Houston Aeros 1994-2013: Thank you for all the great memories and two decades of great hockey and entertainment.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Another trip down memory lane: From the IHL to Todd McLellan to Rob Daum

All Smiles - Photo by Fred Trask
Most of you know that I have been around the Aeros awhile. For 19 years, I have seen a majority of the home games. Even in the mid-2000s, I covered a lot of road games in San Antonio and even made a few other trips to the Midwest because of my flight benefits with Continental Airlines.

For the first eight seasons or so, I was nothing more than a fan. During the 1997-98 season, I was an intern, working under then Media Relations guru, Todd Sharrock. He is now with the Columbus Blue Jackets. When Todd McLellan came in, I got my first gig writing about the Aeros for a city weekly called Space City Sports. In 2002, Scott Kaiser left the Houston Chronicle, and I begged then sports editor Fred Faour for the Aeros beat.

He gave it to me, and instantly I had the best writing job I ever had or ever will have. I got paid to watch the Aeros, and other than former trainer Jerry Meins, no one saw more Aeros games than I did. Yesterday, John ran through a list of his favorite memories, and I share a lot of those with him. His list was impressive, albeit recent due to his era covering the team. Now that it is my turn, I will try to duplicate that with 10 great stories from the IHL days through the Rob Daum Years.

Buckle up; this is exceptionally long … but I know many of you did not follow the team during this era, so you will probably learn a lot. And I think you will enjoy one last trip down memory lane.

Houston gets an IHL team:

I was learning the game of hockey via NHL 93, an EA Sports Sega video game that my brother Todd got me addicted too. The NHL was beginning to flourish on ESPN 2 (NHL 2night, for those that remember) and I had just attended my first NHL game in person, a Detroit win over the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Joe. 

The Dallas Stars relocated from Minneapolis, and I always hoped Houston could get a team, too. Then I saw a story in the Chronicle about Chuck Watson bringing hockey back to Houston as an IHL franchise. 19 years later, I can’t believe they are leaving. I am attached more to this team that any other before and more than I ever will be again.

The Aeros sign Freddie Chabot :

Known then as the Shaq (as in Shaquille O'Neal) of the IHL, Fred Chabot was the league’s best goalie. And after the Aeros were knocked out of the playoffs in their first year and suffered through a miserable second, Chuck Watson opened his checkbook and signed Chabot away from the Cincinnati Cyclones. 

Chabot carried the Aeros on his back three times and made them one of the best teams in the league. He holds just about every Aeros goalie record there is and was an equally great person to be around. Now, he’s the goalie coach in Edmonton. His signing started an era where the Aeros made the playoffs for nine straight years.

Dave Tippett and Brian Wiseman lead the Aeros to the Turner Cup :

In Chabot’s second year, the Aeros got some offense to go with the defense, but the team was shocked in the first round by the Milwaukee Admirals. The next season, 1998-99, Tippett would have none of that. 

Even with Chabot on recall to the NHL most of the season, the Aeros dominated the league with a sick roster and then NHL prospect Manny Fernandez. That team could do no wrong, but they made things very interesting in the postseason. Every playoff series went the distance. Long Beach took them to five games, and Chicago and Orlando took the Aeros to seven games before ending with the most exciting home game in Houston Aeros history.

Game 7, Houston vs. Orlando, June 1999:

I had a sick feeling when I parked in the Compaq Center garage that night. What if they blow a 3-1 series lead against a team that already advanced by winning four straight in its previous series? The Solar Bears, led by former Wild coach Todd Richards, helped his team erase a 3-0 deficit in the previous round and beat the Detroit Vipers in a winner-take-all Game 7. 

The magic was back, and everything the Aeros did so right that year was on the line. More than 15,000 packed the stands on a hot night in the Bayou City, and the arena erupted as the Aeros raced out to a 2-0 lead on goals by Rob Valicevic and Cam Stewart. Orlando got one back with three minutes left in the period and Gregori Pantaleyev scored his second of the game at 12:43 of the second to tie it up. My heart sank, my worst fears were coming true. The Solar Bears were Annie from Steven King’s “Misery.” 

