When the Boston Bulldogs opened their training camp in September, 2003, captain Scott Rose was conspicuously missing. By the time the season opened on October 10, Rose was still without a new deal. Without him, the Bulldogs did manage to go 5-3-0 in their first eight games when on October 27, a blockbuster trade was announced that rocked the hockey world. Rose was dealt to the Minnesota Lumberjacks in exchange for Brendan Marlo. Marlo had proven to be a budding superstar with the ‘Jacks but was growing unhappy with his role on a deep team. Rose, on the other hand, was looking for a new contract in the $10-12 Million range and Boston was unwilling to part with it. With Marlo’s contract gone, the Lumberjacks had the cap room to sign Rose to a six-year deal at $9 Million/year. Rose agreed to a discount when faced with the very real possibility of winning a Lewis Cup in Minnesota.
It would be Boston, however, who would come out as the big winners in the deal. One of the oddest things about the deal was that both players wore number 2. In Boston, Marlo essentially just wore Rose’s jersey as it retained the “C” as well. ‘Dogs coach Max St. Beaudoin had seen Marlo play plenty of times in the Maritime Junior league and was impressed with his leadership. Marlo led the team in scoring as the Bulldogs led the division for most of the year, until a late-season surge by their arch-rivals, the Philadelphia Redshirts, pushed them into fourth place. The Redshirts were enjoying another strong season as Jared Baxter and Alexei Ivanov formed one of the deadliest duos in the league, combining for 192 points.
Quebec returned to the playoffs, while Montreal, plagued by injuries nearly missed for the first time since 1989. For the second consecutive year, a dramatic playoff race formed in the South Division with three teams chasing the division title and final playoff spot. Throughout the year, Atlanta, Carolina, Miami, and New Orleans all took turns holding down the top spot. The Sound, despite a historically embarrassing off-season, came together to make a strong push for the division lead. 29-year old Kevin Jones, with a lot of help from newly acquired veteran Lamar Jackson, proved to be a surprising success behind the bench, despite no professional coaching experience. However, it would all come crashing down in March of 2004, it was revealed that Sam Bendt, who had been in a rehab facility since September, was broke. The league was forced to take over ownership of the Sound and there was no guarantee the franchise would even survive the remainder of the year without folding. The mandate to GM Bill Draper from the league was to shed salary to keep the team afloat. Since coming over from New York in the summer, Lamar Jackson had handled the entire situation with the Sound with tremendous grace. To thank him, Draper ensured that Jackson went to a contender, sending him to Dallas just days before the trade deadline. The final nail went into the coffin of the Sound’s 2003-04 season on deadline day, March 7, when superstar Brad McNair and his $12 Million salary was dealt to Milwaukee in a blockbuster, three-team deal that saw the Choppers send Peter Lundholm to Atlanta while the Sound received a first-round pick directly from Milwaukee and prospect Alex Andreyev from the Copperheads. In all, New Orleans unloaded $17 Million in payroll, and also knocked themselves out of the playoff race.
The disaster in New Orleans opened up the South Division playoff race considerably. Atlanta, now boosted by the addition of Lundholm, Miami, and Carolina were left gunning for the final spot. It would come down to the Copperheads and Raiders in the final days of the season, when it was Atlanta, when disaster struck, this time in Atlanta. With two games to go in the season, Copperheads’ forward Jason Ferland was arrested on assault charges after an incident at a Miami nightclub. The league suspended Ferland, who was not released from custody until the season ended anyway. The Carolina Raiders won their final two games and clinched a playoff spot for the first time in four years. “In the end, the team with the least amount of drama won out” said writer Bill Wentworth.
There was not quite as much drama in the Western Conference, where the Holiday Classic was played out west for the first time ever as Minnesota took on St. Louis Christmas Day. The game went to overtime where the Lumberjacks won 3-2, but it was the Spirits who created a stir, choosing to wear their classic white uniforms from the dynasty years. The league announced after the game that special retro jerseys would be worn at each Holiday Classic from that point on.
Seattle, generally regarded as the PHL’s deepest team, dominated the league. Former Washington Generals captain Rob Wentzel had taken a huge pay cut to come to Seattle in the hopes of winning a ring, but Wentzel was no passenger, finishing second in Wolves’ scoring. Chicago clinched the Central Division, making it 35 consecutive seasons in the post-season, while Edmonton finally broke out and won the North Division as Kris Nazarenko became the first player in PHL history to begin his career with two straight 50-goal seasons.
The Kansas City Twisters and Dallas Desperados both had all but lost the battle for the Central Division to Chicago when the trade deadline arrived on March 7, but both teams were busy as they continued to battle each other for home ice advantage in what appeared to be an inevitable first-round meeting. Dallas rescued Lamar Jackson from the sinking New Orleans Sound, while Kansas City acquired veteran Shannon Michaels from Calgary. Michaels had served as the Wranglers captain since the early 90s and would be an unrestricted free agent in the summer. The Twisters would ultimately edge out the Desperados for fourth place and home-ice advantage in what promised to be a very entertaining series.
In Milwaukee, the Choppers struggled throughout the year, hovering around .500, until pulling off a huge three-way deal in March where for the price of Peter Lunholm and a first-round pick, the Choppers received Brad McNair from New Orleans. With the horrible situation in Louisiana behind him, McNair exploded for 12 points in the final ten games as the Choppers won nine out of ten to pull away from Winnipeg and secure the final playoff spot. It spelled the end of a very promising season for Dan Crow, Jamie Moore, and a Winnipeg team that had finally shown signs of life for the first time since reaching the Lewis Cup Final in 1999. “It’s disappointing, but I think we’re on the right track” said Crow.
There was also some improvement in Denver and St. Louis, as both teams remained in playoff contention fairly late in the season. Sad news hit St. Louis in February, as long time team owner Frank Wells passed away at 82. Wells was beloved by the Spirits’ players and the fans in St. Louis as he built one of hockey’s all-time greatest dynasties. The Spirits wore a special patch with Wells’ initials on it for the remainder of one of the most eventful seasons in PHL history.