San Antonio – It’s a shock in major league sports to many fans when their favorite player gets shipped - traded to another team. In hockey, one day Brad Park was on the hated New York Rangers and the next day, he’s skating with the rival Boston Bruins. But what is it like trading an entire team? Welcome to life in the minors.
Rampage fans have bittersweet feelings today. Unlike Avalanche fans, who’s favorites will most likely be pulling the same jerseys over their heads next fall, San Antonio hockey fans will be introduced to a vastly different lineup when the 2018-19 AHL season begins, as the St. Louis Blues take over as sole provider of players to the Alamo City.
So if Rampage fans want to catch a glimpse of some of their favorite players, that glimpse will have to be directed toward the visiting Colorado Eagles bench as San Antonio completes its fifth organizational transition in 17 years come October.
Thanks to the Vegas Golden Knights pulling an end around and snaring the AHL Chicago Wolves as their farm team, the Blues were left without a main affiliate. The Avs allowed the Blues to split their prospects with San Antonio - leading to 2017-18 being a lame duck year in Texas.
Even though SA fans will have a few returning Blues players next season, many favorite future Avs players will remain in their hearts and on their backs.
The Avalanche will have their farmhands an Uber pickup away from the Pepsi Center in Loveland next season, which makes remarkable business sense in a hockey universe where the Anaheim Ducks once sent their recruits to Portland, Maine, or the LA Kings having Manchester, NH as their AHL home. It might as well have been Manchester, England.
Has the Avalanche-Rampage connection worked out? In retrospect...maybe.
No playoffs in three years. But then again, the Rampage connections with Florida (twice) and Phoenix didn’t exactly capture the Calder Cup, did it? Fact is, the AT&T Center ice has been fully operational only four times in 16 seasons after tax day, and the franchise saw the second round only once.
Overall, the Avalanche-San Antonio record stands at 94-108-18-2 as the moving vans approach. From that standpoint, the affiliation fell flat. In the first two seasons, the playoffs were out of reach by January. Usually, that mark is enough to get people fired. Truth be told, the Avalanche haven’t enjoyed much AHL success over the last 10 years – only one team making the post-season, so it wasn’t out of the ordinary.
But that begs the question – what would you rather have, the NHL Detroit Red Wings, who missed the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 1990, or win the AHL Calder Cup, as their AAA-level Grand Rapids Griffins did last season? Or Nashville, making the Stanley Cup finals last season, while their affiliate since the 90’s, the Milwaukee Admirals, missed this season’s playoffs for only the second time?
This past season has mixed reviews. The Rampage were a tough out at home until this last four-game losing streak, going 20-13-5-0 overall. The fans, for the most part, got to watch competitive games, but there were a couple of aggravating issues that can be hopefully addressed by the upcoming shift in management.
The fans witnessed how NOT to run the power play, which finished dead last for home teams in the AHL. They scored 20 goals with the extra skater. TWENTY…in 150 chances. Some nights, you wished they could, like in football, decline the penalty.
And whoever thought of that power play gimmick where you advance the puck to the red line, turn suddenly and pass it backwards to a teammate with a supposed head of steam, needs to burn his consultant card immediately. The Rampage translation of that move: have a guy spin at the redline, lackadaisically send the puck back between the circles to a hardly moving defenseman, who advances the puck to where the original player passed it from, and then that “rusher” get stood up at the blueline while everyone else on the team stands around is not a great way to run a railroad or get the puck in deep.
And for some unknown reason, the “one-goal is enough” climate seemed to dominate this year’s team, where the Rampage would get an early goal and disappear offensively, getting outshot, out-chanced and eventually out-scored - while nearly getting their goaltender killed. One too many 15-3 shooting periods were experienced, especially after Jan. 1.
Callups are a part of minor league hockey life, but there were times when the Colorado Eagles were playing in San Antonio Rampage uniforms. The results were, as expected, dismal. Eagles leading scorer, Michael Joly, could score 47 ECHL goals and 67 points in 52 games this season. But his 3-4-7 line just doesn’t cut it in the 19 AHL games he played this year. And when the Blues and Avs grabbed Ville Husso and Spencer Martin at the same time, that left the Rampage with Joe Canatta and Sam Brittain as their goalies, although Canatta did well in his games.
