Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Championship Cruise

For those of you who do not know my experience in the hockey world, I spent two years as the Assistant Director of Player Personnel for the Danbury Whalers of the Federal Hockey League, a Single A professional hockey league with teams in the Northeast and Midwest.

In the first year we made it all the way to the finals before being swept in three games to the New Jersey Outlaws who eventually moved to Williamsport, PA for this past season. It was a frustrating end to what we thought was a great run. I still remember sitting in the office with Head Coach and Director of Hockey Operations Phil Esposito in silence. At that point it wasn't about the X's or O's of the loss but rather taking what was learned over the course of the season and use it the following year. That being said, coming so close to a goal and not being able to complete it is one of the toughest things to deal with.

But we certainly learned a great deal about what was needed to win. As is normal in most lower level leagues, there is a lot of player turnover from year to year. In fact on opening night of this year, only seven of the players on the roster were returning names from the previous year. There were a few younger players out of juniors and college who had to learn what it meant to be in professional hockey.

There are many ups and downs during a season. These are numerous and sometimes can make it hard to believe that a season started one way and ended up in a different place. But between the home games and the road trips and intermissions things seem to blend together and move fast. The season was 51 games long for Danbury and I can sit here and tell you that games blend together.

The preseason game that was held in East Haven, CT at the conclusion of training camp and the last home game felt like completely different lifetimes. But the journey between the two was remarkable to behold. For fans of a team, you see maturation on the ice, quotes in the media, and the occasional gossip story that gets out (mind you, these aren't always correct). But to be within an organization and see practice day in and day out as well as a majority of the games you see how players grow. It is quite an amazing site to see.

How the players grow into a successful team is a testament to each other and the Head Coach. Everyone is apart of a family that is there to support each other. Whether things are going great or terrible everyone is there to pick the other man up. I have to say that the kind

I won't go into great detail as what happens in a locker room stays there but I can specifically remember a few meetings between the players and hockey staff. Obviously when a team has an extended downturn things need to be aired out and the problem needs to be solved. No names and no specifics as I mentioned but I do remember everyone having constructive feedback for everyone. At that point it didn't matter if you had played hundreds of professional hockey games or just a handful. At that point everyone had a seat at the table in determining what needed to be done.

The team finished the year 28-23 which was good for second in the league and 86 points. The entire regular season is a preparation for the playoffs and by the time the postseason had started the team had a radically different look from the first game. It was a solid mix of veteran players who had the experience needed for situations like these and a group of hungry young players who had energy to burn.

This was the second year in a row that Danbury faced 1000 Islands in the first round and it was never an easy game against them. In the FHL it was two series of best-of-five to win it all. The first two games were at the lower seed's rink with the last three of the series at the higher seed. However all three games in the series were played in Danbury due to some kind of issues up at the rink in 1000 Islands (the nature of them escapes me at the moment). Regardless of what people may say, being able to play at home is much easier than on the road. It certainly helped us as Danbury outscored the Privateers by a total of 17-4 over the three games.

It was at this point that I remember sitting, once again, in Coach Esposito's office after the first round. The year before I remember we were excited and ready for the next round thinking that was the year. To be honest it was a very different vibe. Sure there was a small celebration after winning that round but the office was very business-like. We looked at the team we would be playing, the Dayton Demonz, and knew we had quite the test ahead.

Dayton had finished way ahead of the pack in the regular season. In their 51 games they went 42-9 and finished with 123 points. They had the top three point scorers in the entire league. You didn't have to be a sports genius to see that, on paper, Dayton was the favorite. They had a great group of veteran players who had won in other places.

That being said there was no doubt in our minds that we could compete with them. During the regular season we went 1-6 vs the Demonz but had played pretty well against them. There were a few occasions where we were tied or had the lead on them going into the third period and then fell off in the last frame. In five of the seven games played the Demonz were held to four goals or less against Danbury. So while they had the advantage in record we felt that our style of play was going to help give us a chance. We had a structure in place that, when executed, was a great system that focused on shutting down opposition offense and creating a quick transition for our offense.

