Tuesday, August 29, 2017

1996-97 Regular Season

The 1996 rookie class was projected to be among the deepest in league history and the rookies around the league did not disappoint. 1st-overall draft pick Sergei Gulinov scored 102 points for Cleveland, finally leading the Cosmos to their first-ever playoff berth, In Philadelphia, Jared Baxter scored 43 goals, while second and third picks Kris Whittle and Andrei Alexeev each scored 41. Nobody, however, could’ve predicted the year that Racers’ pick Joe Murdock would have. Selected 27th in the draft, Murdock was a relative unknown, not even expected to crack the loaded Toronto lineup. Murdock stole the show at training camp, scoring eight goals in Toronto’s five exhibition games, a performance that included a hat-trick. Once the season started, the 18-year-old from Kelowna, BC did
not slow down. Murdock became the second rookie in PHL history to win the scoring race with 131 points, including 62 goals as the Racers took second place in the Eastern Conference. Murdock’s incredible performance even prompted the Racers to trade aging star Magnus Swedberg in order to give him more ice time. “I can’t believe what this kid has accomplished this year” said head coach Bob Lacey. “He’s definitely a special player.” Murdock wasn’t the only Racer making headlines in 1996-97, veteran winger Stuart Burns’ first year in Toronto was a success, as the 36-year-old became one of the oldest players to score 100 points.

The New York Civics enjoyed their best season in years, finishing first overall in the league for the first time since Skippy Cleveland led them there in 1957. Aaron Duplacy enjoyed his best year since 1994, scoring 46 goals to lead the team, Lamar Jackson was a runner up for defenseman-of-the-year, while 19-year veteran Clark Pratt announced 1996-97 would be his final season. The Civics headed into the post-season full of optimism. Montreal endured a tough year, losing Vincent Ducharme to a torn ACL in November, but still managed to finish fourth. Veteran Sylvain Landry picked up the slack for Ducharme with 92 points to lead the team. One of the most pleasant surprises of the year was in the PHL’s newest city, as the Carolina Raiders finished fifth in the East to secure the franchise’s first playoff berth since 1985 when the team played in Ottawa. Rookie center Shane Dutton played a big role with 78 points, while Gus Avery led the team in points with 84. “Obviously all the distractions from the last couple of years are gone” said captain Kevin Drake. “We’ve just been able to focus on hockey this year, and it’s been a fun year.”

Meanwhile, 1996-97 was a disappointing year for the defending Eastern Conference champion Quebec Nationale, who struggled to keep pace with the Cosmos and Bulldogs for the 8th and final playoff spot, the Nats had an opportunity to catch Boston for the final playoff spot in their final game of the year against Montreal. Quebec led the game after the first period, but ultimately lost 3-1, eliminating them from playoff contention.

Out West, it was the league’s oldest rookie that was getting all the attention in Dallas. Eight years after being drafted by the Milwaukee Choppers, Syong Li finally made his PHL debut after signing a contract with the injury-riddled Desperadoes. Li, whose parents had fled North Korea in the 1950s, played very well on a line with AJ Vernon and Jeff Jones, finishing second on the team in scoring. Unfortunately, it would only be enough to barely pull Dallas out of last place. “We’ve made some strides this year” said GM Ross Becker. “We’re moving in the right direction.” Chicago was finally unseated as the Western Conference champions in 1997, as the defending Lewis Cup champion Minnesota Lumberjacks took the crown. Jason Crowley continued his strong play from the previous season and from the World Hockey Challenge, while Christian Grayson claimed the Whyte Trophy as the league’s top goaltender. Kansas City also made a push for top spot in the conference, with help coming at the trade deadline in the form of Toronto star Magnus Swedberg. Swedberg played very well with Brett Delaney and Darian Ashmore as the Twisters earned a fourth place finish and home-ice advantage.

The Calgary Wranglers had a season to forget in 1996-97. First, captain Shannon Michaels was lost for the season after sustaining a serious concussion in an October fight with St. Louis tough guy Ryan McCarthy. Only a week later, Sergei Krayev suffered a potentially tragic eye injury. After losing 90 percent of his vision in his right eye, Krayev was finished for the year and his career was in doubt. The incident immediately sparked a debate about the use of visors, with the league desiring to make them mandatory. Krayev vowed to don a visor if he ever returned to the ice, while a few other players around the league also put them on, including LA’s Shawn Kelly, the player whose stick had injured Krayev. The Wranglers’ season was summed up perfectly on March 1 against Seattle when both Zambonis broke down on the same night, delaying the game by an hour. Ultimately, Calgary dropped to 9th place, out of the playoff picture.

Calgary’s loss was Vancouver’s gain, as the Bighorns returned to the playoffs. Off-season acquisition Tory Partridge flourished with his new team, taking advantage of the increase in ice time to score 73 points. Enforcer Cedric Thibault also enjoyed success of his own, setting a new league record for penalty minutes in a single season with 411. Between Thibault, Partridge, tough defensemen AJ Devries and Trevor Kerwick, and veteran Bruce Blackwell, the Bighorns were one of the league’s toughest teams, setting a PHL record for fighting majors by one team. The Bighorns weren’t the only team in the west to return to the post-season. The Winnipeg Pioneers finally reached the playoffs for the first time since 1990. Luke Morrison was spectacular in the net, while Dan Crow led the team in scoring with 82 points. “It’s been a long wait, especially for these fans” said head coach Craig Nelson. “We’ll be ready for LA, we proved this year that we’re better than people think, I think we can surprise some people.”

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