Houston Aeros 1994-2013: Thank you for all the great memories and two decades of great hockey and entertainment.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Ten Years Ago: Aeros win second championship

Oh, how lucky I was. In my first year covering the team for the Houston Chronicle, the Aeros made it all the way to the Calder Cup finals against the Hamilton Bulldogs.

What a great group of guys, and working with then head coach Todd McLellan will always be a fond memory for me. That June, I didn't have enough time or money to stay in Hamilton for Games 6 and 7 because there was a circus in town and a lot of time off between the two games.

I had to choose, and I chose wrong. I flew up to Toronto with a co-worker and we rented a car and drove down to Hamilton for Game 6. The Aeros went down 2-0 in the game and lost 2-1 to force the Game 7. We flew back to Houston the next day and I watched Game 7 on Fox Southwest.

One of our commenters posted this, and I thought I would share it with out. It's the last five minutes of Game 7 and the ensuing celebration. Jim Mill, then a VP with the AHL, presented our MVP, Johan Holmqvist with his trophy after the game.

Here is another trip down memory lane, just about all we have left of our Houston Aeros. Enjoy.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Shootout video from first Houston Aeros game back in 1994

The first real game in Aeros history was against the defending champion Atlanta Knights in October 1994. The Summit was rockin' that night. More than 15,000 were on their feet as the shootout started, and the Aeros and Knights needed a long tie-breaker to determine the winner.

Some of you may have been there in person, but I had to work that night and was not able to make it until the second game against the Denver Grizzlies. Atlanta went up, 1-0 before Clayton Young scored twice to tie the game for the Aeros and send the match to a shootout.

Below is a You Tube video from the shootout, and here is a list of Aeros "first" provided by then Chronicle Aeros beat writer Jody Goldstein:


Aeros firsts 

On ice -- Astros baseman Jeff Bagwell, honorary Aero. 

To carry flag -- Olympian Todd Reynolds. 

To sing national anthem -- Patty Rayne. 

Goal -- The Knights' Chris LiPuma at 14:25 of the first period. 

Aeros goal -- Clayton Young at 13:02 of the second period, assisted by Carl Valimont and Mike Yeo. 

Aeros power play -- 3:09 of first period, high-sticking by Cory Cross. 

Aeros two-man shorthanded situation -- 13:16 of first period, after Darryl Olsen, was sent off for fighting. 

Fight -- Aeros' Brian Pellerin vs. Knights' Jeff Buchanan. 

Starting line -- Dave Tippett, Murray Eaves, Pellerin. 

Starting defenseman -- Olsen, Carl Valimon. 

In goal -- Troy Gamble. 



Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Season in Review - Now that it's over ... it's really over

Every year I covered the team for the Houston Chronicle, I always asked the same two questions to the team's GM when the season finally ended.

"Is the team playing in Houston next year?"
"If so, will Coach X be in charge when that happens?"

Even with leases, you just never know when an affiliation may change or move. I always wanted the GM or team President on record.

As we all know, those questions were moot after this season. The franchise came to a halt after the Aeros were blitzed 7-0 in Game 5 against Grand Rapids. 19 years went up in smoke, even though for the past year or so many of us knew this would be the last time the Wild had its prospects at Toyota Center.

Last season was such a blur to me because of all the uncertainty. I took every opportunity I could to take my kids to see live AHL hockey because I know I probably won't have the same kind of access to the team that I did during this era.

My oldest son, only 8, wants to be a hockey player because of the Aeros. My daughter loves going because she loves the action and the pace of the game compared to baseball and football.

In the first third of the season, the Aeros really had something going with the offense. The middle third, they stayed one of the Top 10 teams because of their goaltending and defense. And then for the home stretch, they made the playoffs because they played a ton of games against teams that ultimately did not make the playoffs. You still have to win the games, sure, but the team was so beat up with injuries and Wild injuries, I was not 100% sure they were going to hold on to their playoff spot.

They went five or six deep on the goalie depth chart and had makeshift chemistry when it came to scoring lines. Justin Fontaine ... just wow. Thank you for putting up with all you had to endure mentally to stay on the top of your game and keep the offense going just enough to get them team into the playoffs.

He is my team MVP for sure. Defensively, I'd have to say that Steven Kampfer and Paul Mara share that honor with what they did after that long six game losing streak in January. The team literally could have tanked at that point and who could have blamed them?

Coach Torchetti and Darcy Kuemper and those two found a away to limit the goals, and Kampfer turned his game completely around to get it done. And the two just happened to be fan favorites on Twitter, too. They were nice guys and both of them have NHL experience. They really stepped up as leaders of a very young blueline.

Torchetti said after the season that his team overachieved this year, and he is right. The Aeros probably would not have one a five-game series against any of the other Top 7 teams, and I think there were three non-playoff teams (Rockford, Lake Erie and Peoria) that would have taken them out in a 7-game series.

Rockford could score like crazy this year, and the Rivermen and Monsters just had the Aeros number this season for whatever reason.

The Aeros made the playoffs and took a very talented Grand Rapids team to a fifth and deciding game. I am good with that and I think Torchetti just does not get enough credit for what he did with this roster the last two seasons.

Before I say my final good-byes and turn this blog into a place for Aeros archives, I wanted to give you my thoughts on the Aeros final season in Houston. I never wanted it to end for obvious reasons, but deep down I knew there was no deep run in them. They just lost too many important parts right when the playoffs started, and that was enough to ultimately take them down.

I will always cherish every Aeros season, as IHL and AHL hockey has been a big part of my life for 19 years. I will remember this team for the spectacular overtime games led by Jason Zucker, Darcy Keumper's spectacular goaltending when he was here and then the home stretch, where guys we've never heard of stepped up in goal and carried the team to the postseason.

