#AHLOTB: Back to the future of the Coyotes

by Andy Zilch | AHL On The Beat Archive 

The Springfield Falcons are once again affiliated with the Arizona Coyotes, an organization that saw names such as Danny Briere, Shane Doan and Trevor Letowski pass through Springfield before enjoying illustrious NHL careers.

During an eight-year tenure from 1996 to 2004, the Falcons clinched a playoff berth five times. The first season saw the most on-ice success with a visit to the Conference Finals, where the Falcons – under head coach Kevin McCarthy – were defeated in a tight battle against the Hershey Bears that saw the series extend to a Game 7.

“We had some nice success with the Coyotes back in the 90’s,” Falcons director of hockey operations Bruce Landon commented. “Springfield had the opportunity to watch some wonderful players hone their skills here and go on to nice careers in the NHL.”

The following year saw three of the most recognizable names from the affiliation with the Coyotes: Briere, Doan and Letowski. The recently retired Briere was named the AHL’s rookie of the year, leading the team with 36 goals, 56 assists and 92 points – those 36 goals still stand as the club’s rookie goal-scoring record.

Briere made his professional debut with the Falcons on Oct. 3, 1997, against the Worcester IceCats, and that season launched an NHL career where he finished with 973 games and 696 points (307 goals, 389 assists). His postseason statistics were even more impressive, with 116 points (53 goals, 63 assists) in 124 games, earning him the right to be called one of the NHL’s most clutch players.

Doan has unquestionably become the face of the Coyotes franchise as he is entering his 20th consecutive year with the team. His stint in Springfield was quick but effective as he registered 42 points (21 goals, 21 assists) in 39 games in 1997-98. Doan enters his 13th year as the captain of the Coyotes and is anticipated to reach two NHL plateaus this season, entering the year six games shy of 1,400 games played and two points shy of 900 points.

Letowski’s rookie season saw him collect 31 points (11 goals, 20 assists) in 75 games, but the following season he blasted away from any first-year jitters and led the Falcons with 32 goals, 35 assists and 67 points in 67 contests. Despite these individual efforts, the Falcons could not progress past the first round of the playoffs in the 1997-98 and 1998-99 seasons.

The 1999-2000 season saw Briere in a larger portion (58 games played) after skating in just 13 games the season before. The duo of him and all-time Falcons point leader Jean-Guy Trudel was still not enough to move the Falcons past round one of the Calder Cup Playoffs. The Falcons would finish under .500 for the first time since their inaugural season, and Dave Farrish’s three-year coaching term would also come to an end.

The 2000-01 season would be a year for the record books, at least individually. Trudel scored 99 points that season including 65 assists, both franchise records that still stand.

Both 2000-01 and 2001-02 were years where the Falcons would not qualify for the playoffs under head coach Marc Potvin, but future NHL’ers Trent Hunter, Steve Valiquette, Nikita Alexeev and Wyatt Smith would all play big roles on the team along with Trudel and Briere.

Former NHL tough guy and two-time Stanley Cup champion Marty McSorley took the helm in the two final years of the Coyotes affiliation. The team returned to the playoffs but lost in round one in the 2002-03 season, falling to the Hamilton Bulldogs three games to one.

The last season of the affiliation didn’t go as planned, as the team did not qualify for the playoffs in 2003-04.

Said Landon, “Although we are dealing with a new management team in Arizona, I have known both Don Maloney and Darcy Regier for a long time and I feel confident they will provide us with the players to make this team competitive as we look forward to the new affiliation.”

After an 11-year hiatus, the two sides are back together. With a massive youth infusion in Arizona, the Falcons will look to once again develop and produce mainstay NHL’ers while mixing in the on-ice success the team enjoyed in the early stages of the Coyotes affiliation.