Penguins’ opener honors past, present

by Scott Stuccio || AHL On The Beat Archive 

“Fans First” is the marketing campaign put forth this season by the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. On Oct. 9, the Penguins hosted the Hershey Bears in their 2010-11 home opener, and planned numerous activities to honor the one constant that has been with the team since its inception in 1999 – the fans.

Undoubtedly the biggest gesture of thanks shown by the Penguins was to welcome nearly 100 fans to the ice to form lines through which the players skated upon their introductions.

But these weren’t just random fans. They were season ticket holders who have held seats with the Penguins since the inaugural 1999-2000 season. Many of those fans were in their seats for the team’s first home game on Nov. 13, 1999, against the Kentucky Thoroughblades. However, some took part not only in cheering the Penguins on in northeastern Pennsylvania, but also took the short day trips to other AHL cities to follow their beloved Penguins.

Days before the Penguins took to the ice to open the regular season, the squad skated in a preseason tilt with Hershey on the previous Friday, October 1 – the 12-year anniversary of the Penguins’ first-ever game, which was played at the Spectrum against the Philadelphia Phantoms. Many of the season ticket holders in attendance on Oct. 9, 2010, were in Philadelphia when players like John Slaney, Tom Kostopoulos, Greg Crozier, Valentin Morozov, Sven Butenschon, Dennis Bonvie and Chris Kelleher took to the ice.

Kelleher, who still makes his home in northeastern Pennsylvania with his wife Holly and four children, reminisced about one of the most exciting days of his life.

“The excitement of playing for a brand-new team and the trip down to Philly was really memorable,” Kelleher said. “They had won the Calder Cup a few years before that and they had a few years where they were a pretty successful team. It was just nice to put on the Wilkes-Barre sweater, and be a part of starting a franchise. Not a lot of people get a chance to do that.”

Glenn Patrick was the team’s first head coach. And since most fans don’t get to hear how a coach addresses his players on a game night, let alone the opening night in a team’s history, Kelleher shared how Patrick spoke to a team that was, for all intents and purposes, put together quite hurriedly.

“The pep talk he gave us went something like, ‘You guys are a part of history here as far as Wilkes-Barre/Scranton goes. You guys can do something special here.’ He wanted us to be proud of who we were and take that out on the ice. Even though it didn’t happen that night, it was still really neat to be a part of the first night in team history.”

The Penguins dropped their first-ever game, 2-0, to the Phantoms. In fact, the 1999-2000 squad began the season with nine losses and two ties in their first 11 games, not picking up their first win until Nov. 10, a 5-3 decision at Hamilton. The Penguins were forced to play their first 13 games on the road while the Northeastern Pennsylvania Civic and Convention Center (now the Mohegan Sun Arena) had its final touches put on.

The team missed the postseason, finishing with a record of 23-43-9-5 and a fifth-place slot in the Empire Division. But Kelleher fondly remembers the fans in one particular moment – the final game of that season, which was a 3-2 victory over Hamilton.

“We were killing a penalty toward the end of the game. I remember being on the ice, and finally we got the puck out. Right after that the buzzer sounded. It was like we won the Stanley Cup. The fans were just going crazy. We then came out and saluted them. We ended our season, didn’t make the playoffs, but that wasn’t really the point at the time because of the way the community embraced this team. To be a part of that first team, and then be a part of the next year’s team that went on to play for the Calder Cup, I’m really proud to be a part of a lot of firsts for the Wilkes-Barre organization.”

Kelleher has long since retired from the professional ranks, but still laces up the skates in some area pick-up hockey. He is currently in his second year as a professional scout for the Minnesota Wild, keeping the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton tie going with Minnesota general manager Chuck Fletcher, head coach Todd Richards, and strength and conditioning coach Chris Pietrzak-Wegner. All three were associated with the Penguins in their more recent history – a word that, when associated with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, seems strange to use.

“It does. It still seems that the organization is still somewhat new, but there is an impressive past and proud past that has been put together. In 12 years, the team has been to the finals three times. There are franchises that have been around a lot longer that haven’t achieved that. There have been a lot of guys that played here that have gone on to the NHL. There are also a lot of guys that would take this as one of their top places to play. It may have only been 12 years, but the way the management runs the team and takes care of things, it will keep going for a long time.”

The 12th-year Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins are proud to be a part of such a historic milestone in the American Hockey League’s 75-year existence.