Then, in the most exciting four minutes of hockey I have ever seen live, the Aeros took a 4-3 lead into the third period. First, Valicevic scored his second of the game, only to see future Aeros fan favorite Curtis Murphy tie the game just over three minutes later. But the Aeros got a power play late in the period, and David Oliver, now an assistant coach with the Lake Erie Monsters, scored what proved to be the game winning goal with 19 seconds left in the period. My heart still races as I write this, and going into the third period, the Aeros were 20 minutes away from a title. 

This time, there would be no come back for the Solar Bears. Jimmy Paek, now an assistant coach with the Grand Rapids Griffins, iced the game 8:07 into the third. The Aeros were first-time champions.

The end of an era; Aeros exit the IHL as a top-four team:

By the time the Aeros won the Turner Cup in 1999, the health of that league was in a major decline. Teams were bleeding money, dropping like flies, and the IHL got away from its stance of competing with the NHL. It was becoming more of a development league, a lot like what the AHL is today. 

In 2000, the Aeros had a new head coach (Ron Low) because Tippett deservedly got an Assistant position with the Los Angeles Kings. After winning the Cup in ‘99, it was a transition year for the Aeros but they still had many of the pieces in place from the year before. And this time, they had Chabot back from the NHL. 

The up-and-down season got them a 3-seed in the Western Conference, and the Aeros made it to the conference finals against the Chicago Wolves after beating getting a first-round bye and beating the Utah Grizzlies. (Side note: Lane Lambert’s Game 3, OT winner was the single greatest moment for that team). The Aeros went up 2-0 on Chicago, winning both in Rosemont by a combined score of 9-1. It looked like the Aeros were going back to the finals, then, After take a 3-0 lead in Game 3, back in Houston, it all came crashing down. That started the first of two epic playoff choke jobs (more on the second one later). The Wolves didn’t cave, they got desperate, outscoring the Aeros 15-5 the rest of the way and winning the series 4-2.

The end of an era and the comp. ticket scandal:

After injuries took their toll during the 2000 run, the Aeros loaded up with another group of veterans for one more run at a Turner Cup. With Low going to the New York Rangers and head coach, the Aeros turned to Dave Barr as boss, and, again, Freddie Chabot. The Aeros came right back as one of the West’s best teams and missed the division title by just two points. That proved costly as the Aeros, as the No. 2 seed, were pitted against the Manitoba Moose and Ken Wregget. 

The league was down to just 11 teams, but the Aeros raced out to a 3-1 lead in the series. After splitting the first two games at home, the Aeros went to Winnipeg Arena and won Games 3 and 4, with the latter an overtime winner. The team was already making plans for another West finals rematch with the Chicago Wolves. Even the Wolves were making plans to face the Aeros. Everyone thought it was a done deal; Aeros just had to win one of their last three games. But they could not do it. 

Manitoba won Game 5 in overtime to send the series back to Houston. The Aeros coughed up leads in Games 6 and 7, and left the IHL after what remains the biggest choke job in Aeros history. How could this happen? A former employee of the team told me the locker room was not tight, and the team bickered more often that you’d think. In Manitoba, the team allegedly fought over the limited number of tickets afforded to them by the Moose front office. No punches were thrown, but the team spent WAY too much time arguing over things that had no business being a concern during a playoff run. The Aeros got what they deserved.

The Aeros join the AHL, team up with the Minnesota Wild:

The IHL died after the Orlando Solar Bears won the last turner cup in 2001. Six IHL teams joined the AHL, and the Aeros were one of them. Todd McLellan, because of the new affiliation with the Wild, replaced Barr as head coach, and the Aeros rode a strong finish and avoided the qualifying round. 

