San Antonio Rampage “Stampede” into the AHL

By Mark Fischel

The coach looked at his new team in the dressing room, surveyed the assembled group of young players mixed in with a few veterans, waited a few moments, and then spoke with his strong Boston accent.

“You have this moment to make a determine who we are, what kind of team we will be known as, and more importantly, that we will never quit on the ice…ever.”

For the Rampage coach John Torchetti, this was the moment to impart the values he had as a player as the Rampage found themselves in Milwaukee on Oct 12th to play against the Admirals in their first game in franchise history.

For many of the players on this team, this would represent the first time that most of them played together as Panther prospects. Some of them were friends off the ice, but complete strangers on the ice.

So it would be fitting that the first goal scored in Rampage history would be a player who was a stranger to the Panthers farm system.

Acquired the day before opening night from the Islanders, 22 year old RW Juraj Kolnik arrived in Milwaukee 4 hours before the face-off, and found himself making team history when he suited up in the Rampage jersey.

3:29 into the third period, Jeff Toms flipped the puck past the Admirals defense pairing, to Kolnik, who had a full head of steam entering the zone. Getting in on a partial breakaway, Kolnik unleashed a snap shot that bounced off the goalie’s arm into the net.

“I wasn’t even thinking about it. But later I did after the game that I scored the first goal of the San Antonio Rampage history.”

“It wasn’t too bad!” he said laughing.

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It is another early morning for the team’s equipment manager, as he arrives at the SBC center with his cup of coffee and assistant in tow. The first set of athletic supplies arrived in the nick of time for training camp to open.

“Two dozen basketballs in there?” He asked as his assistant poked through the boxes, relieved to hear the affirmative answer.

Next was the shoes, all accounted for, and he was not in the mood to hear the complaints from his players if they didn’t have them for the shoot around.

He continued, “Make sure there are 8 shirts there,” This shipment was looking pretty good so far. No problems would give him time to handle the countless other challenges that will make up his day.

The Equipment Manager walked to his office, almost dropping his coffee as a loud crashing sound came from the hallway. All he heard after that was his assistant say, “Two dozen one piece graphite hockey sticks.”

“Hockey sticks?” he said to himself. These sticks weren’t for the San Antonio Spurs training camp, “Just send them next door to the Rampage.”

Normally it can be attributed to a horrible error when the equipment manager of the Spurs gets a shipment of hockey sticks, but since the Florida Panthers and San Antonio Spurs entered into a unique joint venture to co-own an AHL hockey team, the San Antonio Rampage, shipping mistakes like this can be expected.

The story behind how an NBA and NHL team came to be partners is as winding as the turbulent histories of the minor league hockey teams that have dotted Texas’s landscapes. It is a story of one self-professed “hockey fan’s” long desire to expand a basketball empire into the hockey world, and the need for an established NHL franchise to continue it’s excellent success at developing young players.

Texas Hockey can be traced back for many years, but where the path the Panthers and Spurs end up can start in 1995, as the 50 year old International Hockey League was in the middle of a decade of one of it’s most rapid growth beyond it’s Michigan roots, when they added 10 teams to increase their number to 19 teams. Their placement of teams into NHL markets such as Chicago and Detroit, and close to other NHL teams in San Francisco and Long Beach, CA signaled a new era for the IHL.

That “hockey fan” is Rick Pych, the Spur’s Executive Vice President of Finance and Corporate Development, who took notice of the IHL’s rapid expansion and looked into the possibility of the Spurs owning an IHL affiliate.

With the IHL’s aggressive expansion into several NHL markets, the “I”, as it was known, was trying to position itself as an alternative league to the NHL. (Panthers GM Rick Dudley was GM of the Detroit Vipers from 94-98) and this direct competition led many NHL teams to pull their long time affiliation agreements, financial support, and farm talent away from the IHL teams in direct opposition to the new competition.

Rick Pych said, “We have been looking at hockey for most of the 10 years. Back in ‘95, we looked at the IHL but we took a pass on that because we didn’t think the economics made sense.”

