Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A brief history of Flyers' AHL affiliates

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor

By now, we're all well aware how upset certain fans are that there will be no minor league hockey right across the street from the empty NHL arena, as it was when the Phantoms still played at the Spectrum during the lockout in 2004-05.

Home to the Adirondack hockey club, the Glens Falls Civic Center is 283 miles due north from the Philadelphia sports complex, and with the price of gas high and time of the journey (five hours at the least), the likelihood of more than one road trip this season for most of us is prohibitive.

Hockey fans in the Delaware Valley had been spoiled rotten that the organization was able to purchase an expansion franchise and plop it down right in their own backyard, but it wasn't always so accessible. Below is an account of all previous American Hockey League farm clubs from the Flyers' 1967 inception.

Quebec Aces (1967-71): Promoted from the Quebec Hockey League in 1959 into the AHL, the Aces were a feeder for French-Canadian talent in the early days of the franchise. Original players Andre Lacroix, Serge Bernier, Simon Nolet and Rosaire (older brother of Wilf) Paiement came through the capital city.

Playing in Le Colisee, the arena hosted Philly for five "home games" (3-1-1) at the end of the 1967-68 season after high winds blew a hole in the Spectrum roof. In later years, when the Nordiques came to the NHL from the WHA and called it home, the Flyers ended up 9-9-8 there in the regular season and went 2-3 in five playoff tilts until the Nords moved to Denver in 1995.

Coached first by Vic Stasiuk, then former Maple Leafs goaltender Walter "Turk" Broda once Stasiuk was called to the big club in 1969, their best season was their first with the Orange and Black, finishing second in the West Division with a 33-28-11 record in 1967-68. That year, the Aces fell in the Calder Cup Finals to champion Rochester. Under Eddie Bush, they were below .500 and lost in the first round as the four-year experiment came to an end. The Nordiques would take the Aces' place at what is now known as Colisee Pepsi starting in 1972.

Richmond Robins (1971-76): General Manager Keith Allen pulled the primary farm club of the nascent Bullies all the way out of Canada and put down stakes in the former Confederate capital.

Though never successful on the ice -- their best season was a 30-win campaign in 1972-73 -- or at the gate, where average attendance at the Coliseum never threatened to rise above the mid four digits, the Robins nonetheless were the training ground for NHL teams which appeared in three straight Stanley Cup Finals from 1974-76.

Among those developed were Rick MacLeish, Don Saleski, Bill Clement, Orest Kindrachuk, Bobby Taylor, Dave Schultz, Jack McIlhargey and Paul Holmgren. Bill Barber, a first-round pick in 1972, was originally sent to Virginia at the start of the '72-'73 season, but after compiling nine goals and 14 points in 11 games, was recalled to Philadelphia for good to begin a Hall-of-Fame career.

Journeyman forward and Flyers' broadcast "icon" Steve Coates turned in a 25-goal, 44-point season in 1975-76 before moving on to greener pastures with the Red Wings organization.

Springfield (1976-77; 1983-84): With attendance sagging in 1976, the Flyers cut ties with the Mid-Atlantic and cut costs and entered into a temporary agreement with the AHL's home city, which had Flyers, Capitals and Flames farmhands on the roster. The Indians finished fifth in a six-team league, out of the playoff picture.

Seven years later, having again cut costs in the short term, Flyers farmhands were back in Western Massachusetts. This time, a roster flush with refugees from Maine, with Blackhawks and Kings hopefuls sprinkled in, Springfield finished fourth in the Southern Division before losing in the first round to first-place Baltimore.

The most notable name to suit up during the second stint was Pelle Lindbergh. Stuck in the midst of a frustrating campaign and relegated to backup duty with Bob Froese the starter, the Swede was sent down for a four-game conditioning stint in February of 1984. He returned to the NHL for good until his tragic death in November of 1985.

Maine Mariners (1977-83): The most successful debut for an AHL expansion franchise occurred in the club's first two years in Portland, Maine. Playing out of the newly-constructed Cumberland County Civic Center, the Mariners set a league record by being the first team to win Calder Cups in their first two seasons of existence.

Under head coach Bob McCammon, the '78 M's won the Northern Division, boasted the best record in the league, and took down the New Haven Nighthawks for the title. With McCammon kicked up to the Flyers' head coaching job, Pat Quinn guided the '79 seafarers to another division title and best record, with a sweep of New Haven for a repeat.

