Looking Back on 8 Seasons That Built Greatness
It's been a day since the Norfolk Admirals hoisted the Calder Cup for the first time. The amazing thing about championships is that they're a shared milestone in the lives of, really, thousands, between the players, coaches, staff, and fans. Those journeys often contain compelling stories that make the triumph worth that journey. For Jon Cooper, it was about closing down his law practice to coach his way from Michigan high school hockey, to the USHL to working with Hockey USA, to a 2 season sprint to glory in the AHL. For Cory Conacher, it was about not being drafted and playing hockey at off-the-beaten path Canisius, dealing with diabetes, and earning an NHL contract in March of an MVP season before posting 4 assists in the championship clinching Calder Cup Finals game.
The stories of the players and the coaches are the ones we'll read about in the coming months and years, and they should be. When the Lightning made their Stanley Cup run in 2003-2004 and were playing the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference Finals, John Tortorella refused to fire back at Ken Hithcock's remarks about "Italians from Boston," because Torts rightfully understood, "It's about the athletes." Ultimately, they're the ones who score the goals and make the saves. They sacrifice their bodies and take the stitches and they take the slings and arrows if they lose. Ultimately, it's their moment, and to a lesser extent the moments of their families who supported them in the journey up to those moments. The hockey moms and dads who woke up at 6:00 am to drive their kids to games. Scratching together money for skates and ridiculously expensive composite sticks. The wives and significant others who live with the players and coaches through the disappointments and the frustrations, and live in fear of moments when things can go wrong, like when slap shots can hit a man in the ear at 90 miles an hour, similar to what happened to Scott Jackson.
Less compelling, perhaps, is the story of an organization, but, these are stories can be worth telling, too... especially in this case. We started beta testing Bolt Prospects in 2004-2005, one year after the Lightning's Cup win, in the heart of the NHL lockout. That year was also the first year since the Detroit Vipers of the IHL folded after the 2000-2001 season that the Lightning had a full-time minor league affiliate: the Springfield Falcons. Absent a full-time affiliate, it became clear the Lightning would struggle to maintain their spot on top of the hockey mountain, because split affiliates would not give prime ice time and coaching help to another organization's players. That problem prompted the start of an 8 year process for the Lightning that ended in building what must be considered the sport's preeminent developmental apparatus with the Norfolk Admirals' Calder Cup championship and the Florida Everblades' Kelly Cup Championship.
Recognizing the Lightning's dilemma, then General Manager Jay Feaster, who now directs the Calgary Flames, convinced Bill Davidson's ownership group it was time for the team to ice and control a full minor league team. Tampa Bay's affiliation with the Springfield Falcons lasted 3 painful seasons, in which the club won only a combined 80 games. Dirk Graham and a coaching staff that included 2003-2004 Cup champion Darren Rumble iced teams for 2 seasons filled with an unfortunate mix of raw rookies, minor league free agent mercenaries, and professional and amateur tryouts. Those two teams won 24 and 28 games, respectively, before Graham was replaced with former Islanders coach Steve Stirling for the 3rd and final season in Springfield. That team again managed just 28 wins before the Springfield and Tampa Bay decided to part ways. Tampa Bay headed to Norfolk.
The first edition of the Lightning's Admirals were a poor substitute for the previous Blackhawks-Admirals affiliation that produced some of the AHL's most explosive offensive teams, but never made it out of the first round of the playoffs. Stirling was quietly shuffled to Assistant Coach status behind Rumble, but the composition of the team and the results remained similar. Through 4 years, the affiliation had yielded some NHLers for the Lightning like Ryan Craig, Evgeny Artyukhin, and Paul Ranger. But, most of the other prospects were struggling to grow in a losing environment. Truth be told, the Lightning probably ruined more prospects than they developed in those first 4 seasons as they attempted to create a culture of winning and lay the foundation for future successes.