Speaking of which, Mike Condon's play with the Aeros earned him an entry-level contract with the Montreal Canadiens after he was done here.

Also, I will remember Steve Kampfers 180-degree shift in play and sadly all the injuries and roster mess up in Minnesota that ultimately spelled doom for this team. Thanks to John Torchetti for always making himself available via phone, text and after the games to answer our questions.

To me, this was a good season ... it just ended way too soon because a lot of us wanted to see them play a few more rounds before moving to Iowa. Thanks again for reading this season, and stay tuned for some final thoughts soon ...

Friday, May 10, 2013

One Last Good-Bye?


I was going to have some final thoughts for you today, but I am delaying those until next week.
The Aeros scheduled a good-bye party for fans, and I want to attend that and take some pictures.
One of the best things, if not THE best thing about working with the team was the people I met along the way.

19 years is a long time to do anything, and I will miss going to the rink to see them play.

Below is an original post by John that I updated with a video that came out shortly thereafter.
Hope to see you at the party tomorrow night!

Andrew

There have been some comments regarding whether there would be some kind of goodbye gathering for the team. According to Joe O'Donnell, there will be a party at 4:00 tomorrow afternoon at the Maple Leaf Pub. I'm not sure what the team turnout will be like, but this might be one last chance to see some of your hockey friends and say goodbye. And according to Joe, there will be food.

So come on down and say goodbye if you get the chance.

The team together the video below after the players' exit interviews. Very well done, Aeros, and I am glad I was able to get through it without a box of tissues.

Defenseman Steven Kampfer, "You guys are awesome, and we hope to have hockey back in Houston soon."


Thursday, May 9, 2013

Putting a bow on it

The guys are writing such great stuff that every time a new post comes out, I think, "Ugh, I can't even complete with that!" But I do have a few final thoughts to submit to the universe before I close the book on the Aeros. Some of them are happy, some are grumpy, but none are sleepy, sneezy, or dopey.

Well, some might be dopey.

Relocation
I've written this section 3 times now and it gets less angry every time. That whole "write your angry letter and then throw it away" thing works, I guess, but I still need to say it.

I deeply regret that I was never able to get on record even a hint of what happened in the negotiations with Toyota Center.

I tried, believe me, I did. While I understood the inability to discuss during negotiations, I really hoped that after the fact, the organization would give me even just a bare minimum of information. Just throw the long-loyal Aeros fans a bone and say, "They wanted us to pay triple what we'd be paying in Des Moines. It was just untenable. We honestly tried our best and we're really sorry it ended up this way."

I just feel like that would have been a really decent thing to do for the one population whose interests weren't being met in this arrangement, but who had shown the most loyalty all along. I wanted to get that for you guys, for all of us, and my biggest disappointment in my whole writing career is that I wasn't able to.

My favorite thing

That first game every season, butterflies in my stomach, walking into the mostly empty arena and smelling that ice, the boys pouring out of the tunnel for warm-ups, seeing friends I haven't seen all summer and falling right back into that happy routine of going to Aeros games. 

My first hockey loves
 I loved John Scott back when I didn't know what hockey was really supposed to look like. He was tall, he was nice, he could hold guys at arms length and just wail on them and win every fight imaginable without even breaking a sweat. He was great. Then I realized that goalies were king and Brusty was the king of kings and I was lost forever. Every moment watching him play as an Aero, I cherish. I think I have those old What's Bugging Barry Brust? videos memorized. Every time I open a difficult package I think, "Or, like, a gun..."

Press row
People keep asking if I'm going to find a place to write up here in Dallas, but frankly, I'm ready for a break. I've done well for myself just going where the wind takes me with this hockey writing thing. So, I think it's a strategy worth sticking to. But I will miss being in the media, at least during games.

There's something about the delayed gratification of not being able to stand up and cheer or boo or whatever during a game, but that, in exchange, we get to document the game for posterity. It's very satisfying. Plus, when your colleagues are as fun as mine have always been, it's a double bonus. Also, you learn to not take it so personally. I guess when you don't pay for tickets, it's a lot easier. We'll see how I feel about the Stars rebuilding on my dime. :)


Favorite game moment? Hmm...
I feel badly that I don't have more in-game moments outside of John's great list, but all the great moments for me just add up to this big warm, fuzzy, exciting ball and I can't separate them anymore. I do remember the bad-feeling-in-the-pit-of-my-stomach moments, like Game 6 of the finals when the Toyota Center felt so huge and cold and empty despite a nice crowd. I just knew it was over. And I'll never forget the Ottawa fans chanting "YOU CAN'T HACK IT!" at Hackett in Binghamton. Clever, but oh boy...

On the Road
I'm not a big, "Hey let's get in the car and drive!" gal. I get sleepy and bored and my butt hurts. But for hockey, it's worth it. Road trips to San Antonio and Austin with Andrew and John and Chris and Fred and Terri and Emilie and plane trips to fun places like Cleveland, Syracuse, Providence, Milwaukee. Always a great time.



Houston Hockey Culture
While I feel awful for fans losing their team, what eats at me even more is that no new fans will be created. You really have to GO TO a hockey game to understand what's so amazing about the sport and I know many of us are hockey fans thanks to going to that first Aeros game.

For me, that first Aeros game and all the subsequent ones, led me to essentially a second career (and frankly, one that brings a lot more joy than any day job ever could), a whole new group of really awesome friends, and basically a new me across the board. I've accomplished things I never would have imagined (learning to skate, play goal, being an AHL beat writer, meeting and becoming friends with my hockey idol) thanks to that first Aeros game.

