Thursday, July 6, 2017

1994-95 Regular Season

The 1994-95 PHL season opened as the league welcomed back a city that had been absent from the pro ranks for nearly a decade, as well as a city that had been knocking on the league’s door for more than two decades. The Dallas Desperadoes began their existence at home against the Denver Bulls on October 9 and, much to the thrill of the home crowd, earned an unlikely 3-2 win with Grant Sibley scoring the first goal in franchise history in the first period. Meanwhile, in Cleveland, the Cosmos faced the Detroit Mustangs in their first game, but did not enjoy the same success as their expansion cousins in Dallas, dropping a 4-2 contest to the Mustangs. Former Ottawa captain Joe Fletcher scored the first goal in Cosmos history late in the second period. Both new franchises struggled mightily in their inaugural seasons. Cleveland managed only 20 wins while Dallas earned just 18. Neither team was alarmed though, growing pains had been expected. “This is going to take some time, we have to be patient” said Dallas GM Ross Becker. “Success will come, but we have to stick to our long-term plan.”

The defending champion Chicago Shamrocks entered the 1994-95 season determined to build on their success from the previous season. They received extra motivation as training camp ended when Russian star Alexander Orlov announced he would retire at season’s end. The 38-year-old turned in one of the best performances of his brief career, scoring 79 points to finish second in team scoring only to countryman Vladimir Gaganov, who had 94 points. Although their record was not quite as impressive as in 1993-94, the Shamrocks still managed to win the regular season league title for the second straight year with 106 points. “I honestly think we have what it takes to make another run” said Head Coach/GM Don Saleski. “I’d love to add another championship before I’m finished.” The remark led many to wonder if the 69-year-old Saleski, who had been coaching the club since 1969 and managing it since 1972, would also retire at the conclusion of the season. Saleski would not give a clear answer about his future plans.

To take first place, the Shamrocks spent the whole season fending off an LA Wizards team that was enjoying a breakout season. It all started with the return of Wizards’ legend Stuart Holly to the team when he was hired as team President and General Manager in October. Holly immediately got to work improving the team, sending goaltender and former teammate Ari Hannula to the Montreal Royale in exchange for rookie forward Aaron Pogue. In January, Holly secured the Wizards’ goaltending, bringing in Jim Cochran from the expansion Cleveland Cosmos in exchange for a first-round draft pick. Most of the success, however, was attributed to the play of Swedish stars Viktor Skogg and Gustav Mattsen, who combined for 181 points. The Wizards took second place in the Western Conference, just two points ahead of the Calgary Wranglers who had recovered from a slow start to the year. The Wranglers opened the season with just three wins in their first ten games. The team was beginning to recover when Grant Millen went down with a shoulder injury in early November. Millen returned to the lineup in January and played two more games before tweaking the shoulder again. On January 11, Millen announced his second and final retirement from the game, ending a career that spanned 22 years. “I’d love to keep playing, but I don’t think my body is up to it anymore” said Millen.

1995 marked a return to the post-season for both the California Nuggets and the Denver Bulls, two teams who had been perennial contenders throughout the 1980s but had struggled in recent years. Nuggets captain Kevin Hoyle finished second in points for a defenseman and was a finalist for the league’s top defenseman award, ultimately losing out to Toronto’s Randy Fernandez. For Denver, a full year with Ron Buckner in net combined with Oleg Markov’s breakout 96 point season led to the Bulls’ first playoff appearance since 1986. While the Bulls and Nuggets returned to the post-season, 1995 marked the Milwaukee Choppers’ first season out of the playoffs since relocating from Dallas in 1985. With an aging roster, the Choppers were simply unable to match the speed of their younger rivals. It was an unfortunate end to the career of Bruce Gratton, the face of the franchise since the early days in Texas. “It’s hard to end it like this, but I’ve had a great career” said Gratton.

The Eastern Conference belonged to the Toronto Racers in ’94-95. With 46 wins and 100 points, the Racers won the regular season conference title for the first time since 1961. Randy Fernandez was without a doubt Toronto’s best player, winning top defenseman honors and leading all defensemen in scoring. Meanwhile, Alexei Yolkin enjoyed a career season with 52 goals. The Racers battled with Vincent Ducharme and the Montreal Royale all year for the top spot and entered their final two games of the year three points behind the Royale, who won their final game in Quebec. Toronto won their final home game against Ottawa, before winning a big game in Boston to secure first place.

