After some key acquisitions over the summer, the New York Civics entered training camp with high hopes. Despite losing Aaron Duplacy in free agency, the Civics had signed superstar defenseman Kevin Hoyle and named veteran Lamar Jackson their new captain. On the morning of September 11, 2001, the coaching staff arrived early at the team’s new practice facility. Just as the staff was sitting down to go over the day’s practice, assistant coach Dave Tobin jumped out of his seat and ran to the window. “We were going over our lineups for training camp when I saw smoke coming from the World Trade Center” said Tobin. “We all just thought it was a bad fire, then we saw the plane hit the second one. At that point we cancelled practice.” The Civics and Concordes both postponed the start of their training camps indefinitely, while a nation picked up the pieces after suffering its most devastating attack in decades. The newest Civic was no stranger to disasters. In 1989, Hoyle was just beginning his fourth season in the league with the California Nuggets when the bay area was hit with a devastating earthquake. At just 22 years old, Hoyle showed his leadership when he, along with several teammates, went into the community to feed people who had lost their homes. Now twelve years later, Hoyle, now 34 and entering his 16th season, started Goals For Heroes initiative. For each goal the Civics scored, the players would each give $100 to New York emergency services. It wasn’t long before the Long Island Concordes joined as well, while the Washington Generals gave to their own local emergency services while also assisting those affected by the Pentagon attack.
Opening night saw the Civics take on their usually hated rivals, the Concordes. It was an extremely emotional night as the teams held a tribute for those who had been lost in the attacks. The entire crowd at Broadway House belted out the Star-Spangled Banner as the two rivals lined up together on the same blueline. When it was time to play hockey, the teams played a tight game, going into overtime, where new captain Lamar Jackson scored the winner. The teams then saluted the crowd together as the crowd gave them a nearly 10-minute standing ovation. “It was important to get that win” said Jackson. “Of every game we’ve ever played, we had to win that one for this city.”
Teams across the league held tributes for the victims of the September 11th attacks, and in Montreal, the Royale also held a tribute for likely the greatest player ever to wear the double red. Vincent Ducharme’s number 55 was raised to the rafters. “It was my childhood dream to play in Montreal for the Royale.” Said Ducharme. “I never expected it to go the way it did and I feel very lucky to have the career I had.” In their first post-Ducharme season, the Royale played well, taking advantage of a very weak Northeast Division to finish first in the Division with new addition Aaron Duplacy enjoying a strong first season in Montreal. Part of the reason for Montreal’s successful season was the disastrous season in Toronto. The Racers wasted a 46-goal effort from Joe Murdock as well as a 60-point year from Randy Fernandez and plummeted to 13th place in the Eastern Conference with 29 wins. Goaltender Jake Borman struggled after returning from an early injury but most of the blame was placed on the Racers’ depth players, and ultimately, on head coach Bob Lacey. Lacey was dismissed immediately after the season ended. The Washington Generals suffered a horrific season as well, unable to patch the hole in net after losing Jake Borman, the Generals allowed more goals than any other team in the league. Just two years removed from appearing in the Lewis Cup Finals, the Generals dropped all the way to second-last in the East. While the Racers and Generals plummeted, the New Orleans Sound took advantage and finally reached the Lewis Cup playoffs for the first time since their days in Nova Scotia. Brad McNair finished second overall in league scoring, while Darren Reid added a strong season of his own with 90 points. “This is huge for this franchise” said owner Sam Bendt. “I knew we would get there eventually.”
The defending champion Philadelphia Redshirts defended their Conference title on the strength of another big year from new captain Jared Baxter, but the biggest story in the East was the Miami Stingrays, who rose to second place in the Eastern Conference. One of the biggest reasons for the Stingrays’ big year was a stunning season from 27-year-old Eric Moon. Moon’s point totals increased from 69 points in 2000-01 to an incredible 118 points in 2001-02. Moon established himself as the league’s ultimate power forward, becoming the first player since George Allen in the 1950s with over 150 penalty minutes to win the scoring title.
