Revisiting the Best Minor League Moments in Each NHL Franchise's History
Only 60 percent of the NHL’s existing franchises (18 out of 30) have won a Stanley Cup. Conversely, 90 percent (or 27 out of 30) have had a minor league affiliate win a playoff title, whether that was in the AHL, the ECHL, the defunct IHL, the defunct Central League or any other circuit.
Not all minor pro hockey championship runs come with the same sentimental value. While they can all be taken for a positive sign in a team’s development, they mean less to the NHL fanbase in question if the farm team is not located in the same region.
Even in that event, it cannot hurt for the minor league team to sport the same colors, crest and/or nickname as the parent club.
By the same token, when the parent club closes up shop prematurely, there is nothing like having a Triple-A or Double-A associate nearby to extend one’s hockey fix a little longer.
The following is a capsule of the top historical highlights in each NHL team’s minor league postseason history, with special emphasis on everyone’s No. 1 all-time moment.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics, past playoff results and affiliation information were found via the Internet Hockey Database.
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Just their Duck luck, the Anaheim franchise leads off alphabetically and just happens to be one of three NHL chapters who have never had a championship child club.
As it happens, the closest they have come was in a period that flanked their Stanley Cup banner campaign in 2007. At the time, they were allied with the AHL’s Portland Pirates, who reached the third round of the Calder Cup playoffs in both 2006 and 2008.
As you will see in the embedded video, the Providence Bruins―otherwise known as the Baby Bs―borrowed their parent club’s cable network, NESN, as well as their esteemed vocalist, Rene Rancourt, when they clinched the 1999 Calder Cup.
It was the first title for the P-Bruins in what was then a mere seven years of operation in the capital of Rhode Island, barely an hour south of Boston. It was the first Calder Cup for a Providence-based team since the Reds last won it in 1956 and the first AHL playoff laurel for a Bruins development team since the Hershey Bears in 1969.
The Rochester Americans trail only the Hershey Bears as the AHL’s longest-tenured franchise. They came into existence 14 years before their longtime NHL associates, the Buffalo Sabres.
As it happens, the Amerks brought home three Calder Cups before the Sabres joined them on the Western New York sports scene and have corralled three more since.
Their most recent, in 1996, was a Cinderella saga laden with regional rivalries in the postseason. Rochester had posted a 37-34-9 regular-season record, good for third in the Central Division, fifth overall in the Western Conference and ninth out of 18 teams in the league.
Led by head coach John Tortorella, the Americans swept a best-of-three first round with one in-state rival, the Adirondack Red Wings. They swept the Cornwall Aces in the division final and then thrashed the Syracuse Crunch in five games for the conference crown.
Facing another unlikely finalist in the Portland Pirates, a 78-point team that had won the Cup two years prior, Rochester claimed a 2-1, Game 7 victory at home.
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A Flames draft pick by the name of Theoren Fleury, taken in the eighth round the year prior, turned pro with the IHL’s Salt Lake Golden Eagles after his 1987-88 major junior season ended. He hit the ice sprinting with a 3-4-7 scoring log in only two regular-season games and then co-piloted the Eagles’ playoff run with a team-best 11 goals.
Salt Lake would vanquish the Flint Spirits in a six-game Turner Cup Finals for its second straight title and first as a Flames farm team.
As a postscript, Fleury proceeded to split the 1988-89 campaign between the IHL and NHL and eventually put forth an encore with 11 playoff points en route to a Stanley Cup with Calgary.
Under patriarch Peter Karmanos, the Carolina Hurricanes have a deeper-than-usual family tie with their ECHL affiliate, the Florida Everblades, as well as major junior’s Plymouth Whalers.
But unlike the Whalers, whose players can be drafted by any NHL team, the Everblades are a direct development club for the Canes, albeit in a shared affiliation with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Couple that with the fact that Florida’s 2012 Kelly Cup run is the only minor league title for a Hurricanes affiliate since the franchise’s transfer from Hartford and the selection for this slide is easy.
As the Whalers, the top minor-league moment had to have been the 1990-91 Springfield Indians’ run to the Calder Cup.