Dallas owns junior hockey in Texas, but Houston was starting to come into its own. Creating future hockey players, creating its own fan base, is how hockey survives in the south and the Aeros did a bang-up job of supporting that.

I just hate to see that process have to regress a little (or a lot) and start all over when, someday, hopefully, Houston gets a hockey team again.


It's like when Tinkerbell was dying and, to keep her alive, you had to clap your hands if you believed...

Keep clapping, Aeros fans. Hockey needs you.

And In The End

This is my final post for The Third Intermission. There's lots more that I want to say, but this is Andrew's blog, Andrew's idea, and Heather and myself decided that he deserved the last post.

Damn, there's going to be a last post. That's painful to write, painful to think about.

Before I write a bunch of so-called deep thoughts, I just want to thank a few people.

Andrew, Heather, it's been a blast sharing this blog with you, covering this team. Andrew, thanks for being so welcoming six long years ago when I showed up at the preseason media luncheon. Your encyclopedic knowledge of the team, its history, its records, the players, never failed to amaze me. I only wish you were as good at picking lottery numbers as you were with predicting opposing team goals.

Heather, thanks for the spirit you brought to press row. I think my arm is still bruised from all of the punches I took when the goalies were doing something good, or something bad, or just skating on to the ice. Your love of hockey is infectious. The stick finger drawings were inspired, and I wish we would have some way to resurrect them this season.

To Fred Trask, damn I've missed you, Mr. Fred. The treatment you received from the Aeros/Wild was crappy and undeserved, and I wish that I could have fixed it. The blog suffered for the lack of your photos, and though I went down and tried to take photos, there was just no way to do you justice, so good was your work.

I need to thank the Houston Press. They didn't really wanting me writing much about the team for the past year or so. They said nobody cared, and that nobody read the posts. I debated the nobody caring part, but I saw the numbers, and the readers were far too few, until these past weeks when the news about the departure came out. Then suddenly everybody was reading. But that said, it was the Press that gave me the chance to cover the team, and stuck with me for six years. So thank you.

I want to thank the Aeros PR staff that I dealt with for six years, first Patrick and Scott, then Robert and Palmer. Rich was there whenever I needed him. And Josh and Jeremy were ever present when I needed information. You guys often had a thankless job, so I hope that in someway this makes up for it, though I know it won't. Hopefully I wasn't too much of a jerk.

Thanks to Jason Shaver and Joe O'Donnell. You guys are quality broadcasters, and I enjoyed our conversations. Joe, I heard your final comments after the game five Grand Rapids loss. I know those weren't easy words for you say, but you handled it like a true professional. I'll miss you.

There were three different coaching staffs on my time of the beat. And they were all great to deal with. I had heard that Kevin Constantine could be difficult to deal with when he was in the NHL. That might have been true, but he was great here in Houston, and didn't treat me like the idiot that I truly am when it comes to hockey. I don't know what can be said about Mike Yeo but that he knew his job involved selling hockey in Houston as much as coaching hockey. I used to love it when he was angry about something, because then the Canadian came out and he was talking aboot things going wrong on the ice. I'm going to miss listening to John Torchetti and his Boston accent. And to all of the assistants, thanks for everything.

Thanks to Tom Lynn and Jim Mill for returning calls and texts.

I owe much to Dave Maxwell, who handled operations for the team and dealt with travel and attending to the players. I think Dave was punished for some reason in the 2011 Calder Cup playoffs because he kind of became my unofficial handler, getting me players, running interference, etc. He had a thankless, unseen job keeping the team running, and I think he did a fantastic job.

I want to thank Barry Brust, Erik Reitz, Brandon Rogers, Mitch Love, Matt Kassian, Jon DiSalvatore, Jed Ortmeyer, Drew Bagnall, Danny Irmen and all of the other players I interviewed over the years. I know it can't be easy dealing with the media when you've just lost a game, or you're hurt, or you've just lost a game, but you guys were there every night. You've probably erased me from your mind already -- not that I blame you -- but thanks for coming out and talking.

I want to thank the team medical staff for letting me interject myself into their corner down by the locker room during games. And thanks for letting me sit at the dinner table with you guys. I'm not going to name everybody, but you guys were great people, and you are a fantastic medical staff. I saw you working hard after games and was always amazed by just what you had to deal with every night.

I want to thank everybody for reading us here at T3I. This site would've been useless without readers.Thanks for indulging my rants. Thanks for letting me play video DJ. Thanks for letting me obsess over The Beatles on a hockey website. And most of all, thanks for your comments, especially you Forecheck, who always seemed to be there with some kind of sarcastic comment. I appreciated you, too, B2 Bomber, and OldFan, and IceVet, and you, too Arts and Hockey. And I apologize for not naming all of you. But if you left a comment, thanks.

There are so many people that I've not named. Gary, Jim, Randy, Jody, Morris, OJ, Jeff. I hope that's nobody pissed at me for not naming them. It wasn't intentional. The only people I've ever set out to deliberately piss off were the people in the AHL offices.

This has probably rambled a bit too long, but now I've got something really serious I want to get off of my chest.