Maine continued its romp through the AHL with Calder Cup Finals appearances in 1981 under McCammon and 1983 with Tom McVie at the controls. The Mariners never had anything close to a losing record in six seasons under Philadelphia's control. Future Flyers who comprised the roster for some ups and downs in the late 70s and early 80s included: Al Hill, Tom Gorence, Terry Murray, John Paddock, Pete Peeters and Ray Allison. Lindbergh, Froese, Lindsay Carson, Len Hachborn, Dave Poulin and Dave Brown all had impact on the Flyers' mid-80's Renaissance.

Lindbergh lit up the league in 1980-81, taking home the Les Cunningham Award as league MVP, the Dudley "Red" Garrett Award as top rookie and the Harry "Hap" Holmes trophy as best goaltender. McCammon was rewarded with the Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award in 1978 and '81 as the AHL's top head coach.

In addition, current Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke skated with the franchise in its initial campaign, and current Bruins broadcaster Andy Brickley -- a Flyers draft pick and University of New Hampshire
product -- began his pro career here.

A shake-up in the Flyers' front office following the disastrous 1982-83 season saw ownership of the Mariners shift from the Orange and Black to the Christmas-themed Devils. New team president Jay Snider sold the club to New Jersey president Bob Butera for $500,000. For the remaining four years of the original Mariners, the team kept its Flyers color scheme despite respresenting a totally new NHL team.

Hershey Bears (1984-96): Hooking their fortunes to the oldest continually-operated team in AHL history, the Mike Keenan era in Philadelphia coincided with the relocation of their farm team at a manageable distance from the parent club.

Playing out of the historic Hersheypark Arena, for the first season of the agreement, the Flyers split prospects with the Boston Bruins. When the B's moved to share Maine with the Devils before resurrecting the Mariners for their own, the Bears were all ours. New GM Clarke even sent former teammate Bill Barber, trying to rehab from a serious knee injury, down to Hershey to get some coaching chops.

In 1986, Paddock led the Bears to the Southern Division crown and a Calder title-round appearance before losing to Adirondack and future Flyers head coach Bill Dineen. The best result of that near-championship run was that Ron Hextall was apparently deemed NHL ready and his career took off once in Philadelphia the next season.

Two years later, Paddock led the Bears to a Calder Cup triumph, but Hershey teetered on the brink for years afterward, left with a talent deficit from the iffy drafts of the Clarke-Farwell years in Philly. Barber eventually got his crack at being a bench boss at the end of the 1995-96 season, an appetizer for the banquet to come.

Philadelphia Phantoms (1996-09): The Flyers were scheduled to leave the Spectrum for the new building across the parking lot for the 1996-97 season, and that left 17,380 empty red seats for 40 free days at the Spectrum to consider.

The organization purchased an expansion franchise and Clarke made the announcement six days before Christmas of 1995 that a new team would be handling prospects in a familiar location.

The franchise was a hit from the start, with Barber at the helm and colorful characters like Frank "The Animal" Bialowas, the high-scoring Peter White and Vinny Prospal cruising the old Spectrum ice. The club won four consecutive division titles out of the chute, embarked on a bitter rivalry with their former farm team in Hershey, and won a Calder Cup over Saint John in 1998, the first time the AHL title was claimed in the Quaker City.

John Stevens took over for Barber in 2000, and the Phantoms sunk to the middle for four straight years until the second lockout brought an infusion of NHL talent in 2004. A 17-game win streak, plus the addition of draft picks Jeff Carter and Mike Richards from their junior club stoked the fires of a second Calder triumph in June of 2005.

Once Stevens was summoned to the Show in 2006, the club went into a tailspin under Craig Berube, Kjell Samuelsson and Paddock,. winning just one playoff round until their relocation three years later. The impending demolition of their home arena caused a shift in location to upstate New York.

Adirondack Phantoms (2009-present): With the AHL now focusing on training players to be replacement parts for the big club once injuries or trades occur, the latest edition of the Phantoms have fallen on hard times. Three different head coaches in three seasons has failed to produce a playoff berth, as the impending relocation of the franchise to the Lehigh Valley area pervades team culture. Former Flyers head coach Terry Murray leads the youngsters this season.

One bright spot for the Purple and Orange was the 2012 Outdoor Classic, contested on January 6 against Hershey in front of a league-record crowd of 45,653 at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.

This season, as the third lockout in 18 years robs fans of the NHL product, the A-Phantoms have center stage again. They will not appear in the Delaware Valley again until January 20, in Atlantic City facing the Albany Devils. One game in Philly, on February 22, will see the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins on the other side.

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