by Jamie Palatini || AHL On The Beat Archive
The American Hockey League is currently celebrating its 75th anniversary season, but there are also teams within the league that are celebrating their own important milestones. The Bridgeport Sound Tigers are currently in the midst of their 10th anniversary season and to many fans and players alike, memories from the early days in the team’s history are still fresh in their minds.
On Mar. 28, 2000, the American Hockey League awarded the city of Bridgeport a franchise to begin play in the 2001-02 season. While there was plenty of excitement surrounding the Sound Tigers leading up to their first game, no one could have predicted the amount of success they would achieve in their inaugural season.
Islanders veteran Trent Hunter was a member of the Sound Tigers from 2001-03, and a key contributor to the Sound Tigers’ run to the Calder Cup Finals in their inaugural 2001-02 season. Hunter was in the early stages of his career, and knew the Sound Tigers first season would be a special one.
“I think coming into that year it was a bit of a different situation, especially for myself because it was only my second year as a pro,” Hunter said. “I don’t think we knew what to expect. But we knew we had a solid group of guys and some very talented hockey players.”
That team, which finished with an AHL-best 98 points, was comprised of young, talented players including Hunter, Raffi Torres, Jason Krog, future Stanley Cup winner Eric Godard, and Rick DiPietro. Hunter believes that while there was talent on the ice, the team unity off the ice made that year’s team truly special.
“Ricky (DiPietro) and I still talk about that team, and one of the reasons we had so much success that year was because of our locker room. Everyone got along so well and we we’re having fun, guys didn’t want to go home for the summer. We had a lot of great leaders, and there are a lot of guys I’m still great friends with like Chris Armstrong, Ray Giroux and Ray Schultz. We had a lot of great veterans that helped us young guys along and showed us the ropes.”
That first season was also extremely successful for Hunter on a personal level. He led the team in nearly every offensive category, totaling 65 points (30g, 35a) in 80 games played. The 2001-02 season was his second in the AHL after three junior seasons in the Western Hockey League.
“It was definitely a big transition, because not only is the hockey different, but you’re going from a teenager who’s living with their family to moving halfway across the country looking for places to live on your own. The first year transition is tough not only off the ice, but on the ice where you’re playing against grown men as opposed to being one of the older players in the WHL.”
Hunter and the Sound Tigers continued their strong play into the postseason. They took care of the Manitoba Moose in a best-of-five series with a 3-1 series victory, followed by a 4-0 conference semifinals sweep of the St. John’s Maple Leafs. The Sound Tigers then went up two games to none against Hamilton in the Eastern Conference Finals, but Hamilton fought back and won Game 6 in overtime to force a Game 7 at the Arena at Harbor Yard.
“The first couple of series we played really well. Nothing is ever easy, but we played solid hockey and we even started the series against Hamilton really well. But they battled back and made it a really tough series. You get to a Game 7 and it doesn’t matter whose rink you’re in, it’s anyone’s game. It was a tough series but luckily we were able to find a way to get it done and make it to the Finals.”
Even though Hunter was only with the Sound Tigers for two seasons before making his way up to the Islanders for the 2003-04 season, the fans haven’t forgotten what he meant to this team in its early years. During this offseason, Sound Tigers fans and the current coaching staff were asked to name the best players in Sound Tigers history. Hunter was an overwhelming favorite, receiving votes from the coaches and the vast majority of the fans.
“It means a lot to me. I was only there for a couple seasons, but they’re certainly years that I will never forget. The fans were fantastic, and I think it was a little different to have a professional hockey team there. Right off the bat, the support was great and made it fun for us to come to the rink every day. For us to make the Finals that first season was something amazing for us. Ricky and I still talk about that year.”