Monday, April 6, 2015

Flint Spirits (IHL, 1988-89)

1988-89 Regular Season: Opponent Unknown
     After such a great season in 1987-88, the Spirits saw many changes on and off the ice. Head Coach/GM Rick Dudley was hired by the Buffalo Sabres and was replaced by top defenseman Don Waddell. Star forward John Cullen also jumped to "The Show", signing with the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Spirits were affiliated with Buffalo, Detroit, Los Angeles and Toronto.
     1988-89 was a huge disappointment, as the Spirits crashed to the league cellar, with a pathetic 22-54-6. With only 50 points on the year, Flint was 35 points behind fourth place Kalamazoo and a mind-numbing 71 behind Huber Trophy winner Muskegon.
     Waddell's first team had trouble scoring goals, bringing up the rear in the IHL with just 287. New arrival Michel Mongeau, a former Saginaw General, scored 41 goals and 117 points to lead the team. Yves Heroux was second-best with 43 goals and 85 points. The only other Spirits player with over 30 goals was Mike Hoffman. New assistant coach Peter Horachek returned to the ice after a one-year retirement, but scored just 10 goals and 32 points.
     Flint was slightly better on defense, allowing 428 goals on the year, second only to the expansion Indianapolis Ice. Waddell used six goaltenders that year. Both goaltenders from the previous year's finals run, Gary Kruzich and Ray LeBlanc, did return that year, but struggled to put up decent numbers behind a porous defense. Kruzich went 9-17-1 with a 4.84 GAA and one shutout. LeBlanc would be traded partway into the season to Saginaw for young forward Lonnie Loach. Maple Leafs prospect Dean Anderson had a brutal 1-12-0 record in 16 games, though that lone win was a shutout. Mark Reimer, Scott Brower and Kenton Rein were the other netminders that year.
     Obviously, there would be no playoff run in 1988-89, as the Spirits were one of two teams eliminated from postseason play. Don Waddell would remain on as General Manager, and the team would become the primary farm team of the New York Rangers in 1989-90, the franchise's final season in Flint.
     There are 64 pages in this program, again all black-and-white. Plenty of advertisements too, including the Raincheck Lounge, PASS Sports and Beavers IGA. Then-mayor Matthew Collier left a note welcoming fans to the game and wishing the team luck. His letter also included a picture of him playing hockey! There are also pictures of Spirits players John Cullen and Dan Woodley receiving awards from IHL Commissioner Bud Poile, an article about last season's accomplishments and an interview with current coach Don Waddell. I think this is about the time I started going to hockey games. Didn't want to go back then (I even faked being sick!), but I was only seven.

International Hockey League Statistics: 1988-89 (from
1988-89 Flint Spirits Game Program

Flint Spirits (IHL, 1987-88)

1987-88 Regular Season: Spirits vs. Milwaukee Admirals
     The Flint Spirits were in their third year of operation by 1987-88. Rick Dudley was back as Coach/GM, and the team was now a secondary affiliate of Buffalo, Detroit, Philadelphia and Vancouver.
     After a 26-win turnaround the following season, the Spirits had their greatest season in their five-year history in 1987-88. They broke or tied 59 team records that year, as they went 42-31-9 that year. While only finishing fourth in a very strong East Division, they would have clinched the West with that record. The team's 42 wins were also a franchise record. The Spirits' 93 points were just four points behind third place Saginaw, but a distant 33 behind league best Muskegon.
     Rick Dudley's team had no problem putting the puck in the net, scoring 396 goals, second-highest in the league. Future NHLer John Cullen led the charge, scoring 48 goals and 157 points. Cullen would share Rookie of the Year honors with Saginaw's Ed Belfour. Darren Lowe was the team's 50-goal scorer, lighting the lamp 53 times and 117 points. Mario Chitaroni nearly joined him, scoring 49 goals to go along with 96 points. Three other players scored at least 20. Defenseman Don Waddell had a spectacular final season of play, scoring 17 goals and 75 points, being named IHL All-Star.
     On defense, the Spirits were just as good, surrendering just 289 goals, second only to Muskegon. While the team did use seven different goaltenders, the main two used were Gary Kruzich and Ray LeBlanc. LeBlanc was the #1 netminder, going 27-19-8 with a 4.39 GAA and one shutout. Kruzich went 14-5-1 with a 4.15 GAA. LeBlanc drew the nod for 16 of the team's 18 postseason games.
     For the second straight season, the Flint Spirits qualified for the Turner Cup Playoffs. They drew the powerful Muskegon Lumberjacks, three-time Turner Cup Finalist. Flint pulled off the upset, knocking off the Lumberjacks in six games, including a 9-0 blowout in Game 6 at the IMA Sports Arena. They would then face the Saginaw Hawks in the East Division Finals. Despite two games going to overtime, the Hawks would be swept aside in four straight, as the Spirits would go on to the Turner Cup Finals.
     In the Finals, Flint would face a formidable opponent: the defending Turner Cup champion Salt Lake Golden Eagles. The Spirits took the first two games at the IMA, but the Golden Eagles would sweep the next four games to retake the Cup in six games, winning it all on IMA ice in Game 6.
     This is a 56-page program, mostly all black-and-white, but there are a couple color photos. There are game photos from the previous season, a bio on Rick Dudley and a preview of the "New Look IHL". Local ads include Buick, WNEM TV 5, Bob Perani's Pizza Arena and Halo Burger. That night was Gordie Howe Night, and the insert includes a picture of Mr. Hockey in his Hartford Whalers uniform.

