Top 10 AHL Fan Bases That Most Deserve a Calder Cup Title

Al DanielCorrespondent IIJuly 3, 2011

Top 10 AHL Fan Bases That Most Deserve a Calder Cup Title

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    The Binghamton Senators are almost four weeks removed from delivering the city’s first championship in a combined 35 years of basing a professional hockey team, including 30 in the AHL.

    Now that the afterglow of that drought-ending accomplishment has virtually tapered off, this is an appropriate time to shuffle our attention elsewhere and commence thoughts on the 2011-12 season.

    There is a multitude of other established AHL fan bases who may rightly ask “Could we be next?” and derive inspiration from Binghamton’s surprising run to the 2011 Calder Cup. With that in mind, here are those cities that, based on a combination of longevity in the league, fan loyalty, and ongoing years without a championship, deserve jubilation in June the most.

10. Worcester

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    Save for a one-year interim in 2005-06, central Massachusetts has savored its relationships with the AHL’s IceCats and Sharks since 1994. But the fan base has never seen its team go beyond the second round of the Calder Cup playoffs.

    Curiously, in their five years of existence, the Sharks have seen annual attendance figures go in the inverse direction of their winning percentage. The more they win, the fewer they draw and vice versa.

    That having been said, Worcester is a stable and worthy AHL market, and a title could put a stamp on that very notion.

9. Rochester

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    The AHL’s second-oldest living franchise, with 55 years under its belt and counting, has not won a Calder Cup since 1996. It scooped up six within its first 40 seasons, but has had zero in the last 15.

    And the Americans have not done much to entice their fans in over a decade, when they lost to Providence and Hartford, respectively, in the 1999 and 2000 finals. They have won only three series in the last 11 years and none since 2005.

    The Amerks have seen a stark decline in attendance in recent years, but it has been perfectly explicable. Leading up to 2008, when they nonsensically ended a three-decade partnership with the nearby Buffalo Sabres, they were hovering around or above 7,000 per night.

    More recently, with the Florida Panthers as Rochester’s affiliate, it has been in the 4,000 range at best.

    But guess what? The Sabres own them now. That will indubitably spark a Rochester renaissance at the gate―and possibly on the ice as well.

8. Portland

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    The Pirates won the Calder Cup in their inaugural season in 1994 and returned to the finals in 1996.

    Since then, the best they have done in the postseason was reaching the Eastern Conference finals in 2006 and 2008.

    To their credit, the Pirates and their fans have consistently fed each other healthy data. More than 5,000 fans have continuously filled the compact Cumberland County Civic Center and watched their team post nine consecutive winning records.

    In addition, Portland was deemed fit to host the AHL All-Star Classic in both 2003 and 2010.

7. Syracuse

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    Not unlike the Pirates, the Crunch have had a way of stuffing one of the AHL’s smaller venues. With a modest seating capacity of 6,230, the 60-year-old War Memorial has drawn over 5,000 fans to virtually every Crunch game since the team’s inception in 1994.

    Those figures prove how much Syracuse appreciates its minor-pro hockey, which it lacked for the better part of four decades and never had for more than four years at a time until the Crunch arrived.

    So far, though, the loyal locals have yet to be rewarded. The Crunch have only been to the third round of the playoffs once (in 1996) and to the second round another two times (2002, 2008). And Syracuse is still looking for its for Calder Cup since the Stars won the AHL’s inaugural playoff title in 1937.

6. Grand Rapids

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    For 15 years, five in the International League and 10 in the AHL, the Griffins have consistently filled more than half of the 10,834-seat Van Andel Arena.

    And regardless of the quality of the product on the ice, fan loyalty is only escalating. Grand Rapids has finished each of the last four years among the top five AHL attendance leaders. Within the last three years, including two non-playoff campaigns, the Griffins have drawn a nightly median exceeding 7,000 spectators.

    But Grand Rapids has also been consistent in another department. The franchise remains utterly bereft of banners. The Griffins lost the IHL’s Turner Cup championship in 2000 and have not reached smelling distance of a title since.

