Being a minor league sports fan must be like living in "Dark City": The very fabric of your team is altered on a daily basis, with pieces moved up and down from the pro level; then, in the offseason, the entire roster changes like The Strangers resetting the cityscape.
I always imagined cheering for a minor league championship team to be a bittersweet experience. First, because the team's objectives for success, as well as your passions and loyalty, are always going to be secondary to the goals of the parent club. Second, because minor league sports aren't built for dynasties; they exist to graduate players to the bigs, or allow marginal talents a chance to shine before their next opportunity. The team holding the trophy at the end of one season isn't going to be the opening night roster in the next.
All of this is the agreed upon plight for the minor league fan.
Yet what happened in Norfolk this week is just … wow.
If you haven't heard, the Norfolk Admirals, the Tampa Bay Lightning's affiliate, were one of the most dominant teams in the history of the American Hockey League: The Calder Cup champions, the Admirals went 43-3 in their last 46 games, a streak that included a pro hockey record 28 straight victories to end the regular season. In the Eastern Conference Final and the Calder Cup Final, the Admirals never trailed in sweeping both series.
On Wednesday, they held a parade in downtown Norfolk, Va., for their loyal fans. "None of us will ever forget this day or this year. You've opened up your community to us," said Coach Jon Cooper.
On Thursday, that community found out that Cooper, his coaches, most of hockey operations and the entire roster that dominated the AHL this season would no longer be Admirals in Fall 2012. And the fans, by and large, are actually OK with it.
In a move that had been rumored but buried by the team during its streak, the Lightning on Thursday shifted its minor league affiliation from Norfolk to Syracuse, NY, as the Syracuse Crunch switched from the Anaheim Ducks to the Bolts as a parent club.
"We are delighted to be partnering with a first class organization run by an outstanding management team in Steve Yzerman and Julien BriseBois," said Crunch Owner Howard Dolgon.
Lightning assistant general manager Julien BriseBois, who also served as Admirals general manager, sought to quell speculation about the move while the team went through the playoffs and, afterward, to allow the club to enjoy the celebration. Still, while it was playing through May and June, he was working with Syracuse owner Howard Dolgon to solidify the agreement.
The move is being made for geographical reasons, BriseBois said. "We have no problem with the city, with the arena, with ownership of the Admirals," he said. "I think (the travel) makes a huge difference in the wear and tear on the players. A good night's sleep on a regular basis is important."
Geographically, it makes sense. While Norfolk is closer to Tampa Bay than Syracuse is, it's also farther away from the AHL's cities in the Northeast.
So in typical AHL fashion, the Crunch's former parent team — the Anaheim Ducks — are expected to be the Norfolk Admirals feeder. So long Jon Cooper; hello Trent Yawney, who coached the Admirals from 2000-05.
Yawney coached the Admirals when they were an affiliate of the Chicago Blackhawks, who ended that relationship in 2008 when they moved their AHL affiliation to the Rockford Ice Hogs — again, for geographic reasons. "They have treated the Blackhawks organization with class and dignity and it was a pleasure having our team in Norfolk," said then-Blackhawks GM Dale Tallon of the Admirals and their fans.
So perhaps this is why Admirals fans are dealing with this loss so well — all of it has happened before, and will happen again. Some Admirals fans, like Ken Peacock on Vulture's Row, are just happy there's still hockey in Norfolk:
So what about hockey in Norfolk? There is nothing to worry about right now. Admiral's owner Ken Young assures us that we will have hockey in Norfolk in October. "One thing the fans have said that they are worried about is that they won't have AHL hockey here," Young said. "That won't happen. There will be an AHL team here." This quote was backed up with a press release from the Admirals that stated the Admirals were aware of reports that the Tampa Bay Lightning have signed an affiliation agreement with the Syracuse Crunch. They also reassured us that there will still be AHL hockey at Scope next season.
As Peacock said: This was the "worst kept secret" about the Admirals.
But that doesn't change the fact that this isn't just some random team packing the U-Haul and moving north — this is one of the greatest teams in the history of the AHL. The fumes from their 10 pickup truck parade in Norfolk hadn't dissipated by the time the Syracuse announcement was made. It won't be playoff hero Dustin Tokarski standing in the goal crease as the Calder Cup banner is raised next season; it'll be Crunch goalie Jeff Deslauriers, who played as much a part in winning that Cup as I did.
Wouldn't you be the slightest bit bitter? Not Admirals fans, for the most part. A few snippets from the Pilot comments section:
That comment from our friend "OmniVisual" has to be one of the most well-adjusted, optimistic comments from a fan we've ever read. It's borderline romanticism — there will never be another 2011-12 Norfolk Admirals, so let them slip this mortal coil to the Valhalla of Syracuse and hit the reset button back in Virginia.
Or it's completely delusional. Such is life for the minor league hockey fan.
Hey, no matter where the roster is, they'll always have this: