BY: Bruce Berlet
When the Hartford Civic Center roof collapsed early on the morning of Jan. 21, 1978, local hockey fans hardly missed a beat, forming the I-91 Club to watch the World Hockey Association’s New England Whalers play in Springfield.
Well, a new form of Fan(tasy) Hockey starts Sunday at the XL Center in Hartford. Major League Baseball’s World Series might start Wednesday, but fans of the Connecticut Whale and Springfield Falcons will begin their own seven-game series, in the first matchup of fans who will compete at the XL Center and MassMutual Center in Springfield through mid-March.
“I’m very excited about this series,” Seth Dussault of Easthampton, Mass., who conceived the idea, said via email. “When I came up with the idea early this summer, I thought it’d get laughed off, but the Whale and the Falcons both took it very seriously. We wouldn’t be here without Jocelyne Cummings from the Whale and Damon Markiewicz of the Falcons doing a lot of work on this. It just speaks to how great the hockey fan base in Western New England is that something like a game between fans can not only work once, but seven times.
“At this point my focus is on the first game. It’s crazy to think of what this means: I’ll be on the same bench, coaching a team on the same ice as Gordie Howe, Ron Francis and Ken Gernander. It really sends a chill down your spine to think about that, and I know every one of our players feels the same way. This will be fun, for sure, but we’re going to go out there with a focus on winning a hockey game.”
After Dussault initiated the idea, Matt Marychuk of Glastonbury created a Facebook page to see if there were any interested players. During the summer, Seth and Matt managed the social media page and interest grew. They used the page to sign up fans to play and communicate between the players and managed to fill rosters for each fan team.
The idea caught the attention of the Falcons’ front office and then the Whale’s, and the I-91 Fans Games were born.
“They got in touch with me in August and wanted to know if there was any chance that the Whale would be willing to do it,” said Cummings, the director of amateur hockey for Whalers Sports and Entertainment, which runs the business operations of the Whale. “At that point, I said why don’t we do a pregame (game)? It started as one game, then it was going to jump to a five-game series. When we finally sat down, they decided they wanted to do a seven-game series.”
Everyone also wanted every fans game to be before a Whale-Falcons game, but with several pregame and UConn games already set, they had to play a game on Dec. 4 before the Whale played Binghamton at the XL Center. But that was hardly a bad tradeoff, considering the Senators are the defending Calder Cup champions and Binghamton is where the Rangers’ top affiliate played before moving to Hartford in 1997.
“I think it’s a great thing,” Cummings said. “It’s a great way for the fans to enjoy themselves and add some excitement, and it’s a great opportunity for people who would be at the games anyway to get to play. And they’ve done so much themselves. They’ve made uniforms and have their own jerseys with a Connecticut map with a star where Hartford is. And the Springfield fans have made their own uniforms, too. They’ve gone well beyond with people who support this, including a website and a Facebook page. So for them to organize with 25-person rosters and bring 20 people for every game is awesome. They want to do everything as close to the AHL as they possibly can. Obviously the rules will be a little bit different because it’s adult hockey, so there’s no checking or fighting. But it’s all for fun and a positive thing in every way.”
Markiewicz, the Falcons’ manager of media relations, called the games “a really cool idea.”
“The fan game is a unique way to build the rivalry and also push some ticket sales,” Markiewicz said. “We have always wanted to try to find a way to market ourselves to more adult hockey league participants, and this is a unique way to accomplish that goal.”
It starts with Game 1 on Sunday at noon, followed by games Dec. 3 in Springfield at 4:30 p.m., Dec. 4 in Hartford at noon, Jan. 7 in Hartford at 4 p.m., Jan. 8 in Springfield at 12:30 p.m., Feb. 10 in Springfield at 5 p.m. and March 17 in Hartford at 4 p.m. Tickets must be purchased at least 10 days before a game and include admission to the AHL game. Tickets for Game 2 are on sale now, and the other five games will be on sale soon.
