This was a season like no other. From its quick start to its abrupt ending it was unique. In season’s past, after mini-camp, the team would form early in September and begin getting ready for the upcoming year. Practice, photo-shoots, training, find lodging, practice, training, media day, practice, training, meet and greet, practice, training. After two weeks, a pre-season game or two and the season is at the doorstep. Not this year.
The team stayed on Long Island until the last minute, perhaps to give the new coaching staff the training and practice that they needed with the Islanders systems. Whatever the reason, the normal two plus weeks was compressed to a few days. The routine remained the same, but with little time on hand the players were getting up at six in the morning to look for housing before heading to practice, training, etc. Condos and houses rented, friendships that will last for years were made and the season began. And a great season it would be, a banner season by all standards.
The season ended abruptly Sunday evening when, with less than three and a half minutes remaining in overtime, CT Whale forward Casey Wellman, tipped in a pass form NHL veteran Wade Redden. The game was typical of what the Sound Tigers had shown their fans all season. Down 1-0 in the first, DiBenedetto scored to tie it, down 2-1 in the third, Ullstrom scored to tie it again. After falling behind once more eleven minutes into the third period, Bridgeport would tie the game for the last time on a goal by Rhett Rakhshani. DiBenedetto, Ullstrom and Rakhshani, three names the fans have grown used to seeing on the score sheet. The Sound Tigers were down and came back, something that the team had been doing all season. Half-way through the season the team was in last place, they came back and won the division, the teams’ first such honor in ten years, and now the comebacks have ended and the season is done.
Shortly after the game was over and the traditional handshakes were exchanged by the teams, the players began ‘tweeting’ thanks to fans, friends and fellow Tigers for what will be a season long remembered. Trevor Frischmon’s tweet speaks volumes, “Thanks to all my #BST teammates for an unforgettable year! Never been on a team with more heart and character! #notreadytobedone”. High accolades from someone with 160 NCAA games, 31 ECHL games, 397 AHL games and a three game cup of NHL brewed coffee with the Blue Jackets. In the unlikely event that this team is brought back to the Webster Bank Arena for a '2011-12 AHL Northeast Division Champions' banner raising ceremony, we will never see them together again. (Trevor Frischmon/ Photo: Pope Steve XXVII)
Exit interviews and physicals replaced practice this morning and players started to head home for the off-season. Many (perhaps most) will not be Sound Tigers next season. (My only regret being an AHL fan, is losing so many 'friends' every year.) Some of the team, Ullstrom, Donovan and Poulin/Nilsson most likely, will realize their dream and make it to the NHL out of next years training camp.
Some of the younger players, Brock Nelson and John Persson as examples, will be asked to bulk up or work on minor technique changes before reporting to 'rookie camp' in late July. Players who joined this years squad on PTO's (professional tryouts) may or may not be tendered an offer to return. Scott Howes, Kael Mouillierat, Jon Landry to name a few were invaluable to the teams success this year. Other players like Blair Riley, Steve Oleksy and Brandon Gentile, each of whom was given a call-up from the ECHL, proved they are more than ready to remain in the AHL or take the next step.
There is another contingent of players that are also still in the mix, those with little or no time left on their entry level contracts. Talented players like Rhett Rakhshani, Justin DiBenedetto and Mark Katic are all NHL ready or close. The Islanders, like every club in the NHL, have fifty professional contracts to offer. Decisions won't be made until after the annual NHL draft in June. If the Isles draft an NHL ready stud of a blue-liner, the promising careers of Calvin deHaan or Aaron Ness might be put on hold. The selection of a strong forward might delay the career of already proven Casey Cizikas. We are a long way from anything but speculation on any of this.
What we do know is that many of the players that battled all year to win the banner which will be raised next year, may never see it. Some may join teams playing in Europe, others will pursue their dream in another league or with another organization. A few may return to the arena wearing the sweater of a visiting team but it is their banner and they earned it. The arena and the fans that fill the seats are merely the care takers of a trophy won by a team that showed heart and character every night they took the ice.
Thank-you gentlemen for an unforgettable year!
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