That offseason, before the passing of Bill Davidson, the Lightning were sold to an ownership group led by Oren Koules and Len Barrie. GM Jay Feaster was pushed aside shortly after the NHL Draft in the summer of 2008 in favor of agent Brian Lawton. After lobbying hard for the job, Darren Rumble took over the team, officially, in 2008-2009. For the first time the Lightning's affiliate showed signs of significant progress. The team climbed to 33 wins on the backs of veterans like Brandon Segal, emerging youngsters like Justin Keller and Blair Jones, and surprising Paul Szczechura, who was an unknown quantity secured for future considerations. Heading into 2009-2010, the playoffs seemed like a real possibility. Through the first half of the year, though, the Admirals failed to meet expectations and Rumble was dismissed after posting a 17-23-2 mark that year. Assistant GM Tom Kurvers installed college teammate Jim Johnson as Head Coach, and Johnson posted a remarkable 15-5-0 record, including a then-Admirals record win streak. Unfortunately, internal politics in Tampa Bay led to Johnson's promotion as an Assistant Coach, and the Admirals struggled with a .500 record down the stretch under Strength and Conditioning Coach turned Interim Head Coach Leigh Mendelson. Johnson returned before the end of the year, but Norfolk still missed the postseason by a painful 2 points, as Bridgeport made the playoffs via the AHL's divisional crossover rule. Norfolk's 39-35-3-3 record was the first winning record a Lightning affiliate had posted since before the Detroit Vipers, made possible by a mix of veterans like Craig and Adam Hall and rookies Dana Tyrell and Dustin Tokarski. But, that was little consolation for an Admirals fan base that likely lost out on the playoffs because of the bizarre standoff between Brian Lawton and then-Lightning coach Rick Tocchet.
In the summer of 2010, the Lightning were sold to Jeff Vinik, who hired NHL Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman as General Manager and Hamilton Bulldogs coach Guy Boucher as Head Coach. With Boucher's ties, the Lightning subsequently hired Bulldogs GM Julien BriseBois as Assistant GM. Yzerman and advisor Pat Verbeek then concluded their coaching search by selecting Jon Cooper, who they knew of from Cooper's time coaching high school hockey in Michigan and who had just won a USHL championship with the Green Bay Gamblers. The corner was turned in 2009-2010, and in 2010-2011, Cooper hit the accelerator. Although they finished with the same 39 wins as the previous season, they had 9 more OTL points. A balanced group of veterans and youngsters advanced to the postseason to face Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the first round, but found themselves depleted by injuries and callups. The team lost their opening round series in 6 games, leaving the Admirals AHL team still without an Eastern Conference Quarterfinals victory since they joined the league. In 2011-2012, the Admirals went with a decidedly younger roster, filled with rookie draftees and high-end undrafted free agents like Tyler Johnson that had been stars in the junior ranks. Through the mid-season, Norfolk had established themselves as the most potent offensive team in the league, but a BriseBois engineered trade for Mike Kostka and Evan Oberg helped shore up the team's defense. On the day of the Super Bowl in February, the Admirals lost, ironically, to the Springfield Falcons. They would not lose another game until May, and just 3 games, in all, the rest of the year.
I'm an architect in my day job, and people ask me from time to time why the hell I spend so much of my free time writing about minor league hockey. Bolt Prospects "went live" in the 2005-2006 season, and over the course of the last 7 seasons I have written approximately 580 game stories about the Lightning's AHL affiliates in Springfield and Norfolk. That's a lot of typing.
I do it because it was always obvious that this team was building up to something. They never took a step backward, in terms of wins, in their 8 seasons, moving from 24 wins, to 28 two straight years, to 29 wins, to 33, to 39 two straight years, to 55 and the Calder Cup this year. It took longer than I had anticipated at the beginning, and those first 4 seasons of the process were more painful than I could have imagined. But, there's a lot to be said for how satisfying it is to stick with something, long-term, and seeing it through. As I've argued before, that's the whole story of the Lightning franchise, after all. It's a franchise where people of good conscience stuck with it even against adversity and long odds. The same was true in the building of the Lightning's minor league system.
