Rumours of glory

Robin
Robin Short
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Sssshhhh! Listen up. You hear them? The whispers and buzz of the Mile One faithful, the 6,300 or so who routinely fill the rink for a St. John's IceCaps presentation.

Could it be? Could this be the year, the 15th St. John's winter with the American Hockey League, that the Calder Cup is destined for Newfoundland?

The IceCaps, of course, will have none of this talk. Not from a player, a coach, or anyone in the front office.

Superstitious bunch.

Besides, it is but early December. One hundred and 27 days remain in the IceCaps' regular season.

But entering last night's tilt with the Worcester Sharks down on New Gower Street, the IceCaps were leading the AHL's Eastern Conference with 34 points, one behind Oklahoma City for the league lead, only five regulation losses in 24 outings. More impressive is St. John's road record, only two overtime defeats in 10 games.

Could something special be brewing here?

Like it did in 1991-92, when pro hockey made its debut in these parts?

Remember that year, at old Memorial Stadium, when a young, cocksure Marc Crawford led a nice-looking squad of young and old through what might be now best described as a dream season?

Remember that year when the St. John's Maple Leafs had a couple of blooming Quebecois stars, Felix Potvin and Yanic Perreault? A grizzled veteran of 800 NHL games, Joel Quenneville? A high-scoring Maritimer in Andrew McKim? Good, solid role players in Todd Hawkins and Dave Tomlinson and, yes, Todd Gillingham who made up for his slight of skill with overwhelming grit and determination? A couple of former NHL hard rocks, Kevin McClelland and Kevin Maguire (this, of course, a time when having a heavyweight on the roster was a necessity)?

It was a special year, no doubt. St. John's piled up 90 points, sailed through the early rounds of the playoffs and squared off with Adirondack in the Calder Cup championship final, a classic Maple Leafs-Red Wings showdown.

Not so classic was the quirky outcome, one which saw the home team lose each game, including the Leafs in Game 7.

That was 20 years ago.

Keith McCambridge, the IceCaps coach, was a rookie with the Western junior league's Swift Current Broncos. Jason King was 10. IceCaps' rookie Ben Chiarot, the youngest player on today's roster, was in diapers.

A different time and a different team, those Leafs, when measured up against St. John's latest pro franchise.

Compared to Crawford and Maple Leafs general manager, the bombastic Bill Watters, McCambridge and Craig Heisinger, the true architect behind this first-place team, might be best described as cerebral.

On the ice, flash and dash was the mantra of 1991-92. Today, it's more about systems and team concept, depth from Nos. 1 through 24. The kind of depth that has St. John's first, even as its top scorer, Marco Rosa, is 15th overall in the league, and Spencer Machacek, second behind Rosa, is 41st.

Perhaps the real indication of the potential of this IceCaps squad lies in the fact St. John's rolls along, despite the endless roster juggling. It's only December yet we've already seen a revolving door of players off to Winnipeg or coming in from Colorado, West Virginia or wherever.

The hidden factor in the success, or lack thereof, of a pro sports team is injuries. Times it by two when you're the farm club, which stands to lose players directly hurt, or those subbing for players on the big club sent to the disabled list.

In the big picture, winning at the minor league level is nice, but not the be all, end all. The minors, as we've been reminded time and again, is the place where future major-leaguers are groomed. Period.

As hard as that is to swallow to those who follow, support and otherwise cheer on the farm teams.

Bottom line is, it's probably way too early to be talking St. John's IceCaps and Calder Cup championships. Too much can happen, and there's way too much time for it to happen.

But let's put it this way: these Icecaps are a well-coached, solid unit, from the first line to the fourth, from the top defensive pairing to the No. 6 guy. The goaltending, short of sensational, has been very good.

Dare we say St. John's is in for something special 20 years later?

Robin Short is The Telegram's Sports Editor. He can be reached by email rshort@thetelegram.com

Organizations: IceCaps, American Hockey League, Maple Leafs NHL

Geographic location: St. John's, Newfoundland, New Gower Street Oklahoma City Memorial Stadium Winnipeg Colorado West Virginia

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