This didn't have to happen. Nothing anybody can say will convince me the only result was the Aeros becoming the Iowa Wild for a couple of years before they move on to Sioux Falls. I know all about Les Alexander's demands and his so-called unreasonableness, but there's nothing that will convince me that, if the Wild really, really, really, really wanted to keep the Aeros here, the Aeros wouldn't still be here. Sure the Wild liked having a team here, and they paid a lot of lip service to their desire to stay here, but I just always kind of got the feeling that if they couldn't play here, then no big deal. And all you of people who are convinced that Chuck Watson was some saint, remember, he's the one who started this, treating Alexander and the Rockets much like Ted Turner used to treat the Atlanta Braves back when their game times were determined by what the programming needs of TBS were back when Watson was the landlord at the Summit. Hell, Watson's probably the number one reason Houston doesn't have the NHL right now, having twice prevented in the 1990s attempts by Alexander to either purchase and relocate the Edmonton Oilers, or  get an expansion franchise. It's never going to happen thanks to the failure of the NHL's southern strategy -- way to go Phoenix and Atlanta.

And here's what really bugs me, something no one is talking about. There are a lot of people who are now out of work, or who are facing reduced hours. It all seems to be about making a profit. The Wild could make a bigger profit relocating the Aeros to Des Moines. Les Alexander can make more profit by pimping the building out for more concerts. But there are a lot of Aeros employees who are now out of work because of this, and nobody seems to care a damn. And what about the ushers and game day staff at Toyota Center? These are part time jobs to lots of people, sure, but it's very important supplemental income to lots of these people. Now instead of 80-100 nights of guaranteed work, they're down to about 40-60. But hey, the rich dude owners are making a profit, and that's all that really counts, right?

I don't know the names of all of the Toyota Center game day staff I dealt with over the years. But they always had a smile on their faces. They cheered for the team and badly wanted the Aeros to win. I would take the elevator up and down from the rink level to the main concourse several times a game, and I was always asked the score by the person stuck in the elevator that night. They'd want to know how the game was going, how certain players looked on the ice. They cared just as much as any fan and their reward is not only the loss of a team to cheer for, but the loss of income.

Nobody is blameless in this deal. I hope the Rockets never win another game for as long as Les Alexander owns the team, and if the Aeros fail in Des Moines, I definitely won't be upset.

Andrew, Heather, Fred, all of you, thanks for letting me write for you. Thanks for reading. It's been a blast, and I wish it didn't have to end.

The Houston Aeros are dead, but they'll never be forgotten.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Another trip down memory lane: From the IHL to Todd McLellan to Rob Daum

All Smiles - Photo by Fred Trask
Most of you know that I have been around the Aeros awhile. For 19 years, I have seen a majority of the home games. Even in the mid-2000s, I covered a lot of road games in San Antonio and even made a few other trips to the Midwest because of my flight benefits with Continental Airlines.


For the first eight seasons or so, I was nothing more than a fan. During the 1997-98 season, I was an intern, working under then Media Relations guru, Todd Sharrock. He is now with the Columbus Blue Jackets. When Todd McLellan came in, I got my first gig writing about the Aeros for a city weekly called Space City Sports. In 2002, Scott Kaiser left the Houston Chronicle, and I begged then sports editor Fred Faour for the Aeros beat.


He gave it to me, and instantly I had the best writing job I ever had or ever will have. I got paid to watch the Aeros, and other than former trainer Jerry Meins, no one saw more Aeros games than I did. Yesterday, John ran through a list of his favorite memories, and I share a lot of those with him. His list was impressive, albeit recent due to his era covering the team. Now that it is my turn, I will try to duplicate that with 10 great stories from the IHL days through the Rob Daum Years.


Buckle up; this is exceptionally long … but I know many of you did not follow the team during this era, so you will probably learn a lot. And I think you will enjoy one last trip down memory lane.


Houston gets an IHL team:



I was learning the game of hockey via NHL 93, an EA Sports Sega video game that my brother Todd got me addicted too. The NHL was beginning to flourish on ESPN 2 (NHL 2night, for those that remember) and I had just attended my first NHL game in person, a Detroit win over the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Joe. 

The Dallas Stars relocated from Minneapolis, and I always hoped Houston could get a team, too. Then I saw a story in the Chronicle about Chuck Watson bringing hockey back to Houston as an IHL franchise. 19 years later, I can’t believe they are leaving. I am attached more to this team that any other before and more than I ever will be again.


The Aeros sign Freddie Chabot :

Known then as the Shaq (as in Shaquille O'Neal) of the IHL, Fred Chabot was the league’s best goalie. And after the Aeros were knocked out of the playoffs in their first year and suffered through a miserable second, Chuck Watson opened his checkbook and signed Chabot away from the Cincinnati Cyclones. 

Chabot carried the Aeros on his back three times and made them one of the best teams in the league. He holds just about every Aeros goalie record there is and was an equally great person to be around. Now, he’s the goalie coach in Edmonton. His signing started an era where the Aeros made the playoffs for nine straight years.


Dave Tippett and Brian Wiseman lead the Aeros to the Turner Cup :

In Chabot’s second year, the Aeros got some offense to go with the defense, but the team was shocked in the first round by the Milwaukee Admirals. The next season, 1998-99, Tippett would have none of that. 

Even with Chabot on recall to the NHL most of the season, the Aeros dominated the league with a sick roster and then NHL prospect Manny Fernandez. That team could do no wrong, but they made things very interesting in the postseason. Every playoff series went the distance. Long Beach took them to five games, and Chicago and Orlando took the Aeros to seven games before ending with the most exciting home game in Houston Aeros history.


Game 7, Houston vs. Orlando, June 1999:


I had a sick feeling when I parked in the Compaq Center garage that night. What if they blow a 3-1 series lead against a team that already advanced by winning four straight in its previous series? The Solar Bears, led by former Wild coach Todd Richards, helped his team erase a 3-0 deficit in the previous round and beat the Detroit Vipers in a winner-take-all Game 7. 