The NHL-AHL alliance of Hartford and Springfield in the 1990s was more than an appropriate geographic arrangement. It was a reminder of when the Springfield Civic Center temporarily harbored the homeless Whalers while their Hartford building underwent repairs from snowstorm damage.
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In their first of nine seasons as the Blackhawks’ primary farm team, the Indianapolis Ice cruised to the 1990 Turner Cup, their only title in a 10-year run as members of the IHL.
Darryl Sutter, who had retired from playing three years earlier after spending his entire career in Chicago’s system, was behind the Indianapolis bench for that run. It was his second season as the organization’s top minor-league head coach, after previously working as an assistant coach for the Hawks in 1987-88.
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The Colorado Avalanche made a historic splash when they won the Stanley Cup in their first season after transferring out of Quebec City. Although they fell one round short of a repeat in 1997, their new AHL affiliate in Hershey ensured that the organization would pick up two titles in as many years.
Head coach Bob Hartley, the future skipper of Colorado’s second and most recent banner campaign in 2001, directed the Bears to a five-game victory over the Hamilton Bulldogs.
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The Blue Jackets have had an unlucky 13 years of existence with a perennial mediocrity trickling down to every other professional level in the system.
The closest any member of the organization has come to breaking that trend was when a now-defunct, fellow Ohio-based team went to two Kelly Cup Finals. The Dayton Bombers reached the last round in both 2002 and 2007.
The second of those two finals appearances by Dayton ended in defeat at the hands of the Idaho Steelheads, Dallas’ Double-A team that won its second Kelly Cup in four years as a member of the ECHL.
Although they have not won lately at a higher level, it is worth noting that the Stars have had their latest Triple-A partner within their own state boundaries, in case the “Texas Stars” dateline couldn’t give that away. The Cedar Park-based AHL squad fell two wins shy of the Calder Cup in 2010, snuffing out in Game 6 against Hershey.
Deeper in the AHL morgue, the Minnesota North Stars had their first minor pro partner, the aforementioned Rochester Americans, deliver a Calder Cup in 1967-68, Minnesota’s inaugural NHL season.
The Red Wings have collected more Calder Cups via their various AHL affiliates than any other NHL franchise with 10. The first nine of those titles, however, came from out of state.
The Indianapolis Capitals were Detroit’s development partner when they enjoyed banner campaigns in 1942 and 1950. Ditto the Hershey Bears in 1958 and 1959, the Pittsburgh Hornets in 1967 and the Adirondack Red Wings four times in the 1980s and 1990s.
Conversely, in their 12th year as an AHL tenant and 11th as a Red Wings ally, the Grand Rapids Griffins delivered first-time playoff glory to their southwestern Michigan city.
There was a decade-long stretch bookended by two partial Detroit associates bringing home back-to-back Turner Cups. The Port Huron Flags/Wings pulled the feat in 1971 and 1972, as did the Kalamazoo Wings in 1979 and 1980.
However, the Grand Rapids run in 2013 sets itself apart in that the Griffins are the Red Wings’ sole, primary affiliate.
For those who bleed blue and orange to the extent of eyeing their former familial namesake in Nova Scotia, the Oilers’ glory days did not quite end with their last of five Stanley Cups in seven years in 1990.
Three years afterward, the Oiler family garnered its sixth professional playoff title in a decade with Cape Breton’s Calder Cup triumph.
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The Panthers are the third team yet to win a minor league championship and the second yet to win at any level.
Three of their past and present ECHL affiliates, though, have reached the third round of the Kelly Cup playoffs. They are the 1994 Birmingham Bulls, the 1996 Tallahassee Tiger Sharks and the 2013 Cincinnati Cyclones.
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Other than the Salt Lake Golden Eagles of the Central League in 1975 and the ECHL’s Mississippi Sea Wolves―shared with the Phoenix Coyotes―in 1999, there are not many minor league banners for the Kings to brandish.
There is one more outstanding example, though. While they were based a full cross-country trek away, the Springfield Kings did their namesake parents proud with a Calder Cup in 1971. They did it despite finishing the regular season at 29-35-8.
And here we thought L.A.’s 2012 playoff stampede after clinching the eighth and final spot in the Western Conference was unprecedented.
