by John Walton || AHL On The Beat Archive
As the American Hockey League approaches 75 years of existence, the league has undergone many changes.
Back in the day, with fewer teams both in the AHL and the NHL, players would stay with their AHL teams for years and years. Many would settle in the area and stay long after their careers had come to a close.
These players would also pile up statistics over a long period of time that players in today’s AHL will likely never top.
In goal, the Hershey Bears have had several players that have piled up gaudy numbers. Gord Henry played in 510 games for the Bears from 1945-55, and won 226 games in a Chocolate and White uniform.
Bobby Perreault then stepped in from 1957-62 and played in 279 games, winning a couple of Calder Cups.
Nick Damore and Andre Gill each played over 300 games for the Bears, and logged many years in central Pennsylvania.
That kind of AHL longevity just doesn’t happen a lot anymore. Unless, of course, you’re current Bears backstop Frederic Cassivi.
The date was Oct. 9, 1995. The Rochester Americans were playing at Prince Edward Island against the Senators. Late in the game, PEI pulled their goaltender to the bench for an extra attacker, and Amerks goaltender Robb Stauber scored a goal into the empty net to clinch the game for Rochester.
Although being credited for a goal is a terrific achievement for a goaltender, it actually wasn’t the biggest moment for an AHL goaltender that afternoon at Charlottetown Civic Centre. The goaltender that was pulled for the extra attacker made his AHL debut that day. The kid from Sorel, Que., would live to fight and win another day.
Frederic Cassivi would play in 40 more games during his rookie season for the Senators, and won 20 of them. It was the beginning of a career that would put him among the greatest goaltenders to ever play in the American Hockey League.
So what was it like for Cassivi to break in and see a bit of AHL history his first time out?
“It was kind of weird, because stuff like that doesn’t happen often,” he said. “It was a strange way to begin my career, but it’s nice to see another goalie score, even if we didn’t win the game.”
After one season in Charlottetown, Cassivi moved on to Syracuse where he won 23 games for the Crunch. Twenty more wins for Worcester in 1997-98 would follow, and then his first stop for the Hershey Bears began in 1999. Cassivi would spend two and a half seasons in a Chocolate and White uniform, racking up 38 wins and helping the Bears to a trip to the 2001 Western Conference Finals against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
An injury in Game 1 of the series knocked Cassivi out of the postseason prematurely, leaving Hershey fans to wonder what might have been if Cassivi had been able to finish the job. Would the 2001 Calder Cup have come to Hershey? The answer will never be known, but Bears fans hadn’t seen the last of Frederic Cassivi in postseason play.
Midway through the 2001-02 season, the Bears were in a freefall in the standings in midseason, and drastic action was taken. Hershey traded Cassivi to the Chicago Wolves in exchange for defenseman Brett Clark. The Bears added the veteran blueliner with a scoring touch, but had to give up Cassivi for the cause.
Chicago, with Cassivi backing up goaltender Pasi Nurminen, won the 2002 Calder Cup over the Bridgeport Sound Tigers four games to one. Cassivi, who only saw action in five postseason games that year, got his first Calder Cup ring, but wasn’t the driving force behind the victory.
“I played in the first series against Cincinnati, and then Nurminen took over the rest of the way and got on a roll,” Cassivi said. “It was great to win with Chicago, but wasn’t quite the same as what happened in Hershey in 2006.”
It would be four more seasons, and 74 more AHL victories later before his chance would present itself.
In 2004-05, Cassivi signed with Cincinnati, and enjoyed one of his finest seasons, leading the Mighty Ducks into the playoffs. He also collected 10 shutouts that season, leading the league. But with the Ducks folding up shop after that season, Cassivi was again looking for a team.
The Bears had just ended an affiliation with the Colorado Avalanche and had just inked a new pact with the Washington Capitals. With no heir apparent in the organization, it looked like Hershey could use a veteran goaltender. Bears President/GM Doug Yingst knew just who to call.
“I was happy to have the opportunity to come back,” said Cassivi. “With the change in affiliation, there happened to be room for me back in Hershey. Since I own a house here and live here during the summer, it was great for me and my family to have another chance to come back. Doug Yingst called me, and made it a perfect situation for me.”
The dawn of the 2005-06 season for Hershey was a theme of new beginnings. Bruce Boudreau was beginning his first season as head coach. All but two of the players were coming to the Bears from another team the year before. And Frederic Cassivi was back in Hershey tending the nets.
By the time the season ended, it was Cassivi’s best effort of his career. A career-high 61 games played. A career-best 34 wins. Sixteen postseason wins, tying an American Hockey league record. One Jack Butterfield Trophy as the Calder Cup Playoffs MVP. Most importantly, he played every minute of the postseason as the Bears claimed their ninth Calder Cup.
“It was awesome, mostly because since I’ve made my home here, I got to enjoy it more than everyone else who went home for the summer,” said Cassivi. “It was an unbelievable feeling, better than I ever could have imagined.”
Cassivi nearly pulled off the feat a second time, leading Hershey back to the Calder Cup Finals in 2007 before Carey Price led the Hamilton Bulldogs to victory.
With the 2007-08 season winding down, number 35 for Hershey has 230 American Hockey League victories, ranking him fifth in AHL history one ahead of former Hershey backstop Bobby Perreault.
As the 2008 Calder Cup Playoffs approach, the Bears haven’t had the kind of winning season they’ve enjoyed the last two seasons. But the moment that Hershey gets its ticket punched for the dance, there’s no reason to believe that Cassivi won’t recreate some magic again this spring.
Even the goalies from back in the day would love to have some of Cassivi’s numbers. He’s a throwback to another time. The Bears are hoping that history repeats itself again this spring.