The magic was back, and everything the Aeros did so right that year was on the line. More than 15,000 packed the stands on a hot night in the Bayou City, and the arena erupted as the Aeros raced out to a 2-0 lead on goals by Rob Valicevic and Cam Stewart. Orlando got one back with three minutes left in the period and Gregori Pantaleyev scored his second of the game at 12:43 of the second to tie it up. My heart sank, my worst fears were coming true. The Solar Bears were Annie from Steven King’s “Misery.” 

Then, in the most exciting four minutes of hockey I have ever seen live, the Aeros took a 4-3 lead into the third period. First, Valicevic scored his second of the game, only to see future Aeros fan favorite Curtis Murphy tie the game just over three minutes later. But the Aeros got a power play late in the period, and David Oliver, now an assistant coach with the Lake Erie Monsters, scored what proved to be the game winning goal with 19 seconds left in the period. My heart still races as I write this, and going into the third period, the Aeros were 20 minutes away from a title. 

This time, there would be no come back for the Solar Bears. Jimmy Paek, now an assistant coach with the Grand Rapids Griffins, iced the game 8:07 into the third. The Aeros were first-time champions.




The end of an era; Aeros exit the IHL as a top-four team:

By the time the Aeros won the Turner Cup in 1999, the health of that league was in a major decline. Teams were bleeding money, dropping like flies, and the IHL got away from its stance of competing with the NHL. It was becoming more of a development league, a lot like what the AHL is today. 

In 2000, the Aeros had a new head coach (Ron Low) because Tippett deservedly got an Assistant position with the Los Angeles Kings. After winning the Cup in ‘99, it was a transition year for the Aeros but they still had many of the pieces in place from the year before. And this time, they had Chabot back from the NHL. 

The up-and-down season got them a 3-seed in the Western Conference, and the Aeros made it to the conference finals against the Chicago Wolves after beating getting a first-round bye and beating the Utah Grizzlies. (Side note: Lane Lambert’s Game 3, OT winner was the single greatest moment for that team). The Aeros went up 2-0 on Chicago, winning both in Rosemont by a combined score of 9-1. It looked like the Aeros were going back to the finals, then, After take a 3-0 lead in Game 3, back in Houston, it all came crashing down. That started the first of two epic playoff choke jobs (more on the second one later). The Wolves didn’t cave, they got desperate, outscoring the Aeros 15-5 the rest of the way and winning the series 4-2.

The end of an era and the comp. ticket scandal:

After injuries took their toll during the 2000 run, the Aeros loaded up with another group of veterans for one more run at a Turner Cup. With Low going to the New York Rangers and head coach, the Aeros turned to Dave Barr as boss, and, again, Freddie Chabot. The Aeros came right back as one of the West’s best teams and missed the division title by just two points. That proved costly as the Aeros, as the No. 2 seed, were pitted against the Manitoba Moose and Ken Wregget. 

The league was down to just 11 teams, but the Aeros raced out to a 3-1 lead in the series. After splitting the first two games at home, the Aeros went to Winnipeg Arena and won Games 3 and 4, with the latter an overtime winner. The team was already making plans for another West finals rematch with the Chicago Wolves. Even the Wolves were making plans to face the Aeros. Everyone thought it was a done deal; Aeros just had to win one of their last three games. But they could not do it. 

Manitoba won Game 5 in overtime to send the series back to Houston. The Aeros coughed up leads in Games 6 and 7, and left the IHL after what remains the biggest choke job in Aeros history. How could this happen? A former employee of the team told me the locker room was not tight, and the team bickered more often that you’d think. In Manitoba, the team allegedly fought over the limited number of tickets afforded to them by the Moose front office. No punches were thrown, but the team spent WAY too much time arguing over things that had no business being a concern during a playoff run. The Aeros got what they deserved.

The Aeros join the AHL, team up with the Minnesota Wild:

The IHL died after the Orlando Solar Bears won the last turner cup in 2001. Six IHL teams joined the AHL, and the Aeros were one of them. Todd McLellan, because of the new affiliation with the Wild, replaced Barr as head coach, and the Aeros rode a strong finish and avoided the qualifying round. 

They were part of a new league, but the Aeros were in the middle of their golden era of making it to at least the Western Conference finals in four of five years. This team was no different. They powered past the Utah Grizzlies, winning two do-or-die games to do so, and the Hershey Bears in a sweep. That set up another conference final with, guess who, the Chicago Wolves. The Aeros won Game 1, 6-4, but collapsed after that. Just like they did last week, the Aeros were eliminated with a 7-0 loss on the road. 

The Wild were still babies in the NHL, and that meant the Aeros would have to fill a lot of holes with veterans. They loaded up during the summer of 2002, and that paved the way to another title, their first and only Calder Cup.

The Aeros win two Game 7s (on the road) and win the Calder Cup:

This was my first year covering the team. I had a full time job, but as a freelancer, I had the best job imaginable … to me, that is. The Aeros won their division during the regular season, setting up a first-round best of five with Milwaukee. The Aeros won that one 3-0, giving them a date with the Norfolk Admirals. The Aeros erased a 2-1 series deficit before moving on in six, earning a match with the No. 1 seeded Grand Rapids Griffins. The Aeros split the first two games on the road, won two of three at home and had two chances to win the series at Van Andel Arena. They did just that after losing Game 6 in OT and holding on in Game 7 for a 2-1 win. 

