A major year for the minors. That should be the new marketing slogan for the American Hockey League. The elaborate list of alterations both big and small, is a lengthy one for the League as it embarks on 2001/2002.
‘The’ League has absorbed 7 surviving franchises from the defunct International Hockey League. The AHL stands with somewhat open arms as Chicago, Utah, Cleveland, Houston, Milwaukee, Grand Rapids, Manitoba are welcomed. How long before someone says “That’s not how it’s done in the ‘A’.”? It’s probably already happened. And the AHL had its own problems this past season losing two franchises in one state. The Louisville Panthers with parent Florida have sprinkled their prospects throughout the league. The other – the Kentucky Thoroughblades have relocated and reaffiliated in Cleveland. As always new additions via expansion, the Manchester and Bridgeport franchises. Last count 27 teams with designs on a total of 30 by the end of 2002/2003.
30 traditional “farm” teams will finally compete in one developmental league and ultimately, supply the 30 parent teams with the core of their teams over the next 5 to 10 years.
The Eastern Conference will now consist of three divisions (Canadian, East and the North). The Canadian and East divisions will house 5 teams with the North having 4 teams.
The Canadian Division contains the Hamilton Bulldogs, Manitoba Moose, Quebec Citadelles, Saint John Flames and the St.John’s Maple Leafs. All affiliations in this division remain all but the same as last season with the obvious inclusion of Manitoba and their parent club the Vancouver Canucks.
In the East, the Albany River Rats, Hartford Wolfpack, Providence Bruins and the Springfield Falcons are joined by the expansion Bridgeport Sound Tigers. The Tigers are affiliated with the New York Islanders and, the Tampa Bay Lightning will provide players to Springfield as will the primary parent Phoenix Coyotes.
The North Division features the Portland Pirates, Worcester Icecats and the Lowell Lock Monsters. They are joined by the expansion Manchester Monarchs. Lowell’s affiliation is now with the Carolina Hurricanes and Manchester’s parent club is the Los Angeles Kings.
Over in the Western Conference, there are three divisions competing for the Calder Cup. The Central and South Divisions have 4 clubs each while the West Division is home to 5 teams.
The Central Division is the battleground for the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks, Rochester Americans, Syracuse Crunch and the converted Cleveland Barons. Cleveland was in operation as the Lumberjacks last season in the IHL and after several hurdles are now referred to as the Barons and are the primary affiliate for the San Jose Sharks. The Sharks left their old Kentucky home and the most creative name in the minors, Thoroughblades.
The Hershey Bears, Norfolk Admirals, Philadelphia Phantoms and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins will vie for supremacy in the South Division. All affiliations in this division remain unchanged. Kudos to the Penguins for requesting to play all IHL teams this season. Their fans should appreciate the cost involved and they’ll more than appreciate not seeing the same team fourteen times.
The South Division is truly where the meaning of the word – new – was destined. IHL fans should recognize it immediately. The division plays host to the Chicago Wolves, Grand Rapids Griffins, Houston Aeros, Milwaukee Admirals and the Utah Grizzlies. Now for the affiliations: Chicago is with the Atlanta Thrashers, Grand Rapids is teamed up with the Ottawa Senators, Houston is now home to the prodigies of the Minnesota Wild, Milwaukee runs the minor league ship for the Nashville Predators and the Utah Grizzlies are affiliated with the Dallas Stars.
So now that we are all thoroughly confused, how’s a bit of quick look at the skaters that changed locations and/or teams in the off-season.
St. John’s fans will be happy to know that their management was probably the busiest of the summer. Team toughness was addressed via the additions of Chris Murray and Doug Doull. The offense should not suffer either, after long time Duck Bob Wren and 30 goal winger Paul Healy arrive. Keep an eye on former 1st round pick Luca Cerada’s rookie year as well.
Providence added some scoring, grit and goaltending. Tony Tuzzolino and Greg Crozier arrive from Hartford and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton respectively. Promising rookie goalie Jeff Maund comes over from Norfolk. Maund created some talk with a mediocre team in front of him.
The expansion Monarchs spruced up the roster by signing former Amerk Jason Holland, veteran forward Dane Jackson and offensive defenceman Brett Hauer. Hauer tried hard to stay out of the AHL as a prospect for Edmonton.
Rochester didn’t sit still and landed native son Rory Fitzpatrick (voted Hamilton’s best d-man) as well as former Hershey sniper Christian Matte.
The reigning champs in Saint John suffered heavy free agent losses in the off season but, did go out and try to plug some holes. Agitation and goaltending are now covered thanks to the jerseys given to Rob Murray, Scott Nichol and Kay Whitmore. Look for the Flames to lead the league in minors with all-time AHL PIM leader Murray in a sweater.
Hamilton’s Bulldogs will try to strengthen their roster with former Crunch keeper Marc Lamothe, former Dog Sean Selmser and the returning Craig Reichert from Europe.
Hartford watched MVP Derek Armstrong leave for overseas but, did manage to secure Chris St. Croix from the Flames.
Manitoba hopes these two Moose get loose this season: gritty Jason Cipolla from Rochester and offence rich Andre Savage from Providence.
Incoming Cleveland Baron fans can look forward to seeing steady former Bruin blueliner Brandon Smith and hulking Joel Prpic from Hershey.
Worcester faithful may get to see if Daniel Tkaczuk and Swiss-born forward Michel Riesen can re-ignite their career fires.
Houston plugs IHL star Curtis Murphy into their team’s defence and star netminder Martin Brochu into their net. Brochu makes the Aeros contenders immediately.
Bridgeport looks for big things out of power forward Dave Roche over from Saint John.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton hope the returning Robert Dome and former Panther Peter Ratchuk can fill their team out. The fans there expect a gritty effort and they should get it.
Milwaukee’s summer was offensive – adding Bill Bowler from Syracuse and gifted d-man Richard Brennan from Lowell.
Quebec will benefit from a full season of Benoit Gratton up front. The Citadelles are always filled with talent but late season collapse is a monkey they’ll have to shake.
Philadelphia has a new star center in Marty Murray. He should be able to get some work across the parking lot at the First Union Center.
Sentimentally, hopes are high for fleet footed twins Chris and Peter Ferraro in their new home – Portland. If nothing else they will show what work ethic it takes to stay in the game and be ‘on’ every shift
A major year for the minors? In this case, you can’t tell the teams without a program.
Roger Ternan & Todd Crocker
If you would like to send an e-mail to the authors, drop me a line at [email protected] and I will forward it to them – Mark Fischel