They were part of a new league, but the Aeros were in the middle of their golden era of making it to at least the Western Conference finals in four of five years. This team was no different. They powered past the Utah Grizzlies, winning two do-or-die games to do so, and the Hershey Bears in a sweep. That set up another conference final with, guess who, the Chicago Wolves. The Aeros won Game 1, 6-4, but collapsed after that. Just like they did last week, the Aeros were eliminated with a 7-0 loss on the road. 

The Wild were still babies in the NHL, and that meant the Aeros would have to fill a lot of holes with veterans. They loaded up during the summer of 2002, and that paved the way to another title, their first and only Calder Cup.

The Aeros win two Game 7s (on the road) and win the Calder Cup:

This was my first year covering the team. I had a full time job, but as a freelancer, I had the best job imaginable … to me, that is. The Aeros won their division during the regular season, setting up a first-round best of five with Milwaukee. The Aeros won that one 3-0, giving them a date with the Norfolk Admirals. The Aeros erased a 2-1 series deficit before moving on in six, earning a match with the No. 1 seeded Grand Rapids Griffins. The Aeros split the first two games on the road, won two of three at home and had two chances to win the series at Van Andel Arena. They did just that after losing Game 6 in OT and holding on in Game 7 for a 2-1 win. 

It was magnificent. The games were on TV at the time, and that team was being carried by goalie Johan Holmqvist at the trade deadline. The Wild dealt a very popular player away, Lawrence Nycholat,  to get him, and at the time, the players were very ticked off about losing a friend and team leader. It was my first true beat, and even I could sense things turning south at the end of the regular season. Instead, Holmqvist carried the team all the way to title No. 2. 

The win over the Griffins was gravy. They were Western Conference Champions, and they were to play the league’s best team, the Hamilton Bulldogs. Losing to them would not have been the end of the world for McLellan’s group. But they went that far, so why not go for it all? The Aeros won game 1, backed by Holmqvist (who the team called Honker). Game 2 was the most remarkable game, to me in the history of the franchise. It lasted well into a fourth Overtime, or 134 minutes, 56 seconds. The Aeros should have won the game in OT2, but captain Sylvain Cloutier was unjustly called for goalie interference, and the goal was waived off. Michael Ryder won the game on the Bulldogs’ 81st shot of the game. Bulldogs goalie Ty Conklin stopped 83 Aeros shots for the win. 

Hamilton won Game 3, but the Aeros closed out play at Compaq Center with wins in Games 4 and 5. Just like the last round, the Aeros had two chances to win it on the road. I had a day off, so it took it, flew to Hamilton for Game 6. The Aeros lost, and had to wait a few days to play Game 7 because the building was unavailable. I watched Game 7 from my couch. Fittingly, Holmqvist pitched a shutout in front of a full arena, and the Aeros celebrated in Canada. One of the highlights of the that season was seeing the couple hundred fans meet the team near IAH for a welcome home celebration.

McLellan goes to Detroit:

During my time as writer, I worked with now San Jose head coach Todd McLellan more than any other coach. I loved working with he, Rob Daum, Kevin Constantine, Mike Yeo and John Torchetti. I learned so much from all of them, but I am truly appreciative to McLellan for his patience over the years. 

The Chronicle replaced their real reporter (who resigned) with a kid (me)  who loved hockey and someone who loved to tell stories. I learned more Xs and Os from McLellan than I ever did before that. And I also learned from him about what players think about in just about any situation imaginable, and that really helped me craft stories around the big picture and not just focus on minutiae. 

With newspapers suffering, and my space for stories dwindling every year, that was key in helping me keep things interesting. That is hard to do when you cover the same team in the same league for 10 years. McLellan’s last season was 2004-05: the lockout that wiped out the entire NHL season. Mikko Koivu, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Brent Burns, Mike Smith and Josh Harding were all in Houston for a fun year that ended after a first-round exit to the Chicago Wolves. 