International Hockey League Statistics: 1987-88 (from
1987-88 Flint Spirits Souvenir Program
1988-89 Flint Spirits Souvenir Program

Flint Spirits (IHL, 1985-86)

1985-86 Regular Season: Spirits vs. Kalamazoo Wings
     The Flint Spirits were an expansion franchise that joined the IHL late in the summer of 1985. Flint's previous team, the Generals, left for Saginaw in July after failing to come to terms on a lease for the IMA Sports Arena. The Spirits replaced them on August 6, 1985, a mere eight weeks before training camp!
     The Spirits were originally owned by Laraine and Carl Lamb. Former Red Wings great Ted Lindsay helped get the franchise off the ground as consultant, and suggested the Lambs hire Doug McKay as Coach/GM. Due to the late start for the franchise, the Spirits operated as an independent club (no NHL affiliates).
     Doug McKay had success in the IHL before, leading the Kalamazoo Wings to two-straight Turner Cup Finals berths, winning it all in 1980. However, he would have no such success in Flint. His Spirits slammed head-first into the basement of the IHL, with a horrific 16-60-6 record. Their anemic 38 points were 20 points behind second-worst Toledo, 74 behind league-best Fort Wayne.
     Understandably, McKay couldn't build a winner on such short notice and with no NHL parent clubs. He had very little to work with, and his Spirits brought up the rear in both offense and defense. Flint scored just 270 goals, 23 behind second-worst Toledo. As bad as their offense was, the Spirits did have two forty-goal scorers on the roster. Jim Egerton led the team on offense, scoring 46 goals and 102 points. He also topped the team in penalty minutes, spending 226 minutes in the sin bin. Future Saginaw Wheel super-pest John Vecchiarelli was next with 40 goals and 92 points. There was a dropoff after that, as only Carmine Vani (traded partway through the season to Milwaukee) scored 20 goals that year.
     The Spirits were even worse on defense, allowing a league-high 495 goals, 74 more than (surprise!) second-worst Toledo. The team used five different goaltenders that season. Dave Parro and Michel Valliere took the brunt of the abuse, playing in over 40 games each. Parro went 10-34-0 with a 5.58 GAA. Dan Olsen, David Moffitt and Terry Kleisinger (a late-season pickup from Toledo) played in about 3-4 games each.
     Again, seeing that the team was formed in such short notice, the results were predictable. Even a winning
1985-86 Flint Spirits team photo
coach like Doug McKay couldn't make this team competitive. Flint fans, irritated about the loss of the Generals and not impressed with the new club, stayed away in droves. To show how bad it was, the Flint Journal reported that two WWF house shows brought in more money than the entire 1985-86 Spirits season! The Lambs would eventually be bought out by a group led by Donald Chambers and former Generals star Bob Perani. Given a proper offseason to work with, the new owners cleaned house, bringing in former Sabre (and General) Rick Dudley as Coach/GM.
     This is the first Spirits program from that season I have seen online, and I grabbed it quickly. This is from early in their first season, only 12 games in. The original owner stapled a business card to the front cover. It's a pretty nice program. It's 60 pages, almost all black-and-white. There's a team photo of the 1969-70 Generals, asking fans to see how many names they could come up with. Then-Flint Mayor James Sharp welcomed the new franchise to town. Local ads include Buick, WSMH FOX 66 and WCRZ Cars 108 FM. One of the most interesting pages is the one that has all the nicknames submitted in the "Name-the-Team" contest. The names went from Acorns to Ziplomats. Plenty of auto-related names, and a few old IHL nicknames as well (Flags, Gems). There are even a few that would be used for future teams in Flint--Warriors and Bulldogs.

