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Walk down memory lane

by Griffin Spencer || AHL On The Beat Archive 

The Manchester Monarchs will play their 800th regular season game on Apr. 10, 2011, against the Providence Bruins. Not only is that quite the milestone for the franchise, but it also signifies that the Monarchs have concluded their 10th season in the Queen City.

Through 10 seasons, the Monarchs have certainly had more ups than downs, having made the Calder Cup Playoffs in every season but one throughout their history.

While all Monarchs employees and players are hard at work trying to make a push for the 2011 Calder Cup Playoffs, the 10th season of the organization has brought back many wonderful memories for the staff.

Equipment manager Mike Holden has been with the organization from the very first puck drop, and has seen almost every game the Monarchs have ever played (minus eight games at the beginning of the 2009-10 season when he spent some time with the Los Angeles Kings).

“I would say the best moment we had would be the first year we won our first playoff series (2007) against Worcester,” explained Holden, reflecting upon his 10-year tenure as equipment manager. “In the first five years, we got knocked out in the first round. Just the feeling the guys had in the room, it was almost like winning the Calder Cup and it was only the first round.”

Holden also has strong memories about the very first Monarchs home game and the 2005 AHL All-Star Classic, held in Manchester.

Even the smallest memories resonate strongly for Holden, such as getting back into the swing of things following a long summer break away from hockey.

“It’s kind of that same feeling every year during training camp when all of the familiar faces come back and you get to see the staff for the first time,” explained Holden.

Another tenured employee of the Monarchs is head coach Mark Morris, hired by Los Angeles Kings assistant general manager Ron Hextall on Aug. 4, 2006. Following five years of first-round exits in the Calder Cup Playoffs, Hextall, at the time of Morris’ hiring, spoke strongly of his coaching pedigree, having been a long-time head coach at Clarkson University.

“Mark brings a winning resume, a passion for the game and a history of developing players to the Monarchs,” said Hextall in the introductory press release. Little did Hextall and the rest of Monarchs Country know they were in for a real treat come the 2006-07 season.

That season saw the Monarchs squad tie their existing franchise record of 51 wins, giving them 110 points overall on the season and earning them a playoff berth for the sixth time in as many years. Despite ultimately losing in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Hershey Bears, making it past the first round against the Worcester Sharks was one of the many highlights of Morris’ career.

“I’d have to say that one of the highlights was the bus ride back after we had got through the second round of the playoffs and kind of put the demons to bed,” explained Morris. “[The media] had always made mention about how the Monarchs never made it past the first round. It was a sense of accomplishment in knowing that we had gone farther than any previous Monarchs team. The fact that we were able to tie the record for most wins in a season was one of my most memorable moments,” said Morris.

This season, Morris looks to create more memories he can reflect back upon. As for memorable games in the past, there are almost too many to count.

“We’ve had a lot of interesting games over the course of time, but more recently, our comeback win after being down 4-0 [against Connecticut on Dec. 21] – after winning in the shootout, it was quite a memorable night for us.

“I’d have to say that one of the most bizarre wins we ever had was beating Lowell with [goaltender] Matt Lopes,” said Morris, in reference to the Monarchs’ 4-3 victory over the Devils on Mar. 31, 2010. Lopes, a year removed from his senior season at Gustavus Adolphus College, stopped 42 of 43 shots in relief of Jeff Zatkoff in what remains his one and only professional game.

“Zatkoff went out of the game early on and, honestly, how we won is a small miracle. [Lopes] was not prepared to play at this level and there were so many near misses and crazy things that happened in the game while we were shorthanded. To win that game was just an incredible feat and it was a building block that led to a real strong playoff run,” said Morris.

“I think our guys became believers that if we hung in there and hung around long enough that we would find ways to win tight games, and that was just an incredible win for us,” said Morris, who has piloted this year’s squad to a 24-13-1-1 record, placing them first in the Atlantic Division with 50 points.

Standing alongside Morris for the past five seasons has been assistant coach Scott Pellerin, who, when joining the Monarchs, was fresh off of a playing career which spanned 12 years, starting with his rookie season in 1992. Pellerin, who played with seven NHL teams and five AHL squads, entered the coaching ranks with plenty of veteran savvy and know-how from his playing days, making for a seamless transition. Pellerin was and still is extremely happy for his opportunity with the Monarchs and the fact that Manchester is a devout hockey town is not lost upon Pellerin.

“When I used to come watch games as a fan and see the atmosphere here, it was a special place to watch the game,” said Pellerin, reflecting upon his experiences as a fan during the end of his playing career. “I had the lucky opportunity to do some color commentating with WMUR [a local television station] to cover some of the home opener, so I got to know a little bit of the Monarchs organization from that end of it, and then to be a part of it as a coach, there’s been a lot of good memories.”

Pellerin believes that making the playoffs for the first time was very exciting, but making it past the Worcester Sharks in the first round of the 2007 Calder Cup Playoffs was a huge step for the organization and its attitude. In reflecting upon those good times, he simplifies his viewpoint on the past and appreciates the relationships developed over time with his players.