During the summer, I got a call from then Aeros GM Tom Lynn saying that the Aeros were going to need a new head coach because McLellan was going to join Mike Babcock’s staff in Detroit. I called Todd when the Wings made it official, and that conversation will stay with me. We talked about how great the last four years had been and what he'd like to accomplish before he retires. Guess what? He’s done a lot of that already, and right now, he is just 12 wins away from the ultimate … a Stanley Cup Champion as head coach.

Rob Daum and the O’Sullivan/Law/Westrum line:

The winningest Canadian College head coach joined the Aeros after McLellan left, and Rob Daum was blessed with a very, very good offensive team backed by goalie Josh Harding. Anyone who saw Patrick O’Sullivan, Kirby Law and Erik Westrum play together on Toyota Center ice can say they saw the best line in Houston Aeros history. In my fourth year covering the team, I had plenty to write about as that trio piled up 124 goals and 177 assists. Read that again … 

PR guru Ryan Stanzel told me during training camp that this team would be hard to be, and he was right. That squad was the last 50-win team in franchise history and swept past the Peoria Rivermen in the first round of the playoffs. 

The Aeros were then quickly swept by the Milwaukee Admirals in the second round, the only team in the conference that finished with more points. It was a good year, but definitely a tough pill to swallow for such a tremendously offensive group. Personal problems off the ice for some of the secondary players on that team carried over to the next year, and that ultimately spelled doom for the Aeros, who missed the playoffs and quickly replaced Daum …

But speaking of Rob Daum, best interview ever:

There is always that go-to player every year that gives you the best lines, win or lose. Jon DiSalvatore, Drew Bagnall, Barry Brust, Sylvain Cloutier … I could go on and on. But with coaches, you have to talk to them after every game, so you can only hope you establish a solid relationship from the get-go. 

McLellan was very PC and could be great. He was a teacher and his best stuff was always off the record. Constantine, to me, was a little less PC, but he always protected his players. McLellan was more focused on each game, and Constantine was more big picture. Yeo was emotional and there were times when I wanted to put on the skates and run through a wall for him. 

And Torchetti … how can you not love the Boston accent? He was all over the map at times, but my God, he loved his players. Considering what his teams and the Wild went through the last two years, I think he did the best job of any coach in the AHL history of the team. You could argue that the last two teams highly overachieved, and yet they made the playoffs both time. 

And then there was Daum. Great on the record, so much better off the record, but I looked forward to talking to him, especially after bad losses. His facial expressions were the best and his analogies were … colorful. I loved working with him, and looking back now, he never had a chance with his last group. I’ll remember him always.


Anonymous said...

to say this piece of nostalgia hit home is a vast understatement.
it's a wonder my system hasn't shorted out with all the tears.
i knew the leaving was going to be painful but had no idea it would be as difficult and bad as it is.
there are not enough thanks to all of you for the time and effort involved recording your thoughts and memories.

Dave said...

Thanks for this and the other great posts over the years. 

As a season ticket holder since 1995-96, the Turner Cup year was the best.   The way the Aeros dominated the regular season and then fought through the playoffs is something I will never forget.   I didn't know just how long a 7 game series could be until 1999. Brian Wiseman's overtime goal in Game 4 of the Long Beach series was well worth staying up until 12:30 AM on a work night.   To me, it is the biggest goal in the history of the Aeros.

Other great memories from that year.

-The sellout crowds during games 6 & 7 against Orlando.

-The smile on Jim Paek's face after he scored his third period goal.  

-The sheer joy in Compaq Center, both on the ice and in the stands, as soon as the Aeros won the Turner Cup.  

-The huge banner of Manny Fernandez on City Hall. 

-The Aeros being on the cover of the Southwestern Bell phone book the next year.

I have meet some really great people over the years at Aeros games.  I will miss the social aspect as much as the game itself. 

The Aeros were the only team in Houston that I cared about.  It has hit me that they are gone.  It will hit me again in October.