Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Baltimore Hockey History: A Tie That Binds A Rivalry

With the rumors that the Penguins and Capitals will be the headlining act for the 2011 Winter Classic, it sparks one of the most intense rivalries to date in the NHL. This match-up is just pure, unadulterated hate.....on ICE!! Even in their dark days when both teams stunk, the rivalry was always one people got up for. While, in terms of success; it's been one-sided, there's always something about this game (outside of the superstars on both teams) that people enjoy about it.

While this rivalry ties the two teams together, something that's unrelated to the rivalry that binds these teams is the use of the Baltimore Skipjacks as their minor league affiliate. Of course, at this point-- the rivalry of the parent clubs hadn't escalated to the level it is now, but it is something that I thought was quite a fun fact.

As I go out sequence with this whole thing, the Skipjacks came to be after the Baltimore Clippers namesake was put to rest after the 1980-81 season in the Eastern League and previous years in the American League and the Southern League. The Jacks started in the Atlantic Coast League in the 1981-82 season, the inaugural season for the league. It was quite the gongshow, as all the teams had different numbers of games played. That year, the Jacks played 48 games, second most in the league, and went 22-23-3, finishing in third.

Luckily for the namesake of the organization, the Jacks name got moved to the AHL when the Erie Blades moved down to Charm City. They had primary affiliation with the Pittsburgh Penguins and shared some with the Boston Bruins. The first year for the Jacks in the AHL, which was the 1982-83 season, was one full of fire-power with two players, Mike Gillis (113) and Mitch Lamoureux (107), over 100 points for the year and two others, Rod Schutt (87) and Greg Tebbutt (84), with more than 80 points. The downfall had to be the goaltending, as Roberto Romero's 4.05 GAA was the lowest of the team's four goalies used. The team missed the playoffs in their first season in the AHL.

While that first year was manned by Lou Angotti and the 35-36-9 record wasn't anything too shabby; the Jacks made a coaching change to Gene Ubriaco, who was very close to the Baltimore hockey scene, having played for the Baltimore Clippers in 1967-68 and 1979-80, while coaching in that 1979-80 season and the 1980-81 season for the Clippers. So, Ubriaco took over the helm of the Jacks for the 1983-84 season; who were in their first year as a Penguins only affiliate and Ubriaco was able to improve the team immediately. While the firepower wasn't there in the '83-'84 season as it was in the previous year, the consistency of the team was much better. The goaltending improved with Romero splitting games with Jim Ralph and Vincent Tremblay, which gave the Jacks a lot of variety in net and they were actually able to keep the puck out with none of them having above a 4.00 GAA. Of course, with a change in style, the defensive side made the offensive side struggle, as only one player (Paul Gardner) had over 80 points in the year. The Jacks were playoff bound with their 46-24-10 record, which lead the league with their 102 points; yet they were only able to get to the second round of the playoffs when they were upset by the Rochester Americans. Ubriaco won the Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award for AHL Coach of the Year.

With that performance, the expectations were high for the Jacks and they didn't disappoint in the 1984-85 season. While they weren't able to match their 1o2 point campaign, they finished second on the Southern Division with a 45-27-8 record. The Jacks were without their previous top scorer, as Paul Gardner was moved to the Binghamton Whalers, where he took the scoring crown. However, the Skipjacks did counter and got their goaltending under control, as Jon Casey was sent to Baltimore by the Minnesota North Stars and took control of the Jacks goaltending over Pens property Michel Dion and Romero. Luckily for the Jacks that Casey was strong, as the offense was very inept again with Tom Roulston leading the team with 70 points. Also notable, Steve Carlson, from the famed Hanson Brothers, had 47 points for the Jacks. Back to Casey-- in his 46 games, he put up a 30-11-4 record with a 2.63 GAA and .908 save percentage. Those numbers were enough for Casey to Hap Holmes Award for Lowest GAA in the AHL and the Baz Bastien Award for Best Goalie in the league. Baltimore also had a then record 16-game winning streak (since broken). The Jacks were able to ride the hot goalie in Casey through the playoffs; getting revenge for their lose against the Americans beating them in five games, while they moved and swept the top-seed Binghamton Whalers in a sweep; before the Jacks ran into another hot goalie by the name of Patrick Roy and his Sherbrooke Canadiens-- as the Canadiens beat the Jacks in the Calder Cup finals in five games.

