New Admirals look to repeat in Norfolk

by Mitchell Sulkess || AHL On The Beat Archive

The summer following the Springfield Indians 1990 Calder Cup Championship, their parent club, the New York Islanders, ended the affiliation agreement between the teams. The very next season, the Indians defended the Calder Cup, this time as the top development club of the Hartford Whalers.

No team had a similar opportunity to repeat as Calder Cup champions after switching affiliations in the 22 seasons since then. This year, the new Norfolk Admirals will get that chance, but comparisons to last year’s championship-winning team have resulted in elevated expectations for the team to perform at a high level.

Last year was nothing short of a storybook season for the Admirals. An AHL-record 28-game winning streak to end the regular season provided the momentum for a dominating playoff run, as the Admirals only lost three games en route to securing the team’s first Calder Cup.

The day after the downtown parade celebrating their championship, Admirals fans learned that the Tampa Bay Lightning would no longer be the NHL parent club of the Admirals. Shortly after, the Lightning announced they would move their AHL affiliation from Norfolk to Syracuse, taking a majority of the Calder Cup-winning players with them. The following week, the Admirals and Anaheim Ducks announced their new affiliation, sending a majority of the Syracuse players to Norfolk.

While some Hampton Roads fans were heartbroken when they learned of the change, others were optimistic. The optimism stemmed from the fact that the new team coming to Norfolk was a playoff-caliber team, with a boatload of talent.

The talent includes three of the AHL’s top-25 point scorers from last season: Patrick Maroon, Peter Holland, and Kyle Palmieri. With help from those players, the Syracuse Crunch ended up winning 15 of their last 20 games on the way to a clinching a playoff berth last season.

The coach who joined Syracuse halfway through last season, and sparked the Crunch’s playoff push, was Trent Yawney.

Yawney, a former NHL defenseman, is no stranger to Norfolk and its fans. He coached the Admirals from their inaugural AHL season in 2000-01, up to the conclusion of the 2004-05 season. He was then hired as a head coach by the Chicago Blackhawks of the NHL.

As head coach of the Admirals, Yawney posted a 189-144-42-25 record, and led Norfolk to the Calder Cup Playoffs in each of his four seasons with the team.

Yawney has dealt with Admirals fans’ high expectations before. Prior to bringing Yawney on in 2000, the team had won three ECHL championships in 11 seasons under legendary head coach John Brophy.

“You don’t have to look too far, just look up at the rafters and you can see that there has been successful teams here in past,” said Yawney of the expectations coming from the tradition of success in Norfolk. “Every team, when they start the season, that’s what they are trying to do—to win the Calder Cup, and I don’t see it as any different this year.”

The enthusiasm Yawney feels for the 2012-13 Admirals is echoed by the players, as well.

“We’re trying to build our own identity,” said Admirals forward and alternate captain Troy Bodie. “We’ve got to come in and prove ourselves as winners.”

When asking players and coaches what makes this year’s Admirals team special, the consensus is that the mixture of experience, youth, and raw talent make this team capable of not only making the playoffs, but winning the Calder Cup.

“We knew coming in this year that they [2011-12 Admirals] did some pretty special things,” said Norfolk defenseman Mat Clark. “We got a little taste of it [the Calder Cup Playoffs] last year [with Syracuse], and now we want more.”

Although expectations coming into the season were high, players know that winning games and playing good fundamental hockey will eventually leave the Admirals fans satisfied.

Admirals fan Joseph Owens, Jr. said, “I was a little upset when I heard they changed affiliations. But I came for the first two games and they made it worth my while to come back.”

For the players, the fans’ expectations are being used as a motivating force to perform at higher level each and every game.

“It’s good to have them, not only on our side, but passionate, wanting to win, expecting to win,” said Bodie. “That’s something that we definitely feed off of.”

It will be interesting to see how the new Admirals players adapt to the high expectations of Hampton Roads fans throughout the season. As of now, they seem to be using the pressure to their advantage. The team has started the season 6-2-0-0 and are tied with, coincidentally, the Syracuse Crunch for the division lead in the standings.

The two teams will face off for the first time this season in Syracuse on Dec. 28. One week later, the Crunch will travel to Norfolk Scope Arena for a pair of weekend games against the Admirals on Jan. 4 and 5.

It is certainly too early in the season to determine if the new Admirals will do as the Springfield Indians did 22 years ago. But Admirals coaches, players, and fans know that with this team on the ice, it is not outside the realm of possibility to keep the Calder Cup in Norfolk for at least another season.