International Hockey League Statistics: 1985-86 (from
Flint Spirits 1985-86 Game Program

Saginaw Spirit (OHL, 2014-15)

2014-15 OHL Playoffs: Spirit vs. Soo Greyhounds
     2014-15 was the twelfth season of the Saginaw Spirit, making that franchise the longest-lasting in the history of Saginaw hockey. Since their arrival in the summer of 2002, the Spirit have been a huge success off the ice, drawing 1.77 million fans to the Dow Event Center in twelve years. On the ice, the team has had mixed results. While competitive for the most part, the Spirit have won just one division title, and have yet to advance past the second round. On the other hand, the Spirit have sent numerous players to the NHL, including current Chicago Blackhawk Brandon Saad.
     The Spirit are owned by local car dealer Richard Garber, who has owned the team in it's entire existence. The head coach is Greg Gilbert, a former NHL forward who is the only player to win the Stanley Cup with both New York teams. Gilbert arrived in 2013 during the season, and led a struggling Spirit squad to the playoffs. He won the OHL Coach of the Year award that year, and is a finalist this season.
     2014-15 was a rough season for the Spirit. Saginaw battled with the Plymouth Whalers all season for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. At the trading deadline, Saginaw GM Jim Paliatito traded away all the team's overagers (including Red Wings prospect Jake Patterson), leaving the Spirit with the youngest roster in the OHL. Only star forward Dylan Sadowy was an NHL draft choice. It was another attempt at building for the future for the franchise.
     Saginaw scored the seventh-fewest goals in 2014-15, with only 212. Sadowy was the team's leading scorer with 42 goals and 74 points. Mitchell Stephens had the second most points, with 48, on the strength of 22 goals. Tye Felhaber was the only other Spirit player to score 20 goals.
     The Spirit also struggled on defense, allowing 271 goals, third-worst in the league. They used four different goaltenders this past year. Jake Patterson was the #1 netminder for most of the year, going 12-11-1 with a 3.48 GAA and 1 shutout, before being traded to Kitchener at midseason. Evan Cormier took over the reigns for the remainder of the season, going 9-10-0 with a 3.48 GAA and 1 shutout, showing a lot of promise on such a young team. Other netminders include David Ovsjannikov and Nikita Serebryakov. Cormier drew the nod for the postseason.
     Despite the trades, the Spirit were able to clinch the final playoff berth in the last week of the season. Unfortunately, as the #8 seed, they drew the powerful Sault Ste. Marie Greyounds in Round One. The Greyhounds won the regular season title, going 54-12-2, a whopping 49 points ahead of Saginaw. With a roster full of NHL draft choices, everyone expected the Greyhounds to crush the Spirit in four games. Those predictions were accurate, as Sault Ste. Marie swept the Spirit aside with ease.
     This program is from Game 3 of that series, the only Spirit game I made it to this year, and the first one in two years. It's a great program as always, with 75 full-color pages full of ads, articles and bios on each player. There are letters from Dick Garber and Jim Paliatito. Local ads include Meijer, Garber Buick and Nissan, the Great Lakes Loons and Saginaw Valley State University. There's an article on former Spirit forward Brandon Saad. Very nice program, and only cost $3. It was only sold at the souvenir stand that night, but stat booklets were given away for free.

Ontario Hockey League Statistics: 2014-15 (from

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Toronto Maple Leafs (NHL, 1998-99)