“What I get out of [coaching] is seeing the players that have gone through this machine, in a sense, and the success that they’ve had with the Los Angeles Kings or other organizations and the stories and the fun that we’ve had with them,” explained Pellerin. “To still hear from them – I think that’s something that I look back to, the relationships that you make with your players and how well they’ve done going on, whether it’s continuing on in hockey or in real life.”

Pellerin is no stranger to the Manchester Monarchs playoff fortunes, both as a coach and a player. It was, after all, Pellerin — skating with the Worcester IceCats at the time — who scored the overtime game-winning goal in the 2004 Calder Cup Playoffs to break a 2-2 series tie, giving Worcester the 3-2 series edge over the Monarchs.

“It was toward the end of my career, playing with Worcester at the time – the Monarchs were the team to beat. I can remember the [overtime goal] specifically. IceCats defenseman Jame Pollock had the puck at the blueline and he let it rip and the puck snuck through and hit off the end boards. I was able to grab it from behind the net and tuck it in behind [Monarchs goaltender Adam Hauser] and it was a big moment for me, as that was the first time I’ve ever scored a goal like that in my life,” reflected Pellerin.

“It’s kind of funny to see it from all of those different angles, and to be a part of it now and to see how far this organization has come in 10 years is really exciting.”

Monarchs director of hockey operations Hubie McDonough has first-hand experience in terms of seeing how far the organization has come from its initial planning to now. Hired a year after former Monarchs president Jeff Eisenberg, McDonough has been tasked with developing winning teams over his tenure, and his resume over the last 10 years has demonstrated he was the right man for the job.

McDonough’s role with the Monarchs was initially not set in stone, but the Los Angeles Kings knew that they wanted him involved with the fledgling franchise in some capacity.

“I knew there was a building going up but I didn’t make the connection until I talked with some people [in Manchester] who said the Kings were moving from Lowell. I called [former Los Angeles Kings teammate Dave Taylor], he put me in touch with Kevin Gilmore,” said McDonough about the call that got everything started.

“I had just finished playing in Orlando, so when Jeff Eisenberg came in the year before anything started I was going to come in at the same time. Then I had the opportunity to do what I’m doing now for a year with the Orlando Solar Bears and it worked out great – Kevin said stay there and get the experience because we’re not sure what role you’re going to be in.”

It was rumored that McDonough, a former standout player for Saint Anselm College in Manchester, was going to be former Monarchs head coach Bruce Boudreau’s assistant, but the “director of hockey operations” role evolved, placing the Queen City native where he is today.

“I made it through 10 years and it’s been great. Dave and Kevin – they moved on to other jobs, and then [Los Angeles Kings GM] Dean [Lombardi] and [Monarchs GM] Ron Hextall have come in – I was fortunate enough to stay following that regime change and it’s been great working with Dean and Ron just as it was when Kevin and Dave were here,” said McDonough.

“Not only being in hockey operations, but being from Manchester and watching this arena built, walking through here when it was just a skeleton and seeing it evolve, and then that opening night, that was incredible,” said McDonough.

Echoing a recurring theme, McDonough remembers center Brian Boyle’s double-overtime game-winning goal in the 2007 Calder Cup Playoffs against Worcester which gave the Monarchs their first playoff series victory, but he fondly remembers edging out the Providence Bruins in the next round of the playoffs.

“I remember when [right wing Tim Jackman] scored the second goal, making the score 2-1 in game six and having those final 10 seconds run down and making it through that second round. I’ll never forget that feeling in the stands, my heart was beating really fast, and the clock is running and I said, ‘We’re going to get to a third round, this is great!’,” said McDonough.

McDonough realizes that there is an excellent support staff for the Manchester Monarchs, both here locally in Manchester but also thousands of miles away in Los Angeles with the parent club.

“We couldn’t have better guys to work with – going to the conference finals twice with a very young squad, that’s just what the Kings want. The young kids are getting their playoff experience – Mark and Scott have been a big part of that, getting them over those humps. The plan when Dean Lombardi came in was to grow from within, and being a part of that has been great.”

Looking toward the next 10 years, and more specifically the remainder of this season, McDonough is impressed with the excellent start the Monarchs have had.

“The youth that we’ve had, getting the consistency from the players – I think that’s what Mark and Pelley have done and to be in first place at Christmas, I don’t think anybody expected that,” said McDonough. “Teams have games in hand, we understand that, but the teams have to win those games because we’re on top – that’s a good start for us. They got their break [over the holidays], but now it’s back, and in January, that’s when it really grinds for us because we’re going to be on the road. It’s about putting those points in the bank so that come March and April, we’re not scrambling and trying to make the playoffs. We’re trying to get ourselves a seed in the playoffs.”

With the large amount of preparations and hard work put forth by Holden, Morris, Pellerin, and McDonough over the past 10 seasons, “scrambling” to make the playoffs hasn’t been a word or phrase in the Monarchs vocabulary. With such on-ice success over the prior seasons, there is one quest that the Manchester Monarchs are still working toward – the quest for the Calder Cup. With 10 years of strides and momentum toward that goal, the Kings and the powers-that-be in Manchester know one thing for sure – they have the veteran staff to take on the task with authority.