In the Pens era of the Skipjacks, that would be the highest they would get. The next two years with affiliation were very subpar, even with Ubriaco behind the bench. The scoring was still down, as the 1985-86 season saw Roulston lead the team with 87 points, 23 more than the next guy on the list, while Alain Lemieux lead the 1986-87 team with 97 points-- which was 44 more than the next guy on the list. Both those seasons, the teams were under .500 for their record, though they improved in the '86-'87 season (35-37-8) to the '85-'86 season (28-44-8).

In the 1987-88, the Penguins moved their affiliation from Baltimore and moved it to Muskegon in the IHL. The Skipjacks still stuck around as an independent team for that season with Ubriaco behind the bench. The independent label was definitely there, as the Jacks had a 13-58-9 record with their atrocious goaltending coming back and letting up a league high 434 goals that year, which is still an AHL record to this day. The Jacks also hold the record from that year for longest losing streak at 18 games.

The Washington Capitals saw the chance with an affiliate right up the road from them and acquired the affiliation with the Jacks and placed their players up there. The first year of the affiliation was rough in the 1988-89 season and Terry Murray behind the bench, but it was a vast improvement from their independent year, going 30-46-4, missing the playoffs again. The scoring was back, as Mike Richard lead the team and was fourth in the league with 107 points and got help from Scott McCrory (87 points) and Mike Millar (82).

The 1989-90 had a lot of makings of the Jacks teams previous, with the goaltending getting better and the goal scoring going down. Also, the coaching changed for the Jacks when Terry Murray got called up to the NHL with the Caps and was replaced by Doug MacLean. Richard lead the offense again, but with a 24 point decline (83 points), but the play of Jim Hrivnak (24-19-2; 3.06 GAA) was able to get the Jacks in the playoffs again, but after defeating Adirondack in the first round, the Jacks fell to the dreaded Americans in the second round. MacLean departed for the 1990-91 season, putting Rob Laird in charge of the team and the team did get a little better, though the scoring was spread around with Alfie Turcotte, Steve Maltais, and Tim Taylor being the top-three with 85 points, 79 points, and 67 points, respectively. Hrivnak (20-16-6) was solid again with youngster Olaf Kolzig starting to ply his craft in Baltimore. But it wasn't enough, as the Jacks lost out in the Division Semi-finals to the Binghamton Rangers in six games.

Then started the dark times for the Skipjacks, as their declining attendance started to hurt the wallet of owner Tom Ebright. With the teams struggles on the ice, as well, it didn't help matters. Though the 1991-92 edition had some stellar players like Simon Wheeldon and John Purves leading the offense, the goaltending was the weak point. Hrivnak went up to the big club, which left youngsters Olaf Kolzig and Byron Dafoe get the nods for the Jacks. The Jacks ended up 28-42-10, which made them missed the playoffs.

The attendance and playing woes hit the Jacks again for the 1992-93 season. Ebright said that he was looking to move the team to Portland, Maine if he couldn't get the support from the City Council to help the team out. However, Ebright mentioned bringing an ECHL team to Baltimore to replace the team if he could get the fan support from the Jacks fateful. Even with the pledge from Major League Baseball's Baltimore Orioles, it wasn't enough to save the Skipjacks; even though Ebright seemed to disregard a council bill that could have helped the team. Ebright was going to move the team from Baltimore to Portland, Maine. Whether or not it affected the team on the ice or not, their 28-40-12 record under new coach Barry Trotz wasn't a light of hope; especially with Dafoe not being the clutch starter as they had hoped (16-20-7). They made the playoffs and pushed the regular season champions Binghamton Rangers to Game Seven before getting ousted.

In a sad kick in the ass, the 1993-94 season saw the Baltimore Skipjacks move to become the Portland Pirates....and the Pirates won the Calder Cup as AHL champions.

Sure, this was a little less about the Penguins/Capitals rivalry like I started-- it's just one of the things that binds those two teams together. Plus, it allows me to bring up a team that most modern Baltimore hockey fans can relate to. I know my grandmother was a big Skipjacks supporter and went to games. I never went to the Jacks games myself, but plenty of my friend (like FOHS's own Jonny P) had their first hockey experience with the Skipjacks at the Baltimore Arena.

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