by Jeff Mannix || AHL On The Beat Archive
Eighteen years can seem like a lifetime.
It also can be the amount of time it takes to circle back to the beginning of a journey. Portland Pirates assistant coach John Slaney knows that.
His first trip to Maine’s largest city was at the age of 21. He was a defenseman embarking on just his second season as a professional hockey player after being drafted ninth overall by the Washington Capitals in the 1990 NHL Entry Draft.
Slaney was also only two years removed from becoming a national hero in Canada. He earned his rock-star status by scoring the game-winning goal for the Canadians late in the third period of the gold-medal game at the 1991 World Junior Championships in Saskatoon, Sask., the first time Canada had won World Junior gold on home soil.
But just a year later, Slaney found himself far removed from that raucous scene. Instead of playing in front of throngs of rabid hockey fans, he and his Baltimore Skipjacks teammates were playing to a nearly empty home rink.
“There were only about one or two thousand fans per game,” Slaney says. “It was a different atmosphere there than anything I’d experienced. It was hard to get yourself going when you knew the stands wouldn’t be filled.”
Slaney wasn’t the only one who noticed.
The team’s owner, the late Tom Ebright, also yearned for a place where his team would be not only appreciated, but loved. And when the Maine Mariners left Portland for Providence in the summer of 1992, Ebright thought Portland might just be the place to turn his hopes into reality.
After playing out one more season in Baltimore, he set his sights farther north and the Portland Pirates were born.
Slaney says the change in culture was immediate.
“The games were sold out every night,” Slaney says. “The fans were loud. They knew their hockey. It’s part of the culture in the northeast, and Portland embodied that.”
Slaney and his teammates instantly fell in love with the place, and the locals fell in love with them.
The team was a mix of future NHL greats such as Sergei Gonchar, Olaf Kolzig, Steve Konowalchuk and Byron Dafoe. It also included guys who went on to have successful AHL careers, such as Kent Hulst. And mixed with the skill, the team had toughness, including the trio of Kevin “The Killer” Kaminski, Brian Curran, and Kerry Clark, known by Pirates fans as “The Bash Brothers.”
Slaney says the experience in Baltimore helped bring a large group of young players close together and helped them appreciate their new found fans even more.
“When you go from empty buildings to enthusiastic crowds every night, it gets you going,” Slaney says. “Everybody liked each other. And we liked playing in front of fans that cared so much about us. It made you want to come to the rink every night and lay it all on the line.”
And lay it on the line they did. Slaney played so well that year, he got the call up to Washington. That meant he was not around when his Portland teammates won the 1994 Calder Cup.
Slaney would come back to Portland for eight more regular-season games and seven playoff games in 1994-95. After that, he saw NHL stops in Colorado, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Nashville, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. He also went on to future AHL stints in Cornwall, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and Philadelphia. Finally, after four seasons in Europe, Slaney decided to hang up the playing skates and pick up a coach’s board.
When the Phoenix Coyotes went looking for a new affiliate this summer, team executives saw the same passion for hockey in Portland that Ebright saw nearly two decades ago. After deciding to make Portland the new home for their top prospects, they started looking for an assistant coach.
When he interviewed, Slaney felt a return to Portland would be a good fit.
“Having familiarity in a situation is a good thing, especially when you’re starting something new,” Slaney says. “Being able to see some of the same faces now at the start of my coaching career that I saw at the start of my playing career is really nice.”
And he only sees things getting better for the Pirates in the future. With Cumberland County voters approving a $33-million renovation to the Civic Center, the Pirates will soon have new facilities to practice and play in.
“Getting a fresh start is good sometimes,” Slaney says, “and new facilities are part of that. Guys get excited to come to the rink when everything is fresh and new. Everybody in the organization is really looking forward to the improvements.”
Slaney says his reunion with his first pro team has been a good one.
“[Portland] is a welcoming place,” Slaney says. “The people are friendly. It’s a great place to raise a family. I’m really happy to be able to have come back.”
No doubt that longtime Pirates fans are happy he’s back, too.