Saturday, September 23, 2017

1997-98 Regular Season

As 1997 drew to a close, there was a growing concern among hockey fans and players that the 1997-98 PHL season might not happen at all. Games had been cancelled through October and November and by the time Christmas arrived, the season had yet to start. Negotiations had broken down early in December and no further talks were planned, forcing Darryl Byrd to cancel all games in December. With Byrd and PHPA president Brian Hunt unable to find common ground, others began to step in to try to hash out a deal. Deputy Commissioner John Cairns and Union Vice President Dave Mack began talks of their own, but the situation only became more heated. “It seems like they want to lose the season” said an irate Mack. “I don’t know what kind of point they want to make by cancelling games but it’s getting silly.” Byrd responded to Mack’s words “He’s making six million to play a game, I don’t think he’s qualified to talk about what’s silly.”

As 1997 turned into 1998, there was still no deal. Games for the month of January were now cancelled and a deadline was finally set. If there was no agreement reached by January 20, the unthinkable would happen and the season would be cancelled. When January 19 arrived with no deal, Darryl Byrd announced a press conference to be held the following day at noon eastern time. It appeared that the 1997-98 season was dead. On the morning of the 20th, a statement came from the league that the press conference had been cancelled and that Byrd and Hunt were back in talks. Finally, at 3:00 AM, January 21, an exhausted and unshaven Byrd announced that a deal had been reached and the season was saved. Later in the day, the details of the deal were released. A salary cap of $45 Million per team would be implemented immediately, then be reduced to $40 Million in time for the 1998-99 season. In addition, entry-level deals were standardized at $700,00. In return for the cap, players could now become unrestricted free agents at age 25, while increases were made to their pensions and health insurance. One issue that was talked about at length was mandatory visors. In the wake of Sergei Krayev’s horrific injury the previous season, the league pushed hard to make visors a requirement. The PHPA ultimately rejected the idea, however, and the issue was put aside. The league also announced that it would expand to 30 teams by the 2001-02 season, and that there would be a league-wide division realignment in time for 1998-99 as well as a few rule changes that would be announced in the off-season.

Ultimately, the lockout cost the league 588 games, over half of its schedule. It also brought about the end of a few star players’ careers, who decided to hang up the skates rather than wait out the lockout.

Doug MacIntyre, F, LI, 1980-1997
The pride of Summerside, PEI, MacIntyre was a leader for the Concordes from the moment he first stepped on the ice in 1980. Playing alongside Stuart Burns throughout the 1980s and into the 90s, MacIntyre helped lead Long Island to the Lewis Cup Finals three times, including a win in 1990. Among the team’s all-time scoring leaders, only Burns ranks above MacIntyre.

Jari Pukki, D, STL, CAL, BOS, 1978-1997
After serving as more of a role player in the Spirits’ dynasty, Pukki was traded to California in 1986, where he truly emerged as one of the league’s top offensive defensemen. Four years later, he was dealt to the Boston Bulldogs in exchange for Ricky Meyer in what would go down as one of the most lopsided deals in PHL history. While Meyer struggled to stay in the Nuggets’ lineup, Pukki put the Bulldogs over the top, playing a big role in their championship run in 1993.During the lockout, Pukki signed with a team in his hometown of Tampere, Finland, where he will finish his career.

Joe Tyler, F, VAN, TOR, 1979-1997
Playing alongside Brett Townsend for 16 seasons in Vancouver, Joe Tyler proved to be one of the few bright spots on a struggling franchise. Tyler retires as the teams’ second leading scorer all time. In 1996, he signed with his hometown team, the Toronto Racers, where he played one year.

