The 1990s were the glory years of the AHL in Albany. With the Albany Devils celebrating “90s Night,” appropriately against Utica, a lot of great memories come to mind. When the New Jersey Devils moved their top affiliate from Utica in 1993, the Albany River Rats of that decade would go on to win a Calder Cup, two regular season titles, four division titles and appear in the playoffs in seven straight seasons.
“I remember we were playing in Utica and they told us we were moving to Albany the next year,” recalls original River Rat Matt Ruchty.
Ruchty’s teammate Jim Dowd remembers the move fondly too. “I loved every minute of it. I’m proud to say I scored the first goal at the Knickerbocker Arena,” said Dowd of the first of nine scored that October 3 night against the Rochester Americans.
“That was the year I made the biggest jump,” said Dowd, who would end the year playing in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals and help the Devils win the Stanley Cup the following season.
While Albany’s inaugural season would end in a first round playoff exit at the hands of the Portland Pirates, the best was yet to come.
“The first year was an average team, which made the Calder Cup run more surprising,” said Ruchty. Yet Ruchty says the team found something special out of training camp, “The coaches had a great system, we had great chemistry, great forwards, defenders, a top scoring line.”
“Everyone did everything together. It was a magical ride,” noted longtime broadcaster John Hennessy. “I remember before the games in Freddy Beach [Fredericton], Robbie Ftorek took the team bowling. There was a lot of team bonding on those ten game stretches in the Maritimes.”
It was also a deep team with a great mix of AHL veterans and rookies who would go on to have long NHL careers.
“A lot of the guys I still talk to, whether they played 500 games in the NHL or never made it, say that was their most fun year in hockey,” said Ruchty, who led the team with 15 points in the playoffs. “We had a lot of depth and character guys on the team. Bryan Helmer was a young kid who had a phenomenal career. Steve Brule came in from Junior late in the season. Denis Pederson and Ricard Persson came in and they had great careers. Both goalies flipped and were successful between Corey Schwab and Mike Dunham.”
In addition to the team being stacked, by virtue of the 1994-95 NHL lockout the team was front and center, even making appearances on TV.
“We had games on SportsChannel with Doc Emrick and Stan Fischler. I remember Stan calling me for AHL scoops,” said Ruchty. “With the lockout going, one of the jokes we’d say was, hey boys keep it up, we’re the best team in the world.”
Indeed they were, going 46-17-17 (109 points) in the regular season, 12-2 in the postseason, culminating with a 4-0 sweep of the Fredericton Canadiens.
Scoring and streaks:
The 1995-96 regular season was historic on a number of fronts. The River Rats went 54-19-7 (115 points) and posted a franchise-best 322 goals. Hence, a lot of “chili goals.”
“I remember that team had a record [13-game] road winning streak,” said Hennessy.
At one point the team had a 21-game undefeated streak. Plus, the team won eleven straight at home, a streak equaled by the A-Devils this season.
Forward Rob Pattison made the best of his limited time that season,“My first year I had an assist in the first game but got sent back down to the ECHL Raleigh IceCaps. Then I played the last four games and had a hat-trick against the Providence Bruins, which was big having grown up a Boston Bruins fan in Sherborn, MA. I still have a plastic rat that someone threw on the ice from that game,” said Pattison. “That team was pretty stacked that year with guys like Scott Pellerin, Steve Sullivan, Cale Hulse and Mike Dunham. I got to play later in the series against Cornwall, thinking we were going to go on another run but the way the series turned out was a crushing loss.”
Although he and the Rats didn’t win the Calder Cup, the next season would see Pattison win a unique trophy.
“The chili goal trophy,” remarked Pattison.
“If Rats scored five goals you could get free chili at Wendy’s with your ticket stub,” recalled Pattison. “Wendy’s gave everyone that scored a “chili goal” an embroidered hat and the guy with the most chili goals after season got a trophy.”
So what became of the vaunted chili goal trophy?
Said Pattison, “The actual trophy was huge and held a place of distinction in the apartment of some high school buddies in Boston after I won it. Funny.”
Rivalries and rough stuff:
“Adirondack was the number one rivalry,” said Hennessy of the Northway foes. “During the winter of 1995 we had a sellout [13,941] and there was a lot of energy. There were fights during warm-ups and the three-star presentations.”
“The rivalries with Adirondack, Rochester and Bingo were great for bragging rights,” added Dowd.
