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A Memorable Five Years

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It's said that all good things must come to an end. Friday was that day as the relationship between the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Springfield Falcons confirmed what had been rumored for weeks. With fanfare in three AHL cities, announcements were finalized for new working affiliations for the 2015-2016 AHL season.

Multi-year agreements were announced as the Blue Jackets will be moving their AHL club to Cleveland (Lake Erie). Coming into Springfield will be the Arizona Coyotes, while the Colorado Avalanche will be teaming up with the San Antonio Rampage. These changes, along with those already announced over the past few weeks will give the "A" a substantial facelift for the '15-'16 campaign.

Looking back over the last five years, this relationship with the Jackets has been a positive one, for both clubs and definitely for the hockey fans of the Pioneer Valley. While it would be far too easy to look at the partnership's demise and feel scorned, the positives have far outweighed the negatives.

First, affiliation changes are part and parcel of life in the AHL. Long lasting partnerships have been uncommon, with many if not most, lasting just a few years. In fact, in the time since I attended my first AHL game (I won't tell you the year), the Springfield clubs have had these teams as NHL partners:

Kings
Scouts
Flyers/Capitals
Kings (again)
Whalers
Bruins
Rangers
Blackhawks
Flyers
Blues
North Stars
Islanders
Whalers (again)
Jets
Coyotes
Kings (again!)
Islanders (again)
Lightning
Oilers
Blue Jackets
Coyotes (again)

One of the reasons I've enjoyed the AHL for as long as I have is that there is nothing as consistent as the amount of change involved among the clubs. One year's fan favorites can return the next as a bitter rival. What makes things different from an NHL club is that in the minors there can be an unsettling amount of uncertainty.

One thing that Springfield area fans can be grateful for is the business leadership of Charlie and Sarah Pompea. Their hard work and dedication have been often documented locally, but it needs to be said one more time. On April 17, 2015 without their leadership, it's possible that there is NO AHL hockey in Springfield in the future. And while I'm singing the praises, predictably anytime I pontificate about what makes hockey in Springfield so good, I mention the name of Bruce Landon. Bruce is now the Director of Player Development for the team. I don't need to say anything more than without him and Wayne LaChance getting an expansion franchise in 1994, hockey here in the Valley becomes an historic footnote.

Bittersweet though the parting with the Jackets may be, it has been a terrific five years. When the announcement was made by Bruce Landon in 2010, the Blue Jackets were an unknown to most fans in western Massachusetts. Following the extremely disappointing affiliations with Tampa Bay and Edmonton, the attitude of many locals was, "...it can't get any worse!" It's worth noting that when the Jackets came to Springfield, the Falcons had only made the postseason dance once in the ten previous seasons, an opening round loss in 2003.

With a skeptical fanbase and only one season in the previous six with a .500 record (2007-08, the first season with the Oilers as the parent club), the Jackets brought many of the previous season's Syracuse Crunch squad after another round of affiliate Musical Chairs.

Rob Riley was brought in as the head coach that first season, doing an admirable job. Showing that the Jackets were not simply looking to develop players but coaches as well, the assistant coach's job post was filled by a man who had just hung up his skates, Brad Larsen. Although falling short of that .500 benchmark, there was something different about this team. Some names from that 2010-11 season:
David Savard
Matt Calvert
Nick Holden
John Moore
Cody Goloubef
Grant Clitsome
and at the end of a successful college career, Cam Atkinson.

Just to prove that I'm not looking at the affiliation through rose colored glasses, I'll also mention...
Maksim Mayorov (now in the KHL)
Nikita Filatov (KHL)
Gustaf Wesslau (Sweden - his most famous quote when he returned to Europe after his one season here, when speaking of Springfield fans, "...all they do is eat sausage and drink beer.")
and who could forget Mike Commodore?

The 2011-12 campaign saw the addition of some highly touted free agents, along with the continuing development of some homegrown Columbus talent. Brought in were sniper Alexandre Giroux and playmaker Martin St. Pierre. Cam Atkinson came into his own in his first full season as a pro, scoring 29 goals in 51 games as a Falcon. Andrew Joudrey and Nick Drazenovic were added for a veteran presence as was Cody Bass.

The '11-'12 campaign was unusual in that (like this season), there were constant player moves due to injuries both in Columbus and in Springfield. This was also the season of the failed Jeff Carter experiment. The Falcons remained in competition for a playoff bid until dropping 9 of 14 March matches. Still, this was the first Falcons squad to finish above .500 since the 1997-98 season.

Following the '11-'12 season, Riley was replaced behind the bench by Brad Larsen. In Larsen's first season as a head coach, he piloted the Birds to 45 wins, their most since that '97-'98 campaign. With a winning percentage of .651, the team set their franchise record for success.

Names now familiar to Jackets fans who were a big part of the Falcons success were Cam Atkinson, Ryan Johansen, Michael Chaput, Sean Collins, David Savard, Matt Calvert, Cody Goloubef and Dalton Prout. Boone Jenner made his pro debut at the end of the season, adding three goals in five games.

An afterthought in the trade that sent Antoine Vermette to Phoenix, Curtis McElhinney came back after being sidelined for the second half of the '11-'12 season, and proceeded to shatter every goaltending record ever set here. Nine shutouts and a .923 save percentage were key in bringing Springfield it's first division title since 1998.