It was magnificent. The games were on TV at the time, and that team was being carried by goalie Johan Holmqvist at the trade deadline. The Wild dealt a very popular player away, Lawrence Nycholat,  to get him, and at the time, the players were very ticked off about losing a friend and team leader. It was my first true beat, and even I could sense things turning south at the end of the regular season. Instead, Holmqvist carried the team all the way to title No. 2. 

The win over the Griffins was gravy. They were Western Conference Champions, and they were to play the league’s best team, the Hamilton Bulldogs. Losing to them would not have been the end of the world for McLellan’s group. But they went that far, so why not go for it all? The Aeros won game 1, backed by Holmqvist (who the team called Honker). Game 2 was the most remarkable game, to me in the history of the franchise. It lasted well into a fourth Overtime, or 134 minutes, 56 seconds. The Aeros should have won the game in OT2, but captain Sylvain Cloutier was unjustly called for goalie interference, and the goal was waived off. Michael Ryder won the game on the Bulldogs’ 81st shot of the game. Bulldogs goalie Ty Conklin stopped 83 Aeros shots for the win. 

Hamilton won Game 3, but the Aeros closed out play at Compaq Center with wins in Games 4 and 5. Just like the last round, the Aeros had two chances to win it on the road. I had a day off, so it took it, flew to Hamilton for Game 6. The Aeros lost, and had to wait a few days to play Game 7 because the building was unavailable. I watched Game 7 from my couch. Fittingly, Holmqvist pitched a shutout in front of a full arena, and the Aeros celebrated in Canada. One of the highlights of the that season was seeing the couple hundred fans meet the team near IAH for a welcome home celebration.

McLellan goes to Detroit:

During my time as writer, I worked with now San Jose head coach Todd McLellan more than any other coach. I loved working with he, Rob Daum, Kevin Constantine, Mike Yeo and John Torchetti. I learned so much from all of them, but I am truly appreciative to McLellan for his patience over the years. 

The Chronicle replaced their real reporter (who resigned) with a kid (me)  who loved hockey and someone who loved to tell stories. I learned more Xs and Os from McLellan than I ever did before that. And I also learned from him about what players think about in just about any situation imaginable, and that really helped me craft stories around the big picture and not just focus on minutiae. 

With newspapers suffering, and my space for stories dwindling every year, that was key in helping me keep things interesting. That is hard to do when you cover the same team in the same league for 10 years. McLellan’s last season was 2004-05: the lockout that wiped out the entire NHL season. Mikko Koivu, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Brent Burns, Mike Smith and Josh Harding were all in Houston for a fun year that ended after a first-round exit to the Chicago Wolves. 

During the summer, I got a call from then Aeros GM Tom Lynn saying that the Aeros were going to need a new head coach because McLellan was going to join Mike Babcock’s staff in Detroit. I called Todd when the Wings made it official, and that conversation will stay with me. We talked about how great the last four years had been and what he'd like to accomplish before he retires. Guess what? He’s done a lot of that already, and right now, he is just 12 wins away from the ultimate … a Stanley Cup Champion as head coach.

Rob Daum and the O’Sullivan/Law/Westrum line:

The winningest Canadian College head coach joined the Aeros after McLellan left, and Rob Daum was blessed with a very, very good offensive team backed by goalie Josh Harding. Anyone who saw Patrick O’Sullivan, Kirby Law and Erik Westrum play together on Toyota Center ice can say they saw the best line in Houston Aeros history. In my fourth year covering the team, I had plenty to write about as that trio piled up 124 goals and 177 assists. Read that again … 

PR guru Ryan Stanzel told me during training camp that this team would be hard to be, and he was right. That squad was the last 50-win team in franchise history and swept past the Peoria Rivermen in the first round of the playoffs. 

The Aeros were then quickly swept by the Milwaukee Admirals in the second round, the only team in the conference that finished with more points. It was a good year, but definitely a tough pill to swallow for such a tremendously offensive group. Personal problems off the ice for some of the secondary players on that team carried over to the next year, and that ultimately spelled doom for the Aeros, who missed the playoffs and quickly replaced Daum …

But speaking of Rob Daum, best interview ever:

There is always that go-to player every year that gives you the best lines, win or lose. Jon DiSalvatore, Drew Bagnall, Barry Brust, Sylvain Cloutier … I could go on and on. But with coaches, you have to talk to them after every game, so you can only hope you establish a solid relationship from the get-go. 

McLellan was very PC and could be great. He was a teacher and his best stuff was always off the record. Constantine, to me, was a little less PC, but he always protected his players. McLellan was more focused on each game, and Constantine was more big picture. Yeo was emotional and there were times when I wanted to put on the skates and run through a wall for him. 

And Torchetti … how can you not love the Boston accent? He was all over the map at times, but my God, he loved his players. Considering what his teams and the Wild went through the last two years, I think he did the best job of any coach in the AHL history of the team. You could argue that the last two teams highly overachieved, and yet they made the playoffs both time. 

And then there was Daum. Great on the record, so much better off the record, but I looked forward to talking to him, especially after bad losses. His facial expressions were the best and his analogies were … colorful. I loved working with him, and looking back now, he never had a chance with his last group. I’ll remember him always.


A little T3I URL housekeeping

Just a quick update from the management:

Since this blog is going into archive mode after Andrew's final post on Friday, we didn't see the need to continue paying for our vanity URLs (www.thethirdintermission.com and www.T3I.info).

Starting Saturday, May 11, the only way to get to the blog will be our delightfully free Blogger address: thethirdintermission.blogspot.com.

So, if you have us bookmarked at one of the vanity URLs, change it up. You can always just Google "Third Intermission" and the blogger address will be at the top. Well, maybe not ALWAYS, but at least for a good long while.