Ruchty also agreed, “The town was exciting, lots of fan support. I remember the sellouts and the rivalry against Adirondack. We had a lot of great rivalries with the Portland Pirates and Binghamton Rangers.”
“Beating Adirondack in the playoffs on home ice was exciting, a sweet feeling to gut out,” said Pattison. “Rochester was a great rivalry too. I scored a game winner in overtime and right after there was a line brawl. Even the games there when we won the series, the rink was packed with lots of energy, it was a lot of fun.”
The toughness and togetherness of those teams allowed a lot of open ice for scorers, including a current A-Devils assistant coach.
“Reid Simpson and I were on a line with Sergei Brylin, who at the time was a young Russian kid who didn’t speak much English and we’d say, do whatever you want out there, you’re safe,” said Ruchty, whose 348 penalty minutes are a single season franchise record.
“I remember Cunny [John Cunniff] giving boxing lessons to Oli [Krzysztof Oliwa],” said Hennessy.
Fan favorite and River Rats all-time leader in penalty minutes (1,197) Rob Skrlac reminisced about those days as well, “The 90s were the last and final days of true team tough when you could still stand up for your teammates and the logo on your shirt without fear of reprisal from the league or those new age sports reporters spouting about how the violence within the greatest game has torn it apart!”
Those teams didn’t lack for guys who would stick up for each other, as Skrlac also opined, “A disciplined NJ Devils style was counterbalanced with a bit of a Wild West system of frontier justice. We certainly had the characters in the lineup with Dody [Wood], Sasha [Lakovic], Geordie [Kinnear], Whitey [Colin White] and myself. Nobody was ever concerned about getting pushed around to say the least.”
Character and characters:
“That’s the memory of our teams in the late nineties,” said Skrlac. “Coach John Cunniff and Red Gendron sum both categories up. John and Red had an intrinsic intensity about how we were expected to play.”
“John Cunniff did a great job and had some great runs. Cunny was a good man and a good friend,” said Hennessy. “A lot people thought he was a tough guy from South Boston, which he was but he was an intellectual guy too. I’d be reading the New York Post or USA Today on the bus and he’d be reading Kierkegaard.”
Those smarts and intensity carried over to the players as well.
“Geordie Kinnear was a great captain and an extension of the coaching staff. You didn’t want to not do your job and have to look Geordie in the eye,” said Pattison. “You could tell he had it in him to be a coach and he’s still doing well.”
The teams of the 90s were a tight knit group and had plenty of fun along the way as well.
“A great group of guys with John Madden, Brendan Morrison and even a very young 18-year-old Jiri Bicek!” said Skrlac. “Jiri was so excited about the Devils he had an NJ Devils tattoo done on his shoulder. His pride and passion was contagious.”
There was also lots of joking on the bus and at practice, as Pattison and Hennessy recall.
“My second year in Albany I was on a line with Petr Sykora and Patrik Elias and on the bus Patrik joked next year we were going to be the second line in New Jersey. I was 26 at that point in my career, so I really wasn’t sure about that,” said Pattison. “As it turned out the Devils traded for Jason Arnott and put him in my spot and won the Cup, so two out of the three wasn’t too bad.”
“I remember Oliwa had a hard shot but shot high a lot,” said Hennessy of a practice at RPI. “He was whizzing shots by Mike Dunham and one finally hit Dunny and he chased Oli around the rink. Nobody could break it up because everyone was laughing.”
A bond with the community:
In addition to the chemistry on the ice, those teams had great camaraderie off the ice and with the fans and community.
“We had a lot of great support,” said Pattison. “I was the Director of Community Relations for two years and did color commentary on the broadcasts with John Hennessey. It was great to visit a lot of the schools and work with the local youth hockey.”
“We all lived very closely to one another in the same apartment complex and spent many off days barbequing or other team related events in those days,” said Skrlac.
“I really enjoyed the town,” added Ruchty. “They had things going on at the Omni Hotel and we used to grab drinks at the Hill Street Café.”
“Fans and people in the organization were great,” said Dowd. “[Owner]Al Lawrence treated us right. So did coaching staff with Robbie Ftorek, to the trainers, right on down the line.”
It was a special team and a special time. That era fostered connections which will last a lifetime. For one night, the current incarnation of AHL Devils will celebrate what came before and hope to continue to forge their own moments and memories into late April and May and beyond.