1998-99 Regular Season: Leafs vs. Chicago Blackhawks
     1998-99 was a memorable season for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Maple Leaf Gardens, the Leafs iconic home for the past 68 years, was closing midway through the year, replaced by the Air Canada Center.
     Since it's grand opening in 1931, the Gardens had been home to not only the Leafs, but also pro basketball, pro wrestling, rock concerts, boxing, you name it. It saw the highs of 11 Stanley Cup championships to the nadir of the Harold Ballard era of the 1970s and 1980s. The building had become not just a legendary sports arena, but a Canadian cultural shrine.
     The Maple Leafs were coming off two straight disappointing seasons by the time 1998-99 rolled around. The team had slumped after making two straight conference finals in the early 1990s, and missed the playoffs altogether in 1997 and 1998. 
     Major changes were made for the upcoming year. Montreal Canadiens goaltending legend Ken Dryden was named President/GM. Dryden, in turn, hired former Vancouver Coach Pat Quinn as Leafs head coach. Dryden then made a big splash in free agency by signing star goaltender Curtis Joseph to shore up the "last line of defense". And to top it off, the Leafs switched from the Western Conference to the East, joining up with arch-rival Montreal.
     1998-99 was a huge turnaround for the Maple Leafs. Now in the Northeast Division, Toronto soared to a 45-30-7 record, good enough for second place. Their 97 points were just six behind division leader Ottawa. Mats Sundin again led the team in offense, scoring 31 goals and 83 points. He was joined in the 30-goal club by Sergei Berezin, who scored a career-best 37 goals. Four others scored at least 20, and as a team, the Leafs scored 268 goals, a huge jump from the paltry 194 they scored the previous season.
     Toronto had a decent defense that year with Curtis Joseph playing the lions-share of games. CuJo was in net for 67 games, going 35-24-7 with a 2.56 GAA and 3 shutouts. Three other goaltenders were used that year, with Glenn Healy getting into the second-most games (9).
     This program, of course, is from the last NHL game at Maple Leaf Gardens, played on February 13, 1999. The Leafs played the Chicago Blackhawks, who were also the opponent in the first NHL game at the Gardens. Chicago had a horrible season, losing 41 games and finishing only 7 points ahead of the expansion Nashville Predators. It was the beginning of the long decline of the franchise during the "Dollar Bill" Wirtz era. That night, however, the Blackhawks looked like world-beaters, embarrassing the Leafs on national TV, 6-2. Longtime NHL enforcer Bob Probert made history, scoring the last NHL goal in Maple Leaf Gardens history. I watched that game, and thought the Leafs looked nervous and distracted. Any other night, and they probably would have handled Chicago.
     The post-game ceremony was excellent. Led by Hockey Night in Canada host Ron MacLean, the Leafs brought back former players from each decade, even the 1930s. Even Doug Gilmour, by then a Blackhawk, was part of the festivities. A highlight of his famous "behind-the-net spinorama" goal in 1993 against St. Louis drew loud cheers, and a few laughs when the camera showed current Leaf Curtis Joseph wincing. There was also a "C'MON TEEDER!" cheer for Ted Kennedy, who was ill and couldn't attend. In the end, 1930s Leaf Red Horner presented current Leaf Mats Sundin with a Gardens flag, telling him to "take this flag to our new home, but never forget us". 
     The Leafs made the playoffs for the first time since 1995-96, and drew the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round. It was a low-scoring affair, as Flyers goalie John Vanbiesbrouck shut out the Leafs in Game 1 and kept them scoreless through the first two periods of Game 2. Toronto was able to pull off a dramatic win in Game 2, and eventually eliminated the Flyers in six games. In Round Two, the Leafs drew the Pittsburgh Penguins and again needed six games (two of their wins in overtime) to knock off the Penguins. In their first conference final sine 1994, Toronto ran into Dominik Hasek and the Buffalo Sabres. Buffalo knocked off Toronto in five games to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they lost to Dallas in six.
     Bought this program on eBay awhile ago. Always wanted a copy, since it was a historic night. It has 178 pages, loaded with pictures of current and former Leafs and all the major events that happened at Maple Leaf Gardens. It's incredible to think how many hockey legends, bands and pop culture icons have performed there. Rock icons like The Beatles, Elvis Presley and Queen performed at the Gardens. Muhammad Ali fought there. Even Queen Elizabeth appeared at a Maple Leafs game. And, of course, great hockey stars such as Syl Apps, Gordie Howe, Maurice Richard, Frank Mahovolich, Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky have played there.
     Since closing in 1999, Maple Leaf Gardens sat empty for years before being bought by Loblaws and converted into a grocery store. There's still hockey played there, too, as an arena was added near the ceiling. I'm glad they found a use for that building. Would have hated to see it become an eyesore like Tiger Stadium did.

National Hockey League Statistics: 1998-99 (from
"The Final Game: February 13, 1999, Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Chicago Blackhawks", 1998-99 Toronto Maple Leafs Game Program