In this series it was a 2-2-1 system for the games. The first two in Dayton with the next two in Danbury, followed by the fifth and deciding game back in Dayton if necessary. I unfortunately was unable to go to Dayton for the first two games as I had begun working at another internship. I do remember being at the rink the night the team left and packing up the bus. There was a cool level of confidence and calm that seemed to be over everyone. I shook Coach's hand and wished the players best of luck. I remember sitting in my car watching the bus pull away trying to figure out how the two games would play out.

Sitting in front of my laptop I was able to watch the games. Watching playoff games as a fan is a much different experience than when you are watching them as part of a team. The nerves are a bit more frayed but you are more positive than as a fan. Fans expect the worst because they focus more on the other team and their strengths over yours. When you work for a team, you know your strengths and how you can play against any team. Its almost nicer to have the positive vibe.

Game 1 was nerve wracking. The score ended up being 4-1 Danbury after two periods. The game was being controlled by our system and the team defense was solid, not to mention the goaltending. As many times before during the season, we were up against Dayton going into the third period. They were going to come out firing big time. They struck early in the frame with a power play goal to cut the lead to two. Danbury answered a few minutes later to restore the three-goal lead with Phil Aucoin getting the goal. The lead was cut back to two less than a minute later and it was a close game again. Dayton scored again with about nine minutes to go in the game to cut the lead to one.

In every playoff series, in any sport, there is always a point in time where one team takes the reins. In the Stanley Cup Finals, it was probably the Blackhawks winning 6-5 in overtime against the Bruins in Boston. In this series it was the last nine minutes of the third period in Game 1. The defensive play and goaltending was solid. I remember yelling at my laptop and probably scaring my entire family. When the buzzer sounded it was a sense of relief and happiness. It was a 5-4 win for Danbury and we were now up in the series 1-0. When you are the lower seed in a playoff series you have to win at least one game on the road if you want to have a chance at winning the series. Accomplishing that in the first game was helpful and it got the team in a mindset. With one game down I was feeling more comfortable about our chances but by no means was I relaxed. Dayton had controlled the play at times as they sometimes can do and they were going to be motivated to not come to Danbury down by two games. I spoke with Coach Esposito after the game. "One down, two to go" was the mantra.

There was not a lot of time to rest as Game 2 was the next night. It was not as I expected as we had a 3-0 lead before the game was five minutes old. I kept my hopes tempered as there was a lot of game to go against a high-powered offense but ours just kept coming. Goal after goal came until the final buzzer sounded and it was 7-2. Matt Puntureri had a hat trick while Cody Ayers and Matt Caranci had three assists each. Mike Brown stopped 37 of 39 shots. After the jubilation of the win I sat on my couch with my jaw dropped staring at the boxscore. My phone rang and it was Coach Esposito again on the bus ride home. We talked about the game and how it was one of the best ones we had played all year. The system put in place had worked wonders in Game 2. "Two down, one to go".

The fact there was almost a week in between games was tough but everyone seemed to stay calm. Being at work at my new internship I was not around the team as much as I was earlier in the year but I kept tabs as I texted players throughout the week. Everyone was feeling pretty good but by Wednesday and Thursday guys were chomping at the bit to get on the ice again.

Friday rolled around and I remember leaving work and flying back to Danbury. I got to the rink and thought I would be walking into a locker room with an air of excitement. Much like after the first round, it was very business-like. Talking to the trainers and Coach Esposito we all had that feeling of "Wouldn't it be great..." but the thought was stopped there. We had all watched hockey long enough to know that things weren't over until that last buzzer.

The time until the game seemed forever. Pre-game warmups went by and everyone was ready to go. I didn't want to say it to anyone at that point but I really felt that was the night we were going to do it.