The Minnesota Wild’s third year of operation was a charm in more ways than just the team’s first passport to the Stanley Cup playoffs, let alone an unexpected ride to the third round.
Roughly a week after that run came to an end with a sweep at the hands of Anaheim, Minnesota’s AHL allies from Houston clinched their own Western Conference title. After swinging and missing on two chances to close out the Grand Rapids Griffins, the Aeros eked out a 2-1 triumph in Game 7 on the road.
They pulled the same feat in the finals by blanking the Hamilton Bulldogs, 3-0, at Copps Coliseum to win a particularly thrilling Calder Cup championship series. The series featured a maximum three equalizers as well as two lead changes (1-0 Houston to 2-1 Hamilton to 3-2 Houston) and two overtime games.
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The Habs never had a better combined outlook on the present and future than they did in 1976 and 1977. That was when they twice pulled the trick of a Stanley Cup title and a Calder Cup championship in the same spring.
Both of those Nova Scotia Voyageurs teams featured a rookie and second-year professional defenseman in Brian Engblom. Shortly after winning his second Calder Cup, Engblom made his NHL debut amidst Montreal’s run to its own repeat in 1977.
The Nashville Predators have always based their top professional prospects in Milwaukee, home of an IHL-turned-AHL franchise that is 21 years their senior.
Through 36 years of existence, the Milwaukee Admirals have one playoff title to their credit, a Calder Cup in 2004. That team featured seven original Predators draftees, including 2002 first-rounder Scottie Upshall, who tallied three goals in eight playoff appearances.
The last set of AHL and NHL partners to win their respective playoff titles in the same year were the 1994-95 Albany River Rats and New Jersey Devils.
Sure, it was two time zones away, but Islanders fans had to appreciate the opportunity to relish in Butch Goring’s contributions to their organization once more in the mid-1990s.
Some 15 years prior, Goring went from Los Angeles to Long Island at the trade deadline and proceeded to copilot a four-year Stanley Cup dynasty.
By 1995, Goring’s coaching endeavors had taken him to the Isles’ Triple-A base in Colorado, where he guided the Denver Grizzlies to the IHL’s Turner Cup. The team shuffled one state over to Salt Lake City that summer to make room for the Avalanche, but Goring’s pupils successfully defended their title as the Utah Grizzlies in 1996.
The most outstanding prospect from that set of back-to-back titles was goaltender Tommy Salo. He was named the IHL’s top netminder in both seasons and proceeded to play the majority of the schedule with the Islanders the next three years.
Between the AHL and the old Triple-A level Central League, the Rangers had affiliates amass nine championships in less than three decades, spanning from 1956 to 1984. Over those years, the Blueshirts of tomorrow were represented in Providence, Springfield, Mass., St. Paul, Buffalo, Omaha and Tulsa.
Geographically speaking, they had a much more relevant title-taker around the turn of the century when the Hartford Wolf Pack won the 2000 Calder Cup.
Andre Benoit, Erik Condra, Jared Cowen, Colin Greening, Robin Lehner, Zack Smith, Patrick Wiercioch.
Dedicated Senators fans encountered those names for the better part of this past season, when Ottawa defied adversity en route to an appearance in the second round of the playoffs.
The most devout Sens rooters, though, would have recognized those names from two short years prior, when they all helped the Binghamton Senators to the 2011 Calder Cup. Lehner saw action in goal for 19 out of 23 playoff games while Benoit co-led the team with 15 postseason assists and Smith stamped an 8-12-20 scoring log.
Flyers fans had as memorable a season as one could ask for in 2004-05, considering the circumstances.
Even with no NHL for the entire year, the neighboring Philadelphia Phantoms ensured an abundance of hockey action at the venue then known as the First Union Center. That would be the site of their Calder Cup clinching game against the Chicago Wolves.
In addition, the Trenton Titans were serving as Philadelphia’s ECHL affiliate when they garnered the 2005 Kelly Cup.
Under their current identity, the Coyotes have savored only one championship memory in their family. That was the aforementioned Mississippi Sea Wolves’ Kelly Cup victory in 1999, when that team doubled as the Double-A partner of the Coyotes and Kings.
