Column: When St. John’s really was American (Hockey League) idle

Brendan McCarthy
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Maple Leafs had 17-day wait for 1992 Calder Cup Finals

Glenn Stanford enters the Hockey Newfoundland and Hall of Fame Saturday night in Gander as he is honoured for an executive career that has allowed him to experience just about everything the minor professional ranks can offer.
That’s the case when you’ve been at it for almost a quarter of a century.

So if you mention to Stanford, the chief operating officer of the AHL’s St. John’s IceCaps, about how unusual it is that the Calder Cup final between the IceCaps and Texas Stars is experiencing a four-day break, he’ll tell you that’s nothing compared to what took place in 1992, at the end of his first season in pro hockey.

That’s when the St. John’s Maple Leafs, whose operations Stanford oversaw, went to the Calder Cup final against the Adirondack Red Wings, but found themselves sitting idle for no less than 17 days awaiting the start of the championship matchup.

That year, the Leafs rolled through their first two series within the Atlantic Division, knocking off the Cape Breton Oilers in five games, and the Moncton Hawks in four straight, finishing the latter series on April 30.

Then came the wait.

The other division finals took longer to complete, with the one in the Southern Division going the full seven games, and only ending May 8, when the Rochester Americans beat the Binghamton Rangers.

The Leafs, meanwhile, had been constantly preparing for a road trip that never happened.

With the league consisting of three divisions in those years, the AHL’s playoff format was a rather unusual one. The two lower-seeded division winners would play a best-of-three series to determine which would advance to the league final. The highest seed would get a bye into the championship series.

If either Binghamton or the Springfield Indians had taken their division final, the Leafs would have had to play in that three-game mini-series. But as it turned out, the Americans swept Bingo and Adirondack upended Springfield, leaving St. John’s as the remaining team with the most points in the regular season.

Whether that was a good or bad thing is a matter of debate.

It meant more waiting for the Leafs as the Americans-Red Wings mini-series went the full three games, beginning May 11 and finishing May 15 with a 5-3 Adirondack victory.

The Calder Cup final — finally — began on May 18 at Memorial Stadium, two-and-a-half weeks after the Leafs had played their last game.

In between, Stanford and Leafs’ coach Marc Crawford found themselves sharing duties as social directors, tour guides and meal planners.

“I don’t know whether there was a plan in place, because we were never really sure exactly when we would get back to playing,” said Stanford. “We were kind of making it upon the go, because I don’t think anyone had ever dealt with that before.

“I do know we ended it with more team dinners and more team-wives dinners than we did the whole year, just in an effort to keep everybody together.

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It was part of an everything and anything effort to occupy the players.

“If they hadn’t seen much of Newfoundland before, they certainly saw it that May,” said Stanford. “We were doing trips and visits, every tour we could find, whatever we could do to keep them busy.”

There were practices of course, but they soon became pretty stale. To change things up, the Leafs went with an intra-squad game, and later organized another, the second one featuring the added attractions of Newfoundlanders John Slaney and Darren Colbourne.

Colbourne had played that season with the ECHL’s Dayton Bombers, leading the league with 69 goals. Slaney had finished his junior career in the OHL, but was signed by the Washington Capitals, who had drafted him in the first-round two years before. That meant the Leafs had to obtain special permission from the Caps for him to participate in the intra-squad scrimmage.

But despite all the efforts to stay sharp, St. John’s — as might be expected — was covered with rust as it began the final, dropping Games 1 and 2 to the Red Wings at Memorial Stadium by scores of 6-3 and 6-4.

So began a full seven-game series that saw the road team win every game, ending with a 5-2 Adirondack victory at Memorial Stadium on May 29, 1992.

Stanford still wonders how the Leafs might have fared with even a little less down time.

“You’re off for that long, it’s bound to hurt you and I’m sure it hurt us at the start,” he said. “Of course, we were glad to get to the final, but it’s too bad we couldn’t have gotten there a little quicker.”

Organizations: Maple Leafs, Adirondack Red Wings, Binghamton Rangers.The Leafs Dayton Bombers Washington Capitals

Geographic location: Memorial Stadium, Rochester, Binghamton Newfoundland OHL

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