So from a purely hockey nuts and bolts framework, the three years were somewhat frustrating. However, most folks who attend Rampage games, with the exception of the season-ticket faithful and the occasional loud-mouth from Philly, are mostly curious about this game that’s been in town for over 20 years now, and feel good when they learn the San Antonio “synchronized arm-pump” when a Rampage player scores a goal. For these fans, the human side of affiliation change hits them the hardest.
The human side for San Antonio hockey fans this season is a deeper appreciation for the NHL’s Western Conference playoffs, as they see the guys who were once here, do what they do there, on the big stage. In Nashville, and now in Denver. Heck, at a viewing party on the last game of the season vs. St. Louis for a playoff spot, most of the 50 or so fans were perplexed as to who they should cheer for.
Then again, thanks to the Avalanche, Rampage fans can point to seeing the youthful wizardry of Mikko Rantanen, who, at 19, was a rare AHL game changer. Nobody got nachos when Mikko was in the lineup. It was always a busy intermission on the concourse since you didn’t want to chance ‘missing a Mikko move’ with the game on.
Rampage fans can also point with pride with the quick ascension of J.T. Compher and Dominic Toninato, whose minor league apprenticeship out of college was swift, but enjoyable, especially on a top-five AHL penalty kill unit.
And depending whether his “give a flip” feelings were on high alert or daydream, Rampage fans could point out to you that Nikita Zadorov enjoyed hard hits, showing off his temper and his tendency to lob a perfect pass onto an opponent’s stick at the wrong time - all before his skates hit Pepsi Center ice.
They can also point with pride to seeing Duncan Siemans, with his 171 Rampage games, step in and do an admirable job in Game 2 in Nashville, planting a few Predators in the process, or seeing David Warsofsky getting power play B shift time in a Stanley Cup playoff game.
How about seeing, Sam Henley score his only NHL goal from the right wing board last season in his only NHL game? Or feeling absolute dejection as rookie goaltender Spencer Martin by that bad man Patrick Marleau when he scored four goals in one period against him? Another goalie, Calvin Pickard showed he belonged at a higher level on AT&T Center ice and may be part of the answer in Toronto. A.J. Greer, a great community guy who shaved his head last season to show support for children with cancer, has shown he could be the best player on the ice as an All-Star last season. Felix Girard, acquired from Nashville for Cody McLeod, may never play an NHL game, but he showed the grit and ‘bring your lunch-pail’ mentality to every shift, every night. Chris Bigras, Alex Belzile, Julien Nantel, Anton Lindholm, Mason Geertsen…quality players whose names adorn game-worn jerseys seen on shoulders around the rink.
Greertsen said of the upcoming change, “I loved playing here. It’s a good place to play. You’re treated very well here. Great facility here. The fans here are top notch. It feels like an NHL atmosphere.”
This year’s leading scorer, Andrew Agozzino, back for his second stint after a year with, ironically, the St. Louis organization, felt the same way of his time in the Alamo City. “Two great years here. I’ve really enjoyed myself and the city. It’s tough to leave, but that’s the way the business is.”
Greer seemed genuinely distraught over the thought of playing elsewhere at this level when he said, “It was my second year here and I can’t imagine playing anywhere else. Every night, whether it was a school night or a big weekend, they always had our backs. It was that kind of support we need to have some energy every night to go out there and do our job. It’s a great privilege to play here, in a great arena with great fans. There’s nowhere that beats San Antonio as a city as far as an organization. It’s been great. It’s two years you’ll always remember for the rest of your life.”
Bring on the Blues say many fans I’ve visited with the last few games. But there’s that hint of remorse. Perhaps it’s dawned on them that next season, Geertsen will be taking liberties with their new-found favorites. Will he be nice on his San Antonio return? The 6-4 Geertsen with 117 penalty minutes this season smiled, “We’ll see.”