For the first time since 1994-95, the league welcomed two new franchises, as the Atlanta Copperheads and Portland Cascades finally made their debut. In Atlanta, Coastal Airlines arena was sold out for the opening game. After an over-the-top pre-game show that even featured a snake charmer, the players finally emerged from a giant snake head to Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road”. When the game finally started, the Copperheads treated their fans to a 2-1 win over the Carolina Raiders. Meanwhile, the Portland Cascades opened their season on the road with a loss to Vancouver, before beating the Bighorns in their first home game by a surprising score of 7-1. Both teams enjoyed strong seasons, both finishing 12th in their respective conferences, with Atlanta finishing with 30 wins, just four points out of a playoff spot. “It’s huge for us to have a big first year” said veteran defenseman Jason Driscoll. Driscoll would not see the end of the year in Atlanta, however. On March 3, just two days prior to the trade deadline, Driscoll was dealt to the contending Kansas City Twisters, who were looking to add to their defensive depth.
For the New York teams, it was a tough, emotional season. The Civics dropped a bit in the standings but still made the playoffs. Long Island won fewer games than the previous season, but still finished just two points out of a playoff spot, missing out on the final day of the season. The Boston Bulldogs also finally returned to the post-season thanks to an 11-point improvement. Scott Rose led the team in scoring, while rookie Chris Haines was nominated for Rookie of the Year.
One of the special moments of the 2001-02 season came on boxing day, when the PHL went outside for the first time in its’ history. It was minus 10 in Chicago as the Shamrocks faced the Toronto Racers at Madison Field. The Racers won a tight game in overtime with Joe Murdock scoring the winner, but the real highlight was the legends game that was played earlier. Legends from both teams took the ice again for the first time in years including Mark Benson, Rex Hull, and Charlie Fisher for Toronto, and Vladimir Gaganov, Don Newman, and even 76-year old Don Saleski for Chicago. Saleski played one short shift and earned a standing ovation from the crowd of 72,000. “What a great event” said Saleski.
Minnesota owned the West with 55 wins, as Jason Crowley finished fifth in league scoring. The Lumberjacks at one point went 19 games without a loss and only tied once during that stretch. The Kansas City Twisters also had another big year, winning the Central Division and finishing second in the West, While Seattle defended their Pacific title and took third place in the West. The Grey Wolves also had a new rival in 2001-02, as the Portland Cascades became the third team to reside in the Pacific Northwest. On February 24, the two teams met in Portland, where the Wolves jumped to a 7-0 lead. Portland responded by putting three of their tough guys out to start the third period. After the inevitable line brawl, Seattle responded by sending out 6’3” 246-pound enforcer Scott Sherwood. Sherwood grabbed Cascades’ rookie defenseman Jyrki Rainimak, luring scrappy Portland winger Troy Dowdy. Sherwood and Dowdy fought for nearly two minutes in one of the most entertaining fights ever while the crowd went wild. “That was old-time hockey right there” said Portland coach Rick Camford.
The Dallas Desperados also continued to improve, earning 90 points for the first time in their history, while the Milwaukee Choppers returned to the playoffs after a disappointing 2000-01 season. Adam Wyrzykowski enjoyed a terrific sophomore season playing on a line with team captain Brent Zahorsky. Wyrzykowski scored 40 goals and created a buzz throughout Milwaukee. His jersey outsold all the other Choppers while fans struggled to pronounce his name. “He really is developing into a great player” said Zahorsky. “He’s fun to play with.” While Milwaukee returned to the post-season, Oakland dropped out for the first time since 1994. Key losses over the summer took their toll on the Nuggets, especially the loss of captain Kevin Hoyle and goaltender Bradley Pope. The Nuggets battled the LA Wizards and the Vancouver Bighorns all year for the final playoff spot, until an 11-game losing streak put them out of contention by mid-march. There were bright spots though. Greg Willis played well in net, earning five shutouts to lead the league, while young defensemen Jordan Rifkin and Evan Butler both showed promise.
By the end of the season, one player had everyone’s attention and that player was not in the PHL. The Prairie Major Junior Hockey League’s Kris Nazerenko set a new league scoring record with 207 points while leading the Lethbridge Tornadoes to a number one ranking across the country. Nazerenko was projected to go first overall in the 2002 PHL draft, and as the playoff teams prepared for a run for the Cup, teams like Edmonton, Denver, and Cleveland hoped to land the player everyone believed could turn a franchise around.