Albany ‘River Rats’ Coming Back?

Nostalgia sells. How long people buy it is another story. Since returning to Albany for the 2010-11 American Hockey League season, this has been a delicate balance for the Albany Devils.

Gone were the Carolina Hurricanes affiliated Albany River Rats, with whom the New Jersey Devils were affiliated with from 1993 t0 2006. The return was a tricky balance, trying to establish a new brand without alienating a longtime fan base. While fans were appreciative of New Jersey refilling the void left by the departing Carolina franchise, one couldn’t blame the Devils for wanting to establish a new identity after the way they left in 2006, following seven straight losing seasons and six straight without a postseason appearance.

The A-Devils came in with a new look, logo, and mascot, but on opening night they rolled out fan favorite Rob Skrlac for a ceremonial puck drop and opened with a video montage celebrating the 1994-95 Calder Cup championship, along with testimonials from former players Patrik Elias, Brian Rolston, Colin White, David Clarkson, Zach Parise and Skrlac. Yet the on-ice product wasn’t too different from when the team had left, as much as they tried to distance themselves in the record books from 2006 and beyond.

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Now with distance from those Carolina teams and the latter New Jersey affiliated teams, there’s a new era of good feelings and an embrace of Albany’s hockey history. In their seventh season in the Capital Region, the A-Devils have established themselves and three consecutive winning seasons with two playoff appearances has helped that cause.

This season the A-Devils are rolling out throwback River Rats uniforms on two occasions for the home faithful, paying homage to the past. With new management in Albany, could a permanent revert to the past be in the works and would it be worth it?

A Unique Hometown Linkage

Including the Devils, six of the 30 AHL teams are named after their parent club. For better or worse in some instances, especially now in minor-league baseball, teams are going with creative, off the wall nicknames.

Not that a rat is necessarily unique to Albany but when the name and logo came into existence in 1993 it was new and fresh and drawing praise from outlets like The Hockey News. It was an era when NHL expansion teams in San Jose, Anaheim, and Florida were rolling out a new vibrant look from the old guard.

Plus, when people think of Albany, the River Rats moniker tends to come to mind much in the way the Bears do in Hershey, the Amerks in Rochester, the Crunch in Syracuse or the Comets in Utica. It’s not that anything’s wrong with the Devils name or logo but it’s still associated more with the parent club in New Jersey, despite also being used in Albany, Lowell, and Utica.

Retro Doesn’t Always Work

Albany has tried this in other sports with other teams. Albany used to have a popular Arena Football team named the Albany Firebirds. As the league expanded to bigger markets (and eventually got too big for its britches) the Firebirds moved to Indianapolis and became the Indiana Firebirds.

Albany eventually secured an Arena Football League 2 team and it was named the Albany Conquest. The football was a level below and despite some initial successes, the team started to struggle on the field and couldn’t rekindle the magic at the box office. In their final season, the AFL 2 franchise tried a rebrand and reboot with a varying degree of excitement but it just wasn’t the same feel as the team of a decade prior and the team, along with the league, eventually folded.

Albany also once boasted a prolific and beloved Continental Basketball Association team with the old Albany Patroons. The Patroons won two CBA crowns in the 1980’s, before bolting for Hartford in 1993. With the league reconstructed, a new incarnation of the team with the same name returned in 2005. While the team enjoyed some success on the court, the league and the team folded following the reverberations of the global economic crisis in 2009.

Forging a Path Forward

Whether or not the Devils remain the Devils or revert to the Rats, there’s an opportunity. It’s an opportunity which I believe the Tri-City ValleyCats baseball team has taken advantage of and something the Devils could still corner from a growth and marketing perspective.

As I mentioned above, nostalgia sells. Including the uniform promotion, there’s plenty of popular and successful players from the past that the current club could make use of proportionally. Embracing some of those players and teams in various promotions or some sort of Hall of Fame wing, could forge a solid connection and create a sense of pride in Capital Region AHL hockey.

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After a successful Devils’ 4-2 victory over the Rochester Americans, in front of 4,315 fans, could a trip back in time work again? Ultimately, having a solid team on the ice goes a long way toward establishing an entertaining product. If the Devils strike the right balance between the past and present, it could set them and Albany up for a terrific AHL future.