The Ones Who Walk Away from Utah

A version of the 1986-87 NHL and IHL standings (featuring Kalamazoo) -- or, the type of nerditude that occurs in a hockey-obsessed household. {click to enlarge}

Fletch: "I bumped into Alan this morning. You know what I can't figure out...?"
Gail Stanywk: "Alan's in Utah."
Fletch: "I can't figure out ... what I ... was doing ... in Utah this morning."

~Fletch

The Islanders' decision to change their ECHL affiliation from Utah to Kalamazoo marks the end (for now anyway; everything in minor hockey is fleeting) of a long, strange connection to the Beehive State, one that dates back to a storied now-defunct league and a storied Islanders great turned-coach-turned-sideline reporter.

Let's rewind: A team known as the Denver Grizzlies was a powerhouse in the mid-90s IHL -- a time when "the I" was pursuing an "NHL B1" major market strategy that ultimately fueled that league's demise. That was the same era that produced the Chicago Wolves, who survived the IHL's collapse and now thrive in the AHL.

The Grizzlies' success in the Mile High city -- 12,000 fans per game and a championship in 1994-95, with Tommy Salo winning 45 games and one Butch Goring behind the bench -- put extra icing on the market's credentials to receive the Quebec Nordiques (who, as we all know, moved south strictly because Gary Bettman Hates Canada, and not because of any other economic or venue-related factors whatsoever, no sir).

Islanders in Utah, Version 1.0

That created the opening for the Grizz to return hockey to Salt Lake, where they repeated as IHL champions -- Salo won 25 games as he saw more time up with the Isles. You might infer that the fact the Islanders had a winning IHL affiliate portended good things for the Islanders' future. But that would require you to be ignorant of things like "Mike Milbury," and the "Gang of Four" (Islanders version, not the Chinese nor kicking post-punk version). Reflecting the AHL vs. IHL nature of that era, those were crazy days where NHL teams would assign players to multiple places, so the Islanders had properties appear both in Denver/Salt Lake and in AHL Worcester (Eric Fichaud, Jamie McLennan).

Goring would coach the Utah version of the Grizzlies until 1999-00, when he was given his only full season to coach the Islanders. The Islanders' formal affiliation technically ended at the end of 1997-98, when the Grizzlies went independent as more AHL teams wed themselves to the NHL while the IHL pusued its doomed strategy. But Utah liked Goring and his replacement as coach there was another hustling Islanders great, Bob Bourne.

As the IHL collapsed under its own ambition, the Grizz made the jump over to the AHL, which has always dreamed of having an affiliate for every NHL team anyway. The Utah Grizzlies had a mix of NHL affiliates in their four AHL seasons but ownership took them to the ECHL in 2005-06, where they remained independent for two seasons until a formal reunion with the Isles was in the cards. As their official history tells it:

In 2007-2008, the Grizzlies renewed ties with the New York Islanders and returned to the conference finals for the first time since 1996 as the E-Center hosted hockey beyond the second round for the first time ever. In 2008-2009, in Kevin Colley's first season as the Grizzlies Head Coach, he led Utah back to the playoffs for the third time in four years even as the team experienced stretches of playing with 12-13 players due to injuries and call-ups for weeks at a time.

Also during the 2008-2009 campaign, four former Grizzlies in Andrew MacDonald and Trevor Smith from the 2007-2008 season made their NHL debuts with the Islanders while Joel Rechlicz and Peter Mannino, who played for Utah just this past season also made their NHL debuts.

So while you'd practically burn enough fuel to fly to South America and back just to get there (sorry, another Fletch reference), the Utah-Islanders connection is pretty lengthy and will tangentially continue since Colley remains their coach.

But only tangentially. Now the Grizzlies formalize their already flirtatious affiliation with the Calgary Flames (whose AHL affiliate is also out West in Abbotsford, B.C.) from last year. The new arrangements probably make sense for both parties: Kalamazoo is a helluva lot closer to Long Island than Salt Lake is, while Salt Lake is a helluva lot closer to Calgary and Abbotsford than, say, Omaha.