But the momentum started to build again in 1999, when the San Antonio voters approved the construction of the SBC Center to replace the Alamo Dome, the current home of the San Antonio Spurs. When he passed on the IHL, Pych was also looking for the Spurs in buying a team to play in the Western Professional Hockey League.

“We immediately starting to check our options, and for awhile we looked into potentially buying a hockey team.” Pych recalls, “It was really the only option at the time, based on the landscape of the hockey world.”

It was also in 1999 that the 18 team American Hockey League used the IHL’s estrangement with the NHL to present themselves to the NHL as a safer league to replace the aggressive IHL. In 1997, 18 AHL teams had affiliations with or were owned by 24 of the NHL teams, and the AHL expanded into several more markets such as Wilkes-Barre, Lowell, Philadelphia and Louisville (Panthers farm team for two seasons) over the next few years.

The Panthers enjoyed two successful years in Louisville, but suffered a setback when the operators of the Louisville franchise were unable to support the team beyond the 2001-2002 season, and operations were suspended. The Panthers were forced to spread their prospects through several different AHL teams.

A few months after the Louisville franchise suspended their operations, it was announced that on June 4th of 2001, the IHL was completely folding and ceased operations. On the exact same day, the AHL’s President Dave Andrews announced that 6 teams from the IHL, including the Utah Grizzlies and the Houston Aeros, would join the AHL for the 2001-2002 season.

“That really had an impact in our thinking going forward, so we were still pursuing an option of getting involved in the WPHL, but we also thought it would be prudent to take a look at the American League to see if it made any sense.” Pych recalled when finding a new league in town, “Quite honestly, my bias going in was that we will probably look at it, but it was a league primarily on the East Coast.”

Due to the proximity of the Dallas Stars and the Utah Grizzlies, Pych initially discussed things with the Stars, but learned of a new possibility, “The Stars had a few more years with an affiliation agreement with the Utah Grizzlies in the AHL. So we checked the landscape to see who else did not have that 1-on-1 relationship with an AHL team and a few teams fell in that category. One was the Florida Panthers.”

Around this time, Mike Santos, the Panthers’ Director of Hockey Operations, joined the Panthers with the responsibility to secure an affiliation with an AHL team. Santos came with several connections to the league and his friendship with the AHL President Dave Andrews, who informed Santos of the Spurs search. Both parties contacted each other, and the two quickly realized they had the foundation for something.

“It was a great marriage because of their experience in Louisville and having their players all over the place, the inability to get everyone on the same page under one system.” Pych remembers, “Our situation was really looking for a team that wanted that sort of stability and wanted to do a long-term relationship where they could know that they would have a situation where they could have a good city, with a good facility and a good group who can operate a franchise that would help develop the players.”

They had less than 2 months to put together a partnership agreement with the Spurs, acquire one of the three dormant AHL franchises, and submit the application to the AHL board of governors.

Working feverishly over the next two months, Panthers COO Jeff Cogen joined in as well and developed the language of the business development package, which enabled the structure of the deal to work and move forward.

When that was completed, the partnership had to actually go out and find the rights to a dormant team. Up until May, they targeted the Louisville franchise for acquisition, but that fell through several times with the deadline fast approaching.

Pych recalls, “The last few days was a mad scramble to find an alternative franchise, so we ended up being able to get the dormant Adirondack franchise through relationships that Mike Santos and Bill Torrey had with the people who ran the Detroit Red Wings.”

“We didn’t think that on May 6th that we were actually going to get league approval. We walked into that meeting knowing that a few days earlier we were worried that we wouldn’t even be able to do a presentation because we didn’t meet certain requirements to get on their agenda.”

Pych continues, “But we ended up doing the presentation, and the league waived their normal procedures and went ahead to vote that day. Next thing we know, we walked out of that meeting with an AHL franchise.”

On May 6th, 2002. Just around 3:00, the joint ownership group had their application approved, and
The San Antonio Rampage were ready to start charging into the AHL.