As always, thanks for reading.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

These Are A Few of My Favorite Things...

Happy Birthday, Anton /photo by Fred Trask
It's still hard for me to believe that this great big ride that we've been on is over. Intellectually, I know it's been coming since before the season started. But I still trusted the adults would get together and work it all out, like adults are supposed to do. And even that last game, the loss to Grand Rapids, I somehow convinced myself that we'd all be be back for another round in the playoffs because it just couldn't end like that.

I was wrong. I've been wrong about a lot of things. Except for the Aeros leaving. For that, I was right, and for that, I really hate myself.

We're wrapping things up here at T3I. I've got another post planned for Thursday. [And here's my final Aeros post for the Houston Press.] I think Heather might have one left. And we're leaving it all to Andrew to wrap up since this was his baby. But before that, I feel compelled to share my favorite moments while serving as a beat writer covering the Aeros.

10. There was this one game in the 2009-2010 season where the only healthy goalie was Barry Brust. Because of a late player call-up, the Aeros didn't have time to call in another goalie. So Kevin Constantine suited up Jeff Crawford, an assistant equipment guy who helped out during practice and who had played some goalie during pick-up games and during practice. So of course Brust was injured during the first period, which led to Crawford leading the team out during second intermission warm-ups and taking shots. The scouts at the press table scrambled frantically to find information on Crawford, and were shocked when I told them who he was. Constantine was able to get a deal with the refs and the opposing team, giving him a few extra minutes before starting the second period. This gave the Aeros superb medical staff time to stitch up Brust and get him back out on the ice.

9. The puzzled expression on Mike Yeo's face as Milwaukee coach Lane Lambert tried to get into the referees locker room after the Admirals game five lost in 2011.

8. Matt Hackett "taunting" the Milwaukee crowd at the end of the Aeros game seven win in 2011. I put the "taunting" in quotes because what Hackett did was jump in the air and shout after Cody Almond scored what proved to be the series winning goal. Apparently players weren't allowed to celebrate in Milwaukee, but I think it was nothing more than a kid celebrating his team winning a game. And if he was taunting the Admirals crowd, then I can't think of a nicer fan base to be taunted.

7. Max Noreau's shot in game seven against Peoria in 2009 that went through the net and wasn't called a goal. I was looking down and missed it, but I was sitting next to Tom Lynn and Joe O'Donnell and they went ballistic. Play went on for awhile, but then Kevin Constantine was able to get the refs to stop play and inspect the net. The refs found nothing and didn't give the Aeros the goal.

6. Jon DiSalvatore leading the team across the ice, saluting the fans, after the Aeros defeated Hamilton in game seven to win the Western Conference Finals in 2011.

5. Krys Kolanos broke through the defense and had what appeared to be an easy breakaway goal. But he'd just been sit back down by the Wild, and it had been suggested that he work on being a better teammate, so he passed the puck back to a trailing Morten Madsen who then missed the shot. Why I remember this is Kolanos's reaction, throwing his hands in the air in disgust, and not even trying to hide his anger and bewilderment that Madsen missed such an easy shot.

4. For awhile, the Aeros did this thing where they'd put fans photos, taken during the game, and display them on the video boards. At this time, they were also bringing some fans down during the game to sit in the box between the benches, and then they'd put a photo of those fans, watching the game, up on the boards with the other photos. I happened to look up one time, just at the right moment, to see a photo of the fans who were in the box. And what I saw was Jed Ortmeyer, a huge grin on his face, leaning back away from the bench, looking at the camera, and getting in on the photo without anyone knowing.

3. Anton Khudobin wasn't really supposed to be playing goal for the Aeros in the 2009 playoffs. But Nolan Schaefer and Barry Brust were injured, so Khudobin it was. That led to one of my all-time favorite moments, and the photo from Fred Trask posted above. Khudobin's birthday was the day of Game Four against the Milwaukee Admirals. Khudobin led the team to a win, and afterwards, while being celebrated as the number one star of the game, PA announcer Steve Vidal led the crowd in rousing rendition of "Happy Birthday."

2. It was a long, lonely, late-night drive from Binghamton, New York to Philadelphia on a Saturday night where I was catching the first flight home after game 5 of the 2011 Calder Cup finals. Most of that was on the Pennsylvania Turnpike which was very dark, very quiet, very lonely, and since I didn't have satellite radio in the car, very full of static.  But all I remember, besides being dead tired, was how much I loved what I was doing at the moment, following a minor league hockey team on its quest to win a championship. I wish I was back making that drive.

1. The Aeros were playing Peoria in the first round of the 2009 playoffs, and game seven was in Peoria. We all decided that one of us should make the trip to Peoria to cover that game. How else would the blog be taken seriously if one of us wasn't there? And since I'd just lost my job, it was decided that I would go, and since Andrew worked for Continental, and since Continental was still in an alliance with Northwest and Delta, Andrew hooked up the flight, my leaving the day of the game on the first flight to Detroit, where I'd connect for a flight to Peoria that would get me in several hours before the game. Only weather and equipment delays kept me stuck in Detroit until almost four o'clock. I landed in Peoria about six, got the shuttle to the hotel, took the hotel shuttle to the arena, and got to my seat next to then GM Tom Lynn and Joe O'Donnell as they were singing the anthem. But what made it all worth it, along with the win, was walking into the locker room after the game to get interviews, and seeing Danny Irmen, a huge smile on his face, shouting at me, "You made it!"