 

Tin Foil Fodder

It's nothing really, but conspiracy theorists might retro-read into Mikko Koskinen's up-and-down playoff journey last spring and feel like maybe Salt Lake was pushed around, what with their playoff push featuring the introduction -- and removal -- amid cross-country flights by a goalie who hadn't been with the team all season and, in fact, had been on the shelf recovering from hip surgery.

The best cagey-Garth Snow moment was when Koskinen was recalled from Utah for a Bridgeport playoff game and Garth, when it looked like the Sound Tigers would have three healthy goalies (Mikko played; Lawson fell ill), merely explained to the Connecticut Post's Michael Fornabaio: "I have my reasons." Like, psychic reasons?

 

About That Chart: How Do You Do Kalamazoo?

Anyway, now the Isles will place baby-junior Isles in Kalamazoo, Michigan, which isn't so far from Detroit or Chicago or Columbus. More shuttling possibilities there, and maybe even more fan trips for the truly die-hard (not to leave out you Western fans and readers, including the one who dutifully reported on Mikko's ECHL playoff games last spring).

I'm actually intrigued to have an excuse to pay attention to Kalamazoo now because it's a historic hockey town, and I actually followed the K-Wings and the IHL as a youngin' more than any non-IHL-located youngin' should. The reason -- as it always is with hockey -- was my dad, who never saw a situation that graph paper and colored pens couldn't improve.

You see, back before the innerwebs, in the days when beatwriters were allowed to cover their beat and The Hockey News was a must-read instead of a publication whose Playoff Preview arrives at my door half-way through the second round, my dad (and I, by family osmosis) kept track of the NHL and affiliates through a bizarre standings graphing system like the one pictured at the top of this post, reflecting the 1986-87 NHL and IHL seasons. When I scanned that page I could still smell the smoke from his filterless Lucky Strikes even though it was last in his presence 13 years ago. I've got a book of charts like that which I can't throw away because they're just so bizarre and crazy and a little bit cool and a whole lot nostalgic for me.

On the surface, it looks like one hot colorful mess. In practice, it was a fun way to track all the teams you couldn't follow much. Plus, at the end of the season it gave you a great snapshot of each team's journey, both in the overall standings (as seen in their rank on the chart, with weekly points total underneath) and within their division (since the teams were color-coded by division, Patrick Division being purple -- we gave the two divisions we cared most about the more distinctive colors). So at a glance you can see the Islanders (LI) made it as high as 5th overall three times in the first half of the season before settling down into 9th. And Winnipeg -- poor Winnipeg (Wi) was as high as 3rd overall for most of February before declining to a 6th-overall finish, which was only good enough for 3rd in the Smythe Division.

(You can also see that Kalamazoo finished the preceding season in 4th, with 100 points, but fell all the way to second-from-last in 86-87.)

These charts were like scripture in our house: Updated weekly, when we wanted a feel for how a season was going we turned not to the day's standings in the newspaper but rather to this overarching picture. In a way I think this influenced how I experience sports, too: It's not only about the finish -- which is quickly usurped by planning for next season, anyway -- it's about the journey. Like an Australian Aborigine's non-linear, cyclical view of existence and time, I think I came to stop focusing on the question, "Did we win it all or not?" and start smelling the roses of the week-by-week experience that is a hockey season. Sure, I want to win it all, but if you don't see the possible pleasures beyond the rare scenario of being the last team standing, then winning it all becomes just a brief bit of ecstasy surrounded on both sides by continuous disappointment. (This must be how I've survived the post-1993 era.)

It's funny, while there's no way I'm getting out graph paper and four different colored pens -- yikes, it'd actually be six today -- to do this exercise today, sometimes I do find myself yearning for this kind of quick look at the season at a glance. The closest approximation today is probably SportsClubStats, which does a great job with a lot of fun charts like this one. But at the risk of sounding like an old retro-fart, there's something about having it in your hand, no mouse or scroll bar needed.

*  *  *

...All of which is neither here nor there, of course. But it's a slow July, hockey-dad stories are integral to so many fan experiences, and frankly, hearing about Kalamazoo from now on is going to have me thinking about the ol' IHL. And graph paper.

Got any Grizzlies, Islanders minor league, hockey parent, or bizarre stat-tracking stories to tell? Do share, the floor is yours...

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