A portion of the sales from all games will benefit Defending the Blue Line, which helps children of military families play hockey. For information on how to join the teams and tickets to the games, visit firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHALE OFF UNTIL HOSTING MANCHESTER ON FRIDAY NIGHT
The Whale (1-1-0-2) is off until Friday at 7 p.m. at the XL Center, when they host the Manchester Monarchs (3-2-0-0), who had a three-game winning streak ended Sunday in a 5-3 loss to the Falcons that equaled the number of goals they allowed in their first four games. Fans can take advantage of a “buy one, get one free” ticket offer for upper-level tickets that is available only at the Public Power Ticket Office at the XL Center.
The Monarchs are led by center Andrei Loktionov (three goals, five assists), while former Yale forward David Meckler and captain Marc-Andre Cliché, the Rangers’ second-round pick in 2005 who never played in the organization and was part of a trade with the Los Angeles Kings that landed Sean Avery, are among six Monarchs with four points (three goals, one assist each). Martin Jones (3-1-0-0, 1.26 goals-against average, .956 save percentage) is the top goalie for the Monarchs, who will be without their best defenseman, 2011 All-Star Slava Voynov. The Russian standout was called up by the Kings on Sunday to replace Drew Doughty, who should be out 7-to-10 days after being placed on injured reserve with an upper body injury sustained when slammed hard by Zac Rinaldo 20 seconds into a 3-2 overtime victory over the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday night. Voynov will make his NHL debut Tuesday night at home against the St. Louis Blues, while Doughty will be sidelined after signing an eight-year, $56 million contract just before the Kings’ season-opening trip to Europe that started with a 3-2 overtime victory over the Rangers in Stockholm, Sweden.
After facing the Monarchs, the Whale will play a home-and-home set with the Springfield Falcons (3-2-0-0) on Saturday and Sunday and face several familiar faces, starting with former Hartford Wolf Pack left wing/captain Dane Byers (three goals, one assist), acquired from the Rangers last Nov. 13 for Chad Kolarik, who is out at least six months after surgery to repair a torn ACL in his right knee on Oct. 5. Center Ryan Russell (three goals, no assists), a seventh-round pick in 2005 who was traded to the Montreal Canadiens for a seventh-round pick in 2007, had two goals in the win over the Monarchs. Former Wolf Pack center Ryan Garlock (no goals, five assists) signed a tryout contract with the Falcons and is tied for second in scoring with former All-Star center Martin St. Pierre (two goals, three assists), four points behind Nick Drazenovic (two goals, seven assists), who shares the AHL scoring lead. Former Wolf Pack left wing Alexandre Giroux was called up by the parent Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday, replacing Greenwich native and former Avon Old Farms and Boston College standout Cam Atkinson, who was the Blue Jackets’ sixth-round pick in 2008 and has one goal and one assist in three games. Forward Matt Calvert was assigned to the Falcons on Monday after getting one assist in five games with the Blue Jackets, who are off to their worst start in franchise history (0-4-1) and center Jeff Carter is doubtful for a game Tuesday night against the Dallas Stars because of a slight fracture on the top of his right foot sustained when he blocked a shot in a 4-2 loss to the Stars on Saturday night. It’s the same foot that was bruised on the second day of training camp. Carter had surgery on the foot after the 2009-10 season when he was with the Philadelphia Flyers.
Atkinson and wing Chris Kreider, the Rangers’ first-round pick (19th overall) in 2009, were major reasons that BC won the national championship in 2010, when they beat the University of Wisconsin, whose key personnel included Rangers center Derek Stepan and defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who started last season with the Whale. Atkinson led the nation in goals that season with 30, including two in the title game. In a 10-game stretch, he had three hat tricks and then proved that wasn’t a fluke last season when he had 31 goals and 21 assists in 38 games before the top-seeded Eagles were upset by Colorado College in the NCAA West Regional semifinals with Kreider on the sidelines with a broken jaw. Atkinson then signed a two-year contract with the Blue Jackets and had three goals and two assists in five games with the Falcons.