In their sixth season, the Miami Stingrays finally reached the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. Jeremy Sutton’s breakout year played a big role in Miami’s success, while Patrick Grevais was spectacular in the net as the Stingrays finished in seventh place. In Pittsburgh, the Stingers once again failed to reach the post-season, but were encouraged by an unexpected big year from 22-year-old Brendan Bittner, who became the first player in years not named Gaganov or Ducharme to win the scoring championship. “It was definitely a fun year, I think we’re on the right track as a team and hopefully we can get back to the playoffs in the next year or two” said Bittner.

The 1994-95 season was also a year for goodbyes, beginning with one of the league’s beloved franchises. The Nova Scotia Claymores were slated to move to New Orleans in the fall of 1995 after failing to secure a new arena and find a local owner. Determined to make their final season in Halifax memorable, the Claymores welcomed back popular players from their past like Randy Kane, Allan Fox, and Russell Buchanan. The Claymores also celebrated by wearing their original uniforms throughout the season, though the league would not allow an official logo change. The season was bittersweet for the club, as they made a strong push late in the year for a return to the playoffs. With just a week remaining in the season, the Claymores sat just three points out of playoff position. Unfortunately, a loss to Long Island on April 2 combined with a Washington win all but sealed their fate. Washington clinched the final playoff spot, meaning Nova Scotia would play their final game at home on April 8 to close out the season.

13,556 packed into Barrington Arena for the Claymores’ final game against the Quebec Nationale. The game went into overtime where budding star Mike Bidden won the game for the home side 3-2. The crowd gave their team a standing ovation as the players saluted their fans one last time. Finally, team captain Dave Mack, an impending free agent who had already stated he would not go with the team to New Orleans, addressed the crowd. “We just want to thank all of you from the bottom of our hearts” said Mack. “Since I was a kid, I dreamed of playing for this team, wearing this sweater...” Overcome with emotion, he was unable to finish. The 65-year-old building shook as the crowd continued to roar while the Claymores finally stepped off the ice, marking the end of an era for the City, the Province, and the PHL.

Appleby Says Goodbye

Just a day after the Claymores’ emotional farewell, the league said goodbye to arguably its greatest player of all time. David Appleby had announced during the summer that he would retire at season’s end. Appleby’s 21st and final season would turn out to be a magical one. In the Spirits’ third game of the year, Appleby finally reached the incredible 1,000 goal mark, becoming the first player in league history to do so. In February, Appleby scored one of the most spectacular goals in PHL history when he deked around all five California players on the ice before beating goaltender Bradley Pope over his glove. “That was the most unbelievable goal I have ever seen in 45 years covering the game” said legendary commentator Don Gillis. “It’s just a shame he had to do it while wearing that awful third jersey.” As the season wound down, the Spirits continued to push for a playoff berth, but it was not to be. By April, Denver had clinched the final playoff spot in the Western Conference and St. Louis would have to settle for 11th place.

Appleby’s final game took place in St. Louis against the Kansas City Twisters. Prior to the game, Darryl Byrd announced that the Professional Hockey Hall of Fame would waive the customary three-year waiting period and that Appleby would be inducted immediately. The game itself was close. The playoff-bound Twisters did not rest their stars as they all wanted to be a part of the historic game. Halfway through the second period, Appleby took a pass from Ilya Sakharov, who was born during Appleby’s rookie year, and fired a shot past Jason Lind for the 1,035th and final goal of his legendary career. As the clock ran down at the end of the third period, the crowd rose to their feet. The ovation lasted nearly an hour as Appleby skated several laps around the ice, waving to the fans. The Kansas City players lined up to congratulate Appleby on his legendary career. He then skated one final lap around the Harry Truman Arena before finally stepping off the ice for the final time. “I feel like the luckiest person on earth right now” said Appleby in his final press conference. “This game has given me so much and I feel very privileged to have been a part of it.”

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