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Strangely, while the Penguins cater to puckheads in western Pennsylvania, their longest-lasting primary affiliations have been with teams located on the other side of the state.
The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, who are approaching their 15th season, have made three trips to the AHL’s Calder Cup Finals, though they lost each time.
Earlier, from 1971 to 1977, the Pens claimed the Hershey Bears as their development squad. Right in the middle of that alliance, the Bears corralled the Cup in 1974.
For 29 uninterrupted years, ending at the conclusion of 2012-13, the Blues had three different variations on the Peoria Rivermen working with them from across the state border. There an IHL incarnation from 1984 to 1996, followed by a nine-year run at the ECHL level and then a return to Triple-A in the AHL.
The IHL version hung up two Turner Cup banners, one of which came after a dominant ride through 1990-91. Peoria went 58-19-5 for 121 regular-season points and then prevailed in the three-round playoffs in more high-wire fashion, winning one series in seven games and the other two in six.
Earlier in their existence, the Rivermen coupled another regular-season and playoff title in 1985. In a titanic tangle with the Eastern Division champion Muskegon Lumberjacks, who had finished a narrow second in the regular season, Peoria won Game 7 of a Turner Cup Finals in which each team accumulated 24 goals.
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In their first season of operation, the Sharks linked up with the IHL’s Kansas City Blades. The since-folded Blades promptly won the 1992 Turner Cup, the only title for that franchise and, so far, the only one for any team with a connection to San Jose’s NHL team.
In addition to sharing the Carolina organization’s joy over the Everblades, the Lightning had another title in the family in 2012.
The Norfolk Admirals were the only AHL team that year to amass triple-digit points, finishing with 113. They followed up with a 15-3 storm through the Calder Cup playoffs, including four-game sweeps of the St. John’s IceCaps and Toronto Marlies in the final two rounds.
A natural, multinational rivalry was spawned in the summer of 1970 with the advent of the Buffalo Sabres. But immediately prior to that, as their final hurrah, the Buffalo Bisons won the Calder Cup while boasting the Maple Leafs’ minor-league talent.
In all, the Toronto franchise has seen its AHL allies win eight Calder Cups. Those victorious partners variously played in Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Rochester, Buffalo and Moncton.
Buffalo, of course, is the closest of those cities to the Leafs major league base and, outside of hockey, still has specimens of goodwill with Toronto. Today’s Buffalo Bisons are a Triple-A baseball club serving as the Blue Jays’ top farm team.
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In the latter half of the 1970s, aspiring Canucks players brought two Central League titles to two cities in a span of four years.
In the first season as Vancouver’s affiliate, the Tulsa Oilers finished first in the six-team circuit with 100 points and then abolished the Oklahoma City Blazers and Dallas Black Hawks in the 1976 playoffs.
The Canucks broke off their alliance with the Oilers in the summer of 1978 and started their new affiliation with the Black Hawks in the same fashion. Dallas prevailed in the 1979 tournament with a sweep of Kansas City and a 4-1 finals victory over Salt Lake.
With five Calder Cups and two Kelly Cups to their credit, the Capitals are arguably the most accomplished team on the minor-league front to still be lacking an NHL playoff title.
Come what may, the organization had the rare feat of winning both minor league titles in the same year in 2009. Within weeks of Washington’s heartbreaking home loss to Pittsburgh in Game 7 of the second round, the South Carolina Stingrays attained ECHL supremacy before the Hershey Bears emerged as AHL champs.
Atlanta Thrashers fans, who are now without a team, only wish their wealth of minor league prosperity could have translated to the top level a little more.
The last Turner Cup Finals to take place before the Triple-A version of the IHL folded had Atlanta’s partner, the Orlando Solar Bears, usurp the crown from the reigning champion Chicago Wolves in 2001.
In a strange twist that would only grow stranger as the next year unfolded, the Solar Bears were not among the surviving IHL teams that found new auspices in the AHL. In turn, the Thrashers adopted none other than Chicago as its new primary farm base.
This meant having the remaining core from the Solar Bears championship roster don the laundry and cater to the fans of its last vanquished IHL adversary. Although, it is safe to assume that all was forgiven when the Solar Bears-turned-Wolves won the 2002 Calder Cup against Bridgeport.