioneers went 0-17 before folding up shop.
Like the three other major junior leagues, players in the Q range in age from 16 to 20 years old, live with billet families in town and are paid a stipend that averages around $60 a week to cover expenses. For that, they are treated to long bus rides -- Quebec City is the shortest trip from Lewiston at around five hours and Rouyn-Noranda checks in the 12- to 14-hour range (weather permitting).
The list of fines posted in the dressing room ranges from $5 for wearing a baseball cap backwards in public to $100 for missing a practice. And a missed curfew costs the younger players on the team two weeks of pay.
But the quality of hockey is good and the lure of a league that has produced the likes of Ray Bourque, Patrick Roy and Jeremy Roenick, and includes superstar-in-waiting Sidney Crosby, makes any sacrifices worthwhile.
"I wanted to focus on hockey and give it my best shot," Gates said. "A lot of kids come out of the (Canadian Hockey League) so I wanted to put all of my time into hockey and see how far it could go."
Another attraction for Gates was Lewiston coach Mario Durocher, who doubled as the Canadian national team coach at the World Junior Championship in Finland last month.
"We're trying to prepare players for the next level," Durocher said. "And for the fans, this league has the best of everything: some fights, some speed, some offense."
On this Sunday afternoon at the Central Maine Civic Center (home of the famous Ali-Liston "fight" in 1965), it also included a penalty shot and overtime as Lewiston gave the 2,111 in attendance a 3-2 win over the Shawinigan Cataractes -- not to mention the Canadian national anthem sung in French by a retired police officer.
More than halfway through the season, Gates knows he made the right decision in coming up to Lewiston, and he hopes to stick with the club for another season as one of the three 20-year-olds allowed per franchise.
"My play has stepped up and I'm playing better," he said. "And I'm having fun with it."
Playing a sport for the fun of it? Imagine that.
A sign of things to come?
Before a sold out crowd of 17,565, Boston College won its 13th Beanpot at 6:07 of overtime when Ryan Murphy blasted a loose puck in the slot past Boston University goalie Sean Fields into the top corner of the net for a 2-1 win and BC's third title of the season (Ice Breaker, Great Lakes Invitational).
"I wish I could say I picked the corner but it was so fast I'm not even sure what happened," Murphy said. "Every kid dreams of scoring the game winner in overtime. It's just incredible."
Equally impressive was the play of Fields, who took home the MVP honors for the second straight year. The senior goaltender ended the game with 50 saves and became the first player to win back-to-back Beanpot MVPs since BC's John Cunniff in 1964-65.
"One of the key parts of the game was how we handled the frustration of a hot goaltender," BC coach Jerry York said. "A 1-0 deficit, a goal called back and we still kept our poise.
"It's easily a 5-0 or 5-1 game, the Eagles walk away with it if it wasn't for Sean. My hat is off to him. Not too many times do you see an MVP come from the losing team, but tonight it was the right choice."
With the title, York moved one win ahead of BU coach Jack Parker on the all-time active wins list at 689, but the BC coach was more interested in talking about his current team's 21st win (21-3-4) of the season .
"Any time you can win on a big stage, it gives the team more confidence," York said.
And any confidence derived from a tournament-atmosphere win in a building in which they hope to make a return engagement could be very beneficial to the Eagles. For now, York's players were content to enjoy the moment of winning the oldest college hockey tournament and beating a rival that BC first played on Feb. 6, 1918 (a 3-1 BC win).
In the hallway outside the Eagles dressing room, senior captain Ben Eaves, who's recovering from a fractured left kneecap, and junior forward Ned Havern took turns with a couple of camera phones to get their picture taken with one of Boston's most treasured pieces of sports hardware.
They hope to be in a position to do the same thing with the NCAA Champion plaque in early April.
As a side note, don't pass up an opportunity to see an in-season tournament, especially one that draws a crowd and is important on the local landscape, because it's the closest thing to postseason hockey and it definitely creates anticipation for what lies ahead.
Here's the final tally on my four-day adventure, or what my friend called the Warped Tour and what my wife called "four days of your life that you'll never get back":
Miles driven: 908
Price of tickets: $73
Goals scored: 16
Trophies awarded: 1
No exposure to the Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow propaganda machines: Priceless.
In the end, I saw four leagues that will be playing hockey next season, even if that means overcoming affiliation changes, building renovations, financial difficulties and most other obstacles.
With more than 200 minor, junior and college teams to choose from in North America, do you think many hockey fans will really miss the clutch and trap NHL if it decides to sit out next season? Think again.
David Albright is a senior editor at ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.