While Atkinson graduated, Kreider elected to play his junior year with the Eagles. He was named MVP of the University of North Dakota tournament Oct. 7-8, as the Eagles moved to No. 1 in the nation. But they lost 4-2 to third-ranked Denver on Saturday before a sellout crowd of 7,884 at Kelley Rink in Chestnut Hill, Mass. Then they beat host New Hampshire 5-1 on Sunday behind junior goalie Parker Milner’s career-high 39 saves, including 20 in the second period. Kreider scored his third goal of the season.
Allen York, Danny Taylor and UMass grad Paul Dainton each have a win in goal for the Falcons, who host the Whale Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the MassMutual Center in Springfield before visiting the XL Center in Hartford on Sunday at 3 p.m. The Sunday game is another “buy one, get one free” ticket offer in the upper level available only at the Public Power Ticket Office at the XL Center. Tickets for all Whale home games are on sale at the Public Power Ticket Office, on-line at www.ctwhale.com and through TicketMaster Charge-by-phone at 1-800-745-3000.
STIRLING GIVES SENATORS ADDED INCENTIVE
When Binghamton began its title defense Oct. 7, the Senators had added incentive with assistant coach Steve Stirling behind the bench for the first time since June 4, a 4-2 victory over the Houston Aeros in Game 5 of the Calder Cup finals before a sellout crowd at the Broome County Veterans Memorial Arena.
But before the former Bridgeport Sound Tigers and New York Islanders coach reached the bench, he received a thunderous ovation as they stepped out of the tunnel and onto the ice during team introductions.
Why? Because on June 5, after preparing for Game 6 and before heading to the airport for a flight to Houston the next day with a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven finals series, Stirling started to feel ill.
“It felt like indigestion,” Stirling told Kate Krenzer, the Senators’ director of media relations. “I went and got some antacids, which I would normally have for something like that and it just didn’t get any better. I didn’t have any chest pains, so I just thought it was a serious case of indigestion, which I had had hundreds of times in my life.”
But when the over-the-counter remedies failed to ease the discomfort, Stirling knew something wasn’t right. He called his wife, Francesca, to say something wasn’t right and that he needed her to meet him.
“You know how you know your body? I just knew in my heart that something wasn’t right,” Stirling said.
When Francesca arrived at the rink, she knew something was terribly wrong. Her husband was pale and obviously didn’t feel well. She sprang to action, racing across the street to the City of Binghamton Fire Department.
“They came right over and put me in the ambulance, put me on an IV, gave me oxygen and asked me a million questions doing their prep work,” Stirling recalled. “At the hospital they ran some tests, then that night I was under the knife.”
Stirling was taken to United Health Services Wilson Medical Center in Johnson City, N.Y. After a series of tests, the doctor told Francesca that they believed they would have to do an angioplasty. The doctor later brought her to see X-rays that had been taken and said Stirling required a triple bypass.
By time Stirling went into surgery, Francesca was joined in the hospital by Senators coach Kurt Kleinendorst, his wife Deon, part-owner Bob Carr and athletic therapist Glen Kinney. The Stirlings’ son Scott, who was 21/2 hours into a return trip to Ohio after visiting Binghamton over the weekend, turned around after learning the news.
“I had to be a rock for my family,” Francesca said. “This is a father who they (sons Todd and Scott) idolize, respect and want to emulate. Both the boys are coaches because of Steve. I had to be the one to say that he’d be okay.”
Later that night, the surgeon said that once they had started the surgery, they discovered they needed to do a quadruple bypass. Fortunately the surgery was successful, and Stirling was resting comfortably.
Stirling obviously couldn’t travel with the Senators to Houston, but he received permission from his doctors to watch Game 6 on TV.
“I kept dozing on and off through the first two periods,” Stirling recalled. “At the start of the third period, one of the nurses came in and said, ‘I think you better wake up and watch this. It’s 2-2 in the third.’ At that point I knew it was a 20-minute game. I woke up and saw the (3-2) win. I didn’t sleep much after that because the excitement was so great!”