You see, building an organization is a lot like building a building. After the first shovels get put in the ground, there's a phase in the construction of the project where all you have is a muddy, ugly hole in the ground, while the foundations get built and everything gets tied into the utilities and all the other groundwork gets laid. It doesn't look anything like what you designed, at that point. It really does, literally, look like a muddy, ugly hole in the ground. Unfortunately for the fans in the first 3 years in Springfield and the 1st year in Norfolk, those season were the muddy, ugly hole in the ground.
The next phase in the project is when the structure starts to go up, and the project starts to take on the shape of what you planned. The walls go up. The roof trusses go on. It begins to look like a building. This is one of the most exciting times in a project, because it's really the first time what you envisioned starts to become tangible. The time under Rumble that culminated with Jim Johnson's terrific, but short-lived, run with the team is analogous to that. My only regret is the in-fighting in Tampa Bay that robbed us of the payoff of Johnson taking his team into the postseason.
The next phase is the most nerve-wracking one of the process, actually. It's when they start putting the finishes on the building. The paint goes on. The light fixtures go up. In the grand scheme of things, the last 5% is meaningless in terms of budget and the overall form of the building, but it's those finishing touches that can make a good project feel like a mediocre one, or elevate it into a special one. No one wants to spend the time it takes to design and build a building and have it turn out mediocre. Likewise, no one wanted to spend almost a decade building a minor league development system only to have it turn out mediocre.
Last year, at this time, we were in that nerve-wracking phase. The culture had been developed in Norfolk and the real question was whether the team was going to be a mediocre one that got bounced in the first round of the playoffs every year or that finally would surpass Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Hershey in the division and become an elite team. Julien BriseBois picked the right light fixtures and door hardware. Jon Cooper put on just the right shade of paint. The house that was built by many, many hands over 8 seasons turned out better than any of us could have imagined. That last 5% put it over the top.
None of it was built overnight, though. The current Admirals players, coaches, and staff will get the bulk of the credit, and rightfully so, but I feel it's right to carve out one small moment here where I salute everyone who, over the last 8 seasons, helped build this minor league organization into the strongest one in hockey. To former GM Jay Feaster, who convinced PS&E to have a full affiliate and who, with the help of ex-Head Scout Jake Goertzen and his team, drafted players like Admirals all-time scorer Blair Jones and Calder Cup winners like Alex Killorn and Tokarski. To former coaches Dirk Graham, Steve Stirling, and Darren Rumble, and to former Admirals GM Claude Loiselle who slowly started to craft chicken crap into chicken soup. To players like Jonathan Boutin and Mike Egener, who probably deserved a lot better in those early years. The Lightning sacrificed a lot of good young talent to build up their development system up to this point. I just wish there were a way for Boutin and Egener and all the other young players to get the chance to start all over again with the system built up the way it is now.
To Brian Lawton, who is easy to paint as a villain, but who hired Jim Hammett and Darryl Plandowski, and who drafted the likes of Richard Panik, Radko Gudas, and Jaroslav Janus, and who brought in Tom Kurvers and Jim Johnson. And, of course, there is much praise to be given to Steve Yzerman and Julien BriseBois for the hiring of Jon Cooper and the signing of undrafted star players like Conacher and Johnson.
To the dozens of other players who have come and gone. The veterans like Norm Milley and Zenon Konopka. The longshots who made something of themselves like David Spina, Ryan Vesce, and Rob Klinkhammer. The prospects like Gerard Dicaire and Darren Reid. Radek Smolenak and Johan Harju.
To the fans of the Springfield Falcons, who endured 3 years of our muddy, ugly, hole in the ground while the foundation of today's success was being laid. To the fans of the Norfolk Admirals, who went from perennial playoff team to last place, to having postseason hopes evaporate because of internal politics somewhere in Central Florida. I suspect it was all worth it, though. Even to the far flung ECHL hockey outposts, past and present, in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Augusta, Georgia, Biloxi, Mississippi, and Estero, Florida.
The challenge changes from here on out. The Lightning now have to work to maintain what they've built. The culture of their minor league system and the high standards set by this year's Norfolk Admirals and Florida Everblades cannot be allowed to fall off. That's a task that's every bit as challenging as making it to the mountaintop in the first place. But the future looks bright, and it's a good problem to have, n'est-ce pas?