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The Rampage came away losing their first game to the Admirals, but the spirits of all who took part were still good. Even the competitive Torchetti had a chuckle when he recalled his pre-game pep talk.

“Well, we lost 6-2 so I guess it didn’t work.”

Due to the late opening of the new SBC center, the Rampage were forced to play their first 6 games on the road, but it was only until the next game against Utah for the first win in franchise history to be recorded, as the Rampage downed the Grizzlies 5-4 behind the strength of defenseman Filip Novak’s two goals.

Torchetti isn’t letting the slow start to the season bother him either, and he is relieved to see the team starting to gel once everyone got settled.

“Now we have been together for some time, everyone has their places, their homes, their families have moved in, their kids are in, the cars are in, the dogs are in, and the horses are in!” Torch exclaimed, “All that stuff is figured out now and now we are getting some continuity as a team and working on the systems more. We are starting to get the same lineup consistently now and it has been great.”

November 3rd marked the first game at home for the Rampage, and the 4 –2 loss to the Houston Aeros hardly dampened the raucous crown of over 8,500 fans in attendance, and to the Florida Panther fans watching live on Fox SportsNet in South Florida.

“I actually think it was more rewarding to see the first home game in San Antonio, because it better reflected the whole picture of what was going on there. The grand opening weekend for the SBC center, and the first home game in front of “our” fans there.” Mike Santos reflected like a proud father, “It was the first time for many of the young players to have actually been together as a team at home, because they played their first 6 home games on the road.”

He finished by saying, “It was the first time that everyone and everything came together as one”

The Rampage closed their first month in history by going xx-xx-xx, but to the Rampage, the record was hardly any cause of concern this early in the season.

Like a similar expansion team that fans in South Florida are very familiar with, one of the common themes that has been prevalent from the first months of the Rampage, is the chemistry a lot of the players are having with each other.

A large majority of the young prospects that comprise the Rampage have spent many off-seasons attending Panther camps in South Florida, and the friendship they felt during those brief times together has made stronger by all the time they spend with each other now, especially on the long road trips.

“Last year, we had guys from Dallas and Florida, and now all the guys are from Florida, and team chemistry is good, actually it is very good.” Rampage center Serge Payer said, “You got guys caring for each other and that is what it is all about, guys caring and wanting to win for each other.”

For Rick Pych and Mike Santos, it was the wanting to win that brought them together to bring hockey to San Antonio, and the co-ownership feels they are on the road to a long lasting success.

“It is going to be so successful because of this market. This is a great sports town and it has very limited sports entertainment opportunities.” Pych said.

He continued, “We have a great long term partnership with a NHL team now that has an emphasis on developing young players and we think that is the best to have those key ingredients.”

So the Rampage embark on the remaining 6 months of the season, bolstered by their closeness as a team, and the support of their ownership group and fervent fans in San Antonio and Florida.

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“From Competition to Coaching ”

Sometimes old enemies who faced off in competition find themselves together later in their lives as allies.

That is the case between Rampage coach John Torchetti and Rampage goaltender Wade Flaherty.

“I played against him in my first professional year with Greensboro in 1989.” Flaherty said as he recalled the memories. “I played in the Finals against him and was on the opposition.”

Wondering whether that might lead to some conflict between the head coach and the top goaltender, Flaherty didn’t worry because he knows he has an ally on the bench.

“I have brought it up a few times because we won the championships, and the thing is that Rampage Assistant coach Scott Allen was on the team with me, so it is kind of funny.”

Serge Payer weighed in on his new coach, “He is a very competitive guy, winning is everything is his philosophy”

So would this mix of the ultra competitive coach and the veteran goalie whom deprived his boss of glory be forgotten?

Not really.

“I still don’t like him for beating me! He took a cup from me, a ring from me! Torchetti replied with only a smidgeon of jealousy in his voice, but he tempered his emotions with some wishful thinking.

“He was the main reason why back then, and if he wants to carry that over to here, I will like him even more!

These stories originally ran in edited formats in various Panther publications throughout the year.