After the Senators’ charter flight arrived in Binghamton, the team boarded a bus to the hospital to celebrate with their ailing coach before sharing their championship with the rest of the city. Many wondered if Stirling would be back with the team in the fall, but after a summer of rehabilitation, there was Stirling returning to the rousing introduction and banner raising.
“I didn’t waste too much time,” Stirling said. “Within three or four days of surgery they had me up and walking around. It was at that time that I asked, ‘What kind of rehab do I have to do? What kind of time frame do I have to get back on my feet, go back to work and be set for September?’
“The doctor’s response was that with September being three months away, unless I had a setback, that I would have no problem. So I knew then that if I did what the doctors said and followed orders that three months later I’d be ready to go and sure enough, I was ready to go.”
Kleinendorst checked in with Stirling throughout the summer but had no lingering doubts that his right-hand man would be ready for training camp in September.
“When he left here, he had already shared his conversation with me that he had with the doctor,” Kleinendorst said. “The doctor felt there was absolutely no reason why he wouldn’t be able to come back in September and do what he does. I was comfortable with that.
“We did talk off and on all summer long. The one thing I always asked was, ‘How are you doing?’ He’d always say, ‘I’m doing just fine.’ He always let me know he was excited for September. There was never any waver in his approach or his voice. I never questioned the fact that he would be back.”
Stirling diligently kept up with his rehab assignment, working with doctors near his home in Boston and in the best shape of his life in eight weeks. Then on Sept. 9, Stirling skated onto the ice for the first time in three months at the Bell Sensplex in Kanata, Ontario, prepared to lead a group of Ottawa Senators prospects in a workout before departing for the Toronto Maple Leafs rookie tournament in Oshawa.
“Before I got on the ice that day I was nervous,” Stirling said. “I hadn’t been on the ice for three months. It was almost like I was a pee-wee again or like my first training camp. I felt butterflies. I was so nervous and thinking, ‘How am I going to do this? Am I going to be okay? Am I going to pass the pucks all right?’ But once you get out there and you get going, you get into the game and even after all these years it comes natural again. I was just like a little kid in a candy store.”
Stirling said he is flattered players are able to take something away from his experience.
“Going through the surgery is part of what I needed to do for my health,” he said. “I never thought about what going through that experience and then coming back to coaching would mean to the players. I am thrilled that they can pull something out of my experience for them.”
Francesca, who has missed only a half-dozen games that her husband has coached, is happy to be back in Binghamton and recalled the doctor’s advice at the cardiac rehab near their home on Boston.
“The doctor turned to Steve at the last session and said, ‘Go out and have 20 more years of fun,’ ” Francesca said.
Stirling is certain to reach or surpass that goal whether it’s on or off the ice.
“I feel exhilarated again,” Stirling said with a smile. “Now that I’m back, everything gets better every day.”
And we all thank the Lord for that. Enjoy those 20 years – and many more – Steve.
PALMIERI NAMED AHL PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Syracuse Crunch right wing Kyle Palmieri was named the Reebok/AHL Player of the Week on Monday after getting four goals and two assists and being plus-5 in two wins. Palmieri, who won the award twice as a rookie, started his second pro season with two three-point nights. He had two assists in regulation and scored the winning goal in a 5-4 victory over the defending Calder Cup champion Binghamton Senators on Friday night and then had his third career hat trick in the Crunch’s home opener, scoring in each period in a 6-2 win over Adirondack. The Anaheim Ducks’ first-round pick (26th overall) in 2009 tied for the AHL lead among rookies with 29 goals and was fifth in scoring with 51 points last season, when he represented the Crunch in the AHL All-Star Classic. He also had one goal in 10 games with the Ducks and played in one Stanley Cup playoff game. … The Ducks recalled left wing Patrick Maroon from the Crunch on Monday to replace Jason Blake, who will be out three months with a laceration above his left wrist sustained when cut by a skate midway through the third period of a 1-0 victory over San Jose on Friday night. Blake needed sutures to close the wound and had surgery to have tendon damage repaired on Monday.