I'm going to end with something I've not done in a while, play a music video. It's from the movie Almost Famous. This comes from the end of the movie. Our hero, a young high-school aged rock music writer who's been travelling the country with a rising rock band, has just returned home, his heart broken. But now he finally gets his interview with his hero, the one who'd tried to kill his career, he's back with his family, the band's back on the road. So as we head to the credits, we get one last montage, set to Led Zeppelin's "Tangerine." I just think this song, and the end of the movie, really fits the way I feel at the moment. Just substitute "what do you love about music" with "what do you love about the Aeros?"

Monday, May 6, 2013

Thank yous from Ms. C...

They say that nobody gets anywhere alone and I believe that whole-heartedly. Whether it's people purposely greasing the path for you or others unknowingly inspiring you, nothing is accomplished in a vacuum.

So, before I let my hair down and do a little What's Bugging Ms. Conduct post and before I wander down memory lane, I wanted to dish out some admittedly self-indulgent love and thank yous.

First of all, the big 3:

Barry Brust - I know, I know. But the reason I adore Barry so much is that he cemented my love of the game and my passion for goaltending, spoiled me for every other goalie ever, and was always nicer to me than I ever deserved. Let's be honest, I probably deserved a restraining order, but instead, we ran a goalie camp together, he gave me tons of great insight into the game, both as a goalie and just as someone who has a terrific hockey mind, and he was always super handsome and still totally is. Team Brusty 4ever, you guys!!!

Bryan Reynolds - He was the one who said, "Hey, you should cover the Aeros for Pro Hockey News and get a press pass." I was all, "Ehhh, I don't like writing serious hockey stuff. I like swooning and exaggerating and making people laugh." But then my husband was all, "*I'm* not paying for season tickets so... you might want to do this." Compelling argument. So, away I went popping my press row cherry and meeting...

Andrew Ferraro - The example I followed and, eventually, the little voice in my head was always Andrew's. His playful approach to covering the game but serious approach to the journalism helped us work well together, while his ability to see through bullshit, to wade through distractions, and find the kernel of truth or importance taught me a lot of the things that were missing from my education as a reporter. There's a helluva lot of stuff they don't teach you in journalism school. Most of the important stuff, honestly.

Also, his (very rare) absence from Aeros games when he was the (most excellent) beat writer the previous 10 years allowed me to dip a toe in the Real Journalist waters and eventually enabled me to ask for the Chronicle gig and get it. He's been my guiding hand all season as I made my way through my first year on the beat, awash in insecurities at covering one of the most important seasons in Aeros history.

I'm forever grateful to all three of you for either setting me on the path or keeping me on it. Not that I ever knew where it was going or had any particular goals. Sometimes you just get really really lucky.

Beyond that, thanks to some great PR guys, particularly Rich Bocchini and Josh Fisher, who both treated me great and got me what I needed to do my job and made me laugh constantly. And I can't forget Jeremy Rakes, who took great care of us on game nights. My happy place used to be on a hammock, swaying gently in the breeze next to the ocean. Now it's on press row. If there's anything better than watching hockey, it's watching it with the most knowledgeable people in the building (who aren't standing behind the bench).

Thank you to coaches John Torchetti, Mike Yeo, and Kevin Constantine, all of whom where a total pleasure to work with. Every time one left, I thought I couldn't like the next guy more, and yet, every one was great in his own way. I learned so much from each and was always treated with respect.

Thanks to my other colleagues on press row, especially John Royal, and when he was around, Fred Trask, for laughing at my jokes, keeping my secrets, and being my friends and advisors. I enjoyed every single minute of working with you guys. Love you bunches.

Thanks and love to Joy Lindsay, the Binghamton Senators beat writer during our mutual cup run, for being my first female beat writer role model (a true pro) and also a one of the nicest people I've ever met. Girlfriend doesn't. even. eat. butter. out of concern for the animals. God bless her. We had some fun during the finals, we did.

To Aaron Voros, for walking out in nothing but his Under Armor that one time back when our seats were by the locker room tunnel, thank you for introducing me to the wonder that is Hockey Butt.

Thanks to Wild fans, who gave me a niche to fill with their voracious appetite for prospect news while also teaching about the game. Such a knowledgeable fan base, even if you do yell SHOOOOT throughout the power play (stop that).

Extra special thanks to the Aeros fans (you guys!) who read my thoughts on goaltending and DIDN'T leave nastygrams in the comments (you know who you are, Anonymous! *mwah*).

Thank you to Chronicle Deputy Sports Editor Jay Lee for giving me a chance to cover the team and, more importantly for liking the work I did, and similarly, Mike Damante for being one of the nicest, most reassuring guys ever when I was feeling insecure and frazzled about covering the team. Which was a lot. Also, thank you for being a willing and able backup as my priorities shifted late in the season with our move to Dallas. What a life-saver!

And of course, all the friends I've made in the hockey community in Houston, either through the Aeros or through playing the game. All the times Ally's anthem has given me goose bumps. All the great intro videos that reminded me why I love this team. All the opposing players I called "cupcakes" while they were in the penalty box next to my seats as a ticket holder. Chuuuuuuckoooooooo....

Thanks as well to the players, who bust their Hockey Butts all year long, lose teeth, get concussed, break limbs, noses, collar bones, spend their lives wrapped in ice packs and, oh yeah, score goals and block shots and make sexy glove saves ... for our entertainment and because chicks dig it. Most were as gracious as can be with the media, which is a blessing.

I'm sure I'm leaving someone out. Truthfully, every person I interacted with made my experience covering the team special in some way, from the sweet parking garage guy and Ramona at the security desk and on and on.

My heart aches at the thought of not meeting up with my pals at the top of 108 in October. I loved the Aeros, but the memories I'll really cherish are the connections with my fellow hockey-lovers.