After an eventful off-season, the PHL saw a few major shifts in power in the 2002-03 season. The Edmonton Northern Lights jumped from the basement to the eighth in the west and their first playoff appearance since 1997. Just as predicted, rookie phenom Kris Nazarenko took the league by storm. Nazarenko used his 219-pound frame to power his way to 52 goals and 111 total points to become the first rookie to win the Cleveland Cup as top scorer since the man the trophy was named after did it in 1939-40. Along with Nazarenko, Ilya Rusakivich finally enjoyed a break out season, scoring 42 goals of his own. Another big story out west was the Dallas Desperados, who finished first overall in the league in only their ninth season. The Desperados were one of the most difficult teams to play against, leading the league by a long shot in penalty minutes with tough young power forward AJ Vernon leading the way with 339, coupled with 32 goals. Dallas battled Chicago all season for the Central Division title, as the Shamrocks benefited from the strong play of another talented rookie, Jonathan Wheatley. The teams traded the top spot in the conference back and forth until a late-season losing skid in Chicago allowed the Desperados to jump ahead and take first overall.
The defending champion Seattle Grey Wolves once again took the Pacific Division with the help of a new addition at the trade deadline. The Wolves acquired veteran Scott Lindsay from the Pittsburgh Stingers in exchange for Scott Sherwood and prospect Roman Novatny. Lindsay brought grit and experience to the Wolves as they prepared to try to defend their title. “It’s tough to leave Pittsburgh, this place has become home to myself, my wife and my kids” said an emotional Lindsay. “This is an opportunity, we have a chance to do something really special in Seattle.” The Wolves also got an extra shot of motivation at the end of the regular season when team captain and 21-year veteran Jason Radford announced he would retire after the playoffs.
In the East, the Redshirts once again ruled the Conference, but all the attention was on the big turnaround in Toronto, where the Racers returned to the top thanks largely to star forward Joe Murdock and new head coach Rex Hull. Murdock became the second player of the year to break 50 goals with 51 and battled Kris Nazarenko all year for the scoring title. Meanwhile, Randy Fernandez enjoyed his best season in years, leading all defensemen in plus/minus thanks to a new focus on defense led by Hull, who claimed coach of the year honours. “He’s really made a difference in our locker room” said Fernandez. “Everyone is buying in and the game is really fun again.”
While the Redshirts and Racers dominated, the defending conference champs from Miami battled the New York Civics and New Orleans Sound for the final playoff spot. New Orleans held it for most of the season, while New York and Miami struggled, until a mid-season surge for the Stingrays bumped the Sound and the Civics out. For New York, a team built to win, the failure to reach the post-season was a huge disappointment, but there was still hope for the Sound. Washington once again plummeted to the bottom of the standings, giving way to a tight battle for the South Division. Miami, New Orleans, and the surprise of the year, Atlanta, all battled for the third seed. The Copperheads, spurred by a big rookie year from Jason Ferland, defeated the Sound in the final game of the season, eliminating New Orleans from playoff contention and putting themselves in the playoffs with the division title in only their second season. “We’re a confident team” said captain Alyn Bryant. “We’ve surprised a lot of people this season and I believe we have a few more surprises in store.”