by Scott Stuccio || AHL On The Beat Archive
Penguins-Bears. Penguins-Senators. Penguins-Admirals.
When Wilkes-Barre/Scranton fans see pairings like these on an upcoming calendar, there tends to be divided opinions. Some grow tired of seeing division games, which historically outweigh the non-division games the way the team plays its unbalanced schedule.
Many embrace the schedule, however, excited at the prospect of opening up space in the standings and taking bragging rights away from rivals.
Then there are the fans who “just want to see somebody different for a change.”
That request was granted this week, as the second-year Abbotsford Heat make their first-ever appearances in northeastern Pennsylvania. It marks the first time since the 2002-03 season that Wilkes-Barre/Scranton will face a non-shared American Hockey League affiliate of the Calgary Flames.
The Saint John Flames, who outscored the Penguins 7-0 at the former Wachovia Arena at Casey Plaza that year, became a bitter rival of the Penguins after the two clubs battled for the Calder Cup in 2001. Saint John hoisted the trophy at Harbour Station on May 28, 2001 after winning in six games.
Calgary eventually moved their AHL prospects from Saint John in 2003 to Lowell, Mass., where the affiliation was split for two seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes. From Lowell, Flames prospects went on to play in Omaha as the Ak-Sar-Ben Knights, then became the Quad City Flames, and eventually they moved a bit “closer to home” and took up residence in western Canada.
Abbotsford, B.C., sits just 15 minutes north of the United States-Canada border above the state of Washington. But it also sits about 46 hours away (2,860 miles) from Wilkes-Barre Township. The Heat will cover that distance (obviously much faster than 46 hours) as the two teams meet this Wednesday and Friday at Mohegan Sun Arena. And for two players, simply hearing the town mentioned conjures up memories of home.
Penguins captain Ryan Craig was born in Abbotsford, and played his entire youth hockey there prior to moving on to play juniors with the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings.
“Abbotsford’s a great place that has grown a lot in my 28 years,” Craig said. “It’s a great place to be raised and I’m proud to say I’m from Abbotsford. I graduated high school there and stayed until I moved away at age 16. I always went back and I still go back. I have my parents there, my brother and his wife, and a lot of family and friends that still live in the area.
“It’s a great hockey area,” Craig continued. “You add the mix of the Heat and some great junior hockey teams around there, people just embrace it and love the game.”
The fact that Abbotsford is so close to the big city of Vancouver seems that placing the AHL affiliate of the Calgary Flames inside the brand-new Entertainment and Sports Centre would be illogical. However, the Vancouver Canucks have proudly had their prospects thriving in downtown Winnipeg, Man., so future Flames had to play somewhere close.
But would American Hockey League fans in Abbotsford be able to embrace a provincial rival playing on their turf?
“People there live and die with the Vancouver Canucks,” Craig said. “I’m sure some fans of the Canucks have maybe a little bit of trouble still rooting for Calgary prospects, but it has come a long way. I think they’re doing great in their second year.
“My parents have been to a few games and I know a lot of people are excited for when we head out there in March, and I also know that Brad (Thiessen) and I will have lots of family and friends that will be around.”
Thiessen, who hails from nearby Aldergrove, indeed will have people there – and not just to see his Penguins team.
“It’s only about 15 minutes away from the farm, and my dad has season tickets,” Thiessen said. “He goes to the games as much as he can so I know he’ll be pretty excited.”
Thiessen shares what many fans like about the Heat being on the schedule – it is simply a different team in that visitors’ dressing room.
“It’s definitely exciting to see something else, to see a team from a different division, and see players who you’ve never seen before,” Thiessen said. “Then there always seem to be guys who you played with before, or guys you know and just wouldn’t regularly get to see during the season.”
One of those players is Heat goaltending counterpart Leland Irving, who came into the week leading the league in wins (14), shootout wins (5), games played (25), and minutes played (1,430).
“I skated with Leland during the summer,” Thiessen recalls. “He stays back in Abbotsford in the offseason and he’s a really good guy. He’s also been playing well and really has been carrying the mail for them this season so far.”
Both Thiessen and Craig will obviously be reminded of home when Abbotsford visits this week. And Wilkes-Barre/Scranton fans will be reminded of the recent past as one of their long-time favorites will make his first return to Wilkes-Barre.
Ryan Stone cleared waivers last weekend and was reassigned by Calgary to Abbotsford. Oddly enough, Stone was one of Craig’s teammates with Brandon from 2001-03 and will now be the opponent this week. Stone played 219 games in a Wilkes-Barre/Scranton uniform before being traded to Edmonton in the middle of the 2008-09 season, ranking 15th on the Penguins’ all-time games played list. He also ranks in the top ten in Penguins’ scoring history, posting 136 points (41g, 95a).
The two games against the Heat and Saturday’s road contest at Syracuse will round out a very busy stretch of hockey, one that will then be followed by a long break in the game schedule. And speaking of family and friends, many of the players take the opportunity to head home for a few days. But for those who have to traverse an entire country such as from Wilkes-Barre to Abbotsford, that luxury isn’t readily available.
And neither is focusing on that until the task at hand is completed.
“Our focus is first on the three games we have remaining,” Craig said. “But I think everyone is looking forward with the Christmas break we have being so close. I speak for everyone when guys are saying that they are looking forward to spending some quality time with family and friends and just enjoying the holiday season with people who are closest to us.”