Greetings from Norfolk, VA, home of the Edmonton Oilers' new ECHL affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals! This is to be the first of many Sunday reports from Southern Virginia, home to professional hockey since 1971!
I reached out to Ryan, the editor, when it was made official that the Anaheim Ducks had purchased the AHL franchise based here in Norfolk and was moving it to San Diego. I had been covering Admirals hockey for five years and two affiliations and felt it important to keep the connection to the parent organization alive, not just for local fans here in Norfolk, but for fans of each affiliate in the organization as well. The AHL and ECHL are developmental leagues for the NHL, and while covering game to game is important, it's really all about the long term goal of getting prospects ready to move up through the ranks. I hope to be able to keep everyone up to date with the development of Oilers' prospects, as well as those who might make the jump to the AHL. I welcome feedback, questions, and comments--any feedback is appreciated!
I've been playing hockey since I was seven years old (that's 32 years) and grew up 15 minutes away from Hershey, PA, home to one of the oldest AHL franchises, the Hershey Bears. Hockey was my life, though my "professional" career didn't carry past high school as I joined the Navy and ended up being station in Norfolk, living here since 1999. Hockey is a tradition here in the Hampton Roads area, and professional hockey has been a part of the region for 44 years. Fans here are die-hard and they know the sport well. They have seen championships and championship players. Hockey lives in south eastern Virginia!
It was also important to me to provide a little background of the more recent history of the "Admirals" name, which came about when the ECHL Hampton Roads Admirals first took the ice in 1989. Between '89 and 2000, the Admirals won three Kelly Cups and two Division Championships while never missing the playoffs in 11 seasons. In 2000, the Admirals would move up to the American Hockey League and an affiliation with the Chicago Blackhawks. The affiliation lasted until 2007 with the Admirals again making the playoffs every season. Fans in Norfolk got to see many of the players blossom in to full time NHL players. Of note, in the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals, sixteen former Admirals competed for the Championship between Chicago and the Philadelphia Flyers.
In 2007 the affiliation shifted to the Tampa Bay Lightning. For the first time in 18 years, an Admirals team failed to make the post-season, and would remain out of contention for the Calder Cup for three years straight, until a young coach named Jon Cooper was named to run the bench in the 2010-2011 season. Norfolk would make the post season that year but would be ousted in the first round. More than half the roster was upset over the summer, and the 2011-2012 season saw the Norfolk Admirals predicted to finish near the bottom of the AHL by TSN. Funny thing about pre-season predictions though....
That 2011-2012 season saw the Norfolk Admirals set the North American single season record for most consecutive wins at 28. And in case you're asking, that includes ALL professional hockey leagues in North America, to include the NHL. Norfolk would go on to win the Calder Cup that year, winning 15 of 18 games including back to back sweeps in the Eastern Conference and Calder Cup Finals. That team spawned some notable current NHL players as well--Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Alex Killorn, who all played under Jon Cooper recently in the Stanley Cup Finals against the Chicago Blackhawks, who also boasted former Admirals' players like Corey Crawford, Kris Versteeg, Brent Seabrook, and Duncan Keith.
The day after the Calder Cup parade in downtown Norfolk it was "officially" announced that the Lightning and Anaheim Ducks were swapping AHL affiliations and the best professional team to ever play in the city was being shipped out, virtually overnight. The 2012-2013 season once again found the Admirals on the outside of the post-season, and in fact the Admirals would only make the playoffs once in the three season affiliation with Anaheim. Notable former Admirals now playing in the NHL for Anaheim are John Gibson, Pat Maroon, Rickard Rakell, Chris Wagner, Hampus Lindholm, Josh Manson, Sami Vatanen, and Frederik Anderson, all players Edmonton fans should be familiar with due to the multiple meetings in the Western Conference.
With the Ducks purchase of the AHL franchise and subsequent move to San Diego, the former franchise ownership group went out looking for a replacement and forged an agreement with Edmonton to bring their ECHL team here to Norfolk. Players love the area--the beach is just down the road, the temperatures are mild are the fans love their team.
So why should Oilers' and Condors' fans care about the Admirals? Well, as it goes in any developmental organization these days, if a player is hurt, someone is called up to replace them, and then someone is called up to replace that player. NHL and AHL rosters have a cap, and there is only so much room available for signed prospects, so players like Greg Chase and Ben Betker, who are both on NHL entry-level contracts, find themselves here in Norfolk. Other players like Marco Roy and Ty Rimmer, both signed to AHL contracts, are bidding their time to get the call up to Bakersfield when a spot opens up. Each and every player on the roster is fighting to move up and out of the ECHL with the ultimate goal of wearing a jersey and finding a spot on a team in the NHL. The ECHL can provide that first step, and there aren't too many better places to play and live than in Norfolk Virginia.
Edmonton prospects should feel right at home in this hockey town both on and "in" the East Coast!
Follow me on Twitter: @VAPuckhead