After a ten-day training camp, the 1998 season finally got underway on February 3, 1998. The schedule would be 38 games with each team playing teams from their division four times and teams from the other division in their conference twice. There would be no intra-conference play. There were some surprises throughout the season, with the success of the teams largely hinging on how prepared they were for the unusual season. Edmonton, a team at the start of a major rebuild, stumbled out of the gate and ultimately won only eight games to finish last in the league and miss the playoffs for the first time since 1987. Defending Western Conference champions Kansas City also struggled, dropping to eighth place and barely making the playoffs by just one point after an injury-riddled season. While Chicago predictably took first place in the league, the team that finally emerged as a true contender in the West was the California Nuggets.
Amid turmoil surrounding the future of the franchise and their arena, the Nuggets managed to win the Pacific Division for the first time since 1983, just barely edging out Los Angeles when they beat them on the final day of the regular season. Defenseman and team captain Kevin Hoyle played an enormous role in the team’s success. The 29-year-old played over 30 minutes a game throughout the year and became the first defenseman in franchise history to lead the team in scoring.

Two Western Conference teams returned to the playoffs in 1998. The St. Louis Spirits returned to the post-season for the first time since 1993, while the Seattle Grey Wolves made it for the first time since 1991 thanks to breakout years from Randy McAllen and Scott Sherwood. The Milwaukee Choppers also came close to ending their post-season drought as Peter Lundholm won rookie-of-the year honors, while Brent Zahorsky scored 48 points. The Chops ultimately fell short, just two points behind eighth place.

In the Eastern Conference, the defending Lewis Cup champion New York Civics came out strong, going undefeated through the month of February. By season’s end, the Civics had only lost seven games to take first place in the Eastern Conference. Aaron Duplacy enjoyed his best season yet, nearly winning the league scoring title with 59 points. To win the conference, New York had to fend off their division rivals Washington in a tight race as the Generals also enjoyed a strong season in which they only lost 11 games. Toronto once again took the Northeast Division after having to part with a few depth players to get under the new salary cap, while Montreal had to settle for fourth place despite a league-leading 61 points from Vincent Ducharme. Rookie Zdeno Kadlec also proved to be a pleasant surprise for the Royale. After being selected 21st in the draft, Kadlec scored 36 points and was nominated for rookie of the year. Cleveland continued to move up the standings, finishing fifth, while Boston, hit hard by the departure of key players over the off-season, dropped all the way to 13th, missing the playoffs for the first time since 1981.

One of the more exciting storylines of the 1997-98 season featured a race between two original PHL teams who had both been absent from the playoffs in recent years. The Philadelphia Redshirts and Detroit Mustangs faced off against each other on April 29 in the second-last game of the year for both teams, with Detroit sitting two points ahead of the Redshirts. The Redshirts, who had been boosted by a big sophomore year from Jared Baxter, managed to win a dramatic game with just 20 seconds left in regulation. Entering the final day of the regular season on May 1, both teams had identical records while the season series was tied 1-1. Detroit held a very slight advantage with a goal differential of 21 compared to Philly’s 19. the Redshirts now needed to not only beat Pittsburgh, if Detroit beat Cleveland, they would need to beat the Stingers by at least four goals to get into the playoffs. Detroit had all the remaining tie-breakers to their advantage. Things did not get off to a good start for Philly as the Stingers jumped ahead early on a goal from Scott Lindsay. Midway through the second period, the Redshirts finally got on the board. Early in the third period, Baxter scored to give Philly the lead. Seven minutes later, Owen Betts made it 3-1. Meanwhile, in Cleveland, the Mustangs were wrapping up a 2-1 victory, meaning Philadelphia needed two more goals. They would get one from Brendan Carnes with six minutes to go in the game, before the team received word that Detroit had scored an empty-netter against the Cosmos to take that game 3-1. Now Philadelphia needed two more once again. Jonathan Stafford’s goal made it 4-1 with less than three minutes left in the game, leading to one of the most unusual occurrences ever in a PHL game. With a minute left, the Redshirts pulled goaltender Nathan Bowman for the extra attacker despite leading the game 4-1. Philly pushed hard and were finally rewarded with only 13 seconds on the clock when Stafford jambed a loose puck under Pittsburgh goaltender Matt Wilkin’s pad. The Redshirts cleared the bench and mobbed Stafford. Philadelphia was back in the playoffs. An unusual regular season ended in perhaps the most unusual way possible.

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