Time out for one second. Before the game some league awards were handed out. Mike Brown won the Goaltender of the Year Award while Whalers Owner Alan Friedman won Co-Executive of the Year. The other winner was a member of the Dayton staff who was at the game and, despite the fact it was not her home rink, should have still been recognized for her work. Alex DiMuccio helped run the Dayton Demonz organization and worked as hard as anyone else in the league to make sure the new team was able to perform well. She helped create an entertaining product at home games and handled all the logistics for her team. She did my job, which was hard enough, and much more. It was a shame she didn't get recognized for her efforts. This little paragraph doesn't do her work justice but I felt it was needed.

The national anthem went on and the Danbury Ice Arena was packed. I had stood on the bench before but it was pretty awesome being in front of the hometown crowd like that. As the game got under way the usual focus that comes over everyone on the bench took hold. The first period was hard fought with the only goal being scored by Phil Aucoin giving us a 1-0 lead. The crowd went crazy as did the bench but focus was quickly regained. Being able to exhale after the buzzer sounded a bit was nice.

The intermission seemed normal enough. The period seemed to be a carryover from Game 2 in Dayton when defense and goaltending helped hold the Demonz scoreless. As time would grow shorter though the Demonz would be pushing and we knew we had to be ready for that.

The second period saw that push as Dayton scored just 1:29 into the frame. Fortunately, Danbury answered just 20 seconds letter with a goal from veteran Kelly Miller. The Demonz would tie the game back up a few minutes later.

Through all of this there was no wavering of confidence from the Whalers. It showed on the power play when a little over 30 seconds after Dayton tied the game for the second time Tyler Noseworthy put home a goal that would put the team ahead for good. No matter what Dayton did the boys in green were not going to let this slip away. They reinforced that point as Anthony Pisano and Cody Ayers scored late in the frame to give Danbury a 5-2 lead after two periods.

The intermission between the second and third was a bit surreal. On one hand it seemed like any other intermission but the level of focus was at an all time high. I watched as the timer on my phone ticked down closer to zero. Normally the break would be relatively quick. This one dragged for a long time.

You always imagine some kind of dramatic speech in an intermission like this. Coach Esposito gave a quick one that seemed on par with most speeches ushering encouragement and the mantra of not letting the foot off the pedal. As his speech finished I will never forget the next image which I kick myself for not taking a photo of. All the players huddled around the big Whalers logo in the middle of the room getting ready for one last period. As they finished up with yells and screams it was evident things were going to go our way just one more time.

The third period dragged on. It also didn't seem like we had a three-goal lead. Every shot towards our net put a lump in my throat. Every time I looked at the clock it seemed like only a couple of seconds had ticked off. Noseworthy scored another goal about 16 minutes into the third period which all but sealed the deal. The celebrations began in the stands even as Dayton scored in the final minute.

As the buzzer sounded it was chaos. I know I jumped into a pile with some of the trainers, shook a few hands, and went out onto the ice and started grabbing whoever I could. everyone yelling, screaming, hugging and shaking hands.

The Commissioner's Cup was presented and slowly passed from player to player and eventually to Coach Esposito and the staff. When I was handed the Cup I did pretty much what every other person who gets it does: Lift it over my head, let out a big "Woo", give it a big kiss, and drop something similar to what Mike Richter said when he was handed the Stanley Cup in 1994. All of the hard work put in finally paid off for everyone.

There is a ton more I could go into whether its getting showered in champagne, drinking from a Cup, staying out until about 5 AM enjoying the victory, or even the parade but those will be for another time. I want to thank all the players and staff for an unbelievable season and pushing through the ups and downs that occurred and making me feel welcome even after I had left for another position with the NY Rangers. The amount of effort that everyone put into producing a championship was extraordinary and should be applauded for it.  I'm not sure if I will ever be apart of another championship team in my career but this one will always hold a special place for me since it was my first.

As I finally got to bed that night I felt the exhaustion wash over me. That of course after doing the cheesiest thing someone who wins a championship can do...listen to "We Are the Champions".

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