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Grand Rapids Takes AHL Title

Redbird One

Congratulations to the Grand Rapids Griffins, who scored the first pro hockey championship in that market’s history with a 5-2 victory over the Syracuse Crunch in Game Six of the Calder Cup Finals.

That snuffed out a pretty good comeback in the series by the Crunch, who had lost the first three games before saving their season with wins in Games Three and Four in Grand Rapids.

Syracuse was bidding to bring the parent Tampa Bay Lightning a second straight Calder Cup, after the Norfolk Admirals had won it as a Lightning affiliate the year before.

Game Six wasn’t easy for the victors, either, as the Crunch scored first and the game was a 2-2 tie until almost the midpoint of the third period.

Defenseman Brennan Evans, who was goalless all regular season and hadn’t scored a pro playoff goal in his ten-year pro career before this postseason, bagged what turned out to be the winner with 10:06 left in the third, and the Griffins created the final margin with a pair of empty-net goals in the final 49 seconds.

It was a long march for Grand Rapids, whose 24 total playoff games-played fell one short of the all-time league record set by the 2002 Chicago Wolves.

They faced a Crunch team that was red-hot through the first three rounds, having gone 11-1, and went 3-0 on the road in the series, making head coach Jeff Blashill the first AHL mentor to win a Calder Cup in his first year as a pro head man since George Burnett steered the Cape Breton Oilers to the 1993 championship (incidentally, Burnett went on to coach the Binghamton Rangers for the last two seasons, 1995-96 and ‘96’97, before they moved to Hartford and became the Wolf Pack).

The year before that Cape Breton victory, the Adirondack Red Wings won the whole thing, under the coaching hand of Barry Melrose and chronicled by a green young play-by-play man named Bob Crawford.  Prior to the Griffins winning, that had been the last AHL title for a Detroit Red Wings affiliate, a 20-year gap after Adirondack had captured three Calder Cups in seven years between1986 and that 1992 win.

I got a chuckle, too, when I read that the parent Red Wings were giving the Griffins the use of the Wings’ team plane, “Redbird III”, for their trip back to Syracuse after Grand Rapids failed to close out the series at home.

Back in 1992, Adirondack played the finals against the St. John’s Maple Leafs, then a first-year AHL franchise, and, due to the 2-2-1-1-1 series format that was used back then, had to make three separate trips up to Newfoundland, in a seven-game series in which neither team was able to win even one home game.  Each of those trips that series was also made aboard the Wings’ team jet, which was then called “Redbird One”.

The Adirondack captain from that season, Chris Luongo, later made a photo album for each member of the traveling party, and the Griffins-Redbird III story sent me scurrying to dig mine out.  The photo at right is of some the intrepid voyagers boarding Redbird One at Glens Falls (NY) airport for one of the journeys to Newfoundland.  Ah, the memories!

The Red Wings have enjoyed a stellar player-development record throughout their recent history, and it will be interesting to see how the loss of long-time assistant general manager Jim Nill, a great man and a great hockey mind, will affect that.

After a tenure with the Wings organization that dates all the way back to helping put together some of those great Adirondack teams of the early ‘90’s, Nill left this spring to become General Manager of the Dallas Stars.  Dallas made a great hire, I think, and it will be a big void for Detroit to fill.

So, the 2012-13 AHL season is now officially put to bed, and it’s time to start thinking in earnest about the start of a new training camp, which will be on us before we know it.