5. Toronto

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    The Marlies’ parent club from across town won its last Stanley Cup in 1967 and has not returned to the finals since.

    Only the fans can speak for themselves. But whether it is an end to the NHL’s longest drought or a first-time visit from the AHL’s Holy Grail, odds are Southern Ontarians would take any pro hockey championship.

    Whichever of those comes first, the region ought to be euphoric when it happens.

4. Adirondacks

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    Glens Falls, N.Y. appeared to have seen the last of its Triple-A hockey action when the Red Wings, winners of four Calder Cups in their 20 years of existence, left in 1999. Like so many other minor-league markets, Adirondack subsequently downgraded one level to host the likes of the now-defunct UHL’s Icehawks and Frostbite.

    But two years ago, in semi-defiance of the AHL’s growth and need for bigger markets and arenas, the Philadelphia Flyers chose the 4,806-seat Glens Falls Civic Center to base its farm club when the Phantoms had to leave the demolished Spectrum.

    However, the other skate will drop at some point, for the Phantoms are simply waiting on a new building closer to home in Lehigh Valley. It is due to open in 2013.

    Translation: There isn’t much time for the North Country fans to enjoy one last banner year at this level.

3. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton

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    Inaugurated in 1999, the “Baby Pens” will become a teenaged franchise in the coming season. Yet their loyal fans have always led little more than an angst-laden existence.

    The Penguins thrice reached the Calder Cup finals within their first decade of operation. The outcomes consisted of a six-game shortcoming versus Saint John in 2001, a sweep at the hands of Milwaukee in 2004, and a six-game loss to the semi-dynastic Chicago Wolves in 2008.

    But arguably, none of those setbacks compare to this past season. The 2010-11 Penguins sculpted a league-best 117 points, which tied them for the season-best regular-season collection in league history, only to wilt in the second round.

2. Springfield

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    The city that neighbors the league’s headquarters has consistently fielded one AHL team or another since 1954, whether it has been one of two incarnations of the Indians, the Kings who came in between, or the modern-day Falcons. But since the Indians won a pair of Cups in 1990 and 1991, fans in western Massachusetts have been treated to little more than Falcon futility.

    Since their 1994 inception swiftly filled a void when the Indians became the Worcester IceCats, the Falcons have won only three playoff rounds. The last of those came in 1997, when they dumped Portland and Providence en route to a surprise visit to the conference finals.

    The Falcons have not had a winning record since they finished right on the .500 fence in 1998-99. Since 2000, Springfield has only made the playoffs once in 11 tries, missing out in each of the last eight.

    All the more maddening is the fact that the Falcons have gone through four different NHL parent clubs in that span.

1. Lake Erie

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    It wouldn’t mean nearly as much to the city as whole compared to an Indians World Series, Browns Super Bowl, or Cavaliers NBA crown. But still, sports buffs in northern Ohio with a penchant for pucks would love a refreshing return to the winning tradition they once enjoyed with the AHL’s old Cleveland Barons.

    The original Barons won nine titles in a span of 27 years, a league record that stood until Hershey won back-to-back Calder Cups in 2009 and 2010. But Cleveland’s last championship was in 1964 and last finals appearance was just two years later.

    Since then, the city has gone through the WHA’s Crusaders, NHL’s Barons, IHL’s Lumberjacks, and a new AHL Barons, all leading up to the 2007 arrival of the incumbent Lake Erie Monsters. All five of those minor pro hockey teams have made like their major league baseball, basketball, and football neighbors, combining for diddlysquat on the championship front.

    Want proof that the locals would embrace another Calder Cup? The Monsters only lasted for four openings, but still led the league in 2011 playoff attendance with an average audience of 8,069 at Quicken Loans Arena.

    Their most recent home date, a first-round Game 7 loss to Manitoba on April 26, drew 10,277 fans. And five-figure crowds are unheard-of for a first-round contest at any AHL venue.