After a thrilling first round victory against the Manchester Monarchs, in which all three Falcons wins came in OT (thanks Cody Bass!), the Syracuse Crunch dashed the hopes of the Birds as they well, crunched the Falcons in a four game sweep.

For those who thought the '12-'13 season was an aberration, the club expanded on the success of the previous season, improving their win output from 45 to 47, a franchise record, and total points from 99 to 100, tying the all time franchise record. It should be noted that the previous mark of 100 points was garnered in an 80 game schedule, four more than the current 76 games. That gave the '13-'14 team the honors of best winning percentage in franchise history in addition to their second consecutive Northeast Division title.

Building on the momentum of two consecutive division championships, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that playoff hockey would continue here long into the month of May, if not all the way into June. The Providence Bruins stood in the way in the opening round. With the teams splitting the first four games in the best of five series, Game Five was played back on the Falcons home ice. Nearly one year removed, the wound remains fresh. The Baby B's had a night full of energy, while the Falcons looked uncharacteristically tired as they dropped the deciding game 6-3, ending their playoff dreams after just five games.

This, the fifth and now well documented final year of the affiliation with Columbus, has been a mixed bag. Brad Larsen was promoted to an assistant's job at the NHL level. Replacing Larsen was Jared Bednar. Bednar was one of Larsen's assistants last season and has had success elsewhere, winning the ECHL's Kelly Cup in 2009.

Similar in make up to the '11-'12 season, injuries took a tremendous toll at both the NHL and AHL levels. The Falcons have had 51 different players suit up at one time or another this season. Leading the way for this year's squad was rookie TJ Tynan (13-35-48 in 75 games). Always reliable Captain Ryan Craig provided on ice leadership as well as contributing key scoring along the way.

There were many faces who skated for both Springfield and for the Jackets this season. Craig, Dana Tyrell, Josh Anderson, Frederic St. Denis, William Karlsson, Sean Collins, Kerby Rychel, Brian Gibbons, Michael Chaput, Cody Goloubef, Alexander Wennberg and Marko Dano.

Despite any injury woes, the Falcons after all 76 games are clinging to the 8th and final playoff slot in the Eastern Conference. That speaks volumes about the character of this team.

The Falcons will know their playoff fate after today's afternoon tilt between the Portland Pirates and the Worcester Sharks. Oddly, I'll be at that game today. Originally, the plan was to attend what was to be the final Worcester game ever. The Sharks are part of the AHL's new Pacific Division next season where they will be reincarnated as the San Jose Barracuda. However, after the tickets were bought, the Sharks got hot and have qualified for the Calder Cup playoffs. Better still, are the playoff implications for Portland. The drama unfolds at 3PM at the DCU Center.

Regardless of the outcome, this becomes one of my last, if not my last post here at The Cannon. Although real life has gotten in the way over the past couple of seasons (politics, business and family health), this has been a great experience with some great, passionate people. If I may, I'd like to take a moment here and recognize some great people.

Obviously, I have to start with Mike MacLean, manager of The Cannon. If not for him reaching out to some anonymous poster from The Copper & Blue ("Suffering In Springfield"), none of my 350+ posts over the last five years would have ever seen the light of day. Thank you Mike!

Blue Jackets fans have embraced The Cannon over the years. The reason for this has been the thoughtful contributions of Matt Wagner, Andy Newman, Dan P and Jeff Little whose writings have been deep and insightful. Added to the mix this season was Eric St. John. Eric carries on what can only be called a tradition of excellence here. I've been genuinely honored to be your teammate.

You, a tight knit and amazingly powerful community of Jackets fans. Without you, we really wouldn't have much to do except kick emails around back and forth. Past history I know, but I do remember an email thread from last season where Andy and Mike let us know that over the life of the blog, we had our one millionth hit. One million! You've all been a pleasure to write for!

Next comes a new chapter in hockey history here in Springfield. I am one of the founders of the Springfield Hockey Heritage Society, so this becomes an exciting time as we look forward to what hopefully becomes a similarly successful affiliation with the Arizona Coyotes. Ten decades of hockey history (an article I penned for this year's Falcons game magazine) and counting here in Springfield...simply amazing! I'll update this post after the Sharks-Pirates game, hoping we get another Jackets driven run of playoff hockey. For now though, I thank all of you for reading over the years. It's been a pleasure!


8PM UPDATE - Well, when I wrote the open to this post, I was really hoping that the "all good things" part was still going to take a few weeks at least, to play out. Sadly, the season and the affiliation between the Springfield Falcons and the Columbus Blue Jackets came to an unsatisfying conclusion on Sunday afternoon in Worcester, MA. The Falcons playoff lives and this affiliation relied on the playoff bound Worcester Sharks claiming a regulation time victory over the Portland Pirates. Through 40 minutes of action, that looked to be the case. However the final 20 minutes was all Portland. The Pirates scored three unanswered goals in as dominant a period of hockey as I can remember, thus claiming the eighth and final playoff spot in the AHL's Eastern Conference. Springfield finished the season one point out, in ninth place. Thanks again everybody for five great years. The team will be awesome in Cleveland.