Waxing Nostalgic With Tony U

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Listening to Dan Weiss call the Rampage games from Allstate Arena brought back some nostalgic moments for yours truly this weekend.

Known then as Rosemont Horizon when I took over the play-by-play and community relations duties for the new International Hockey League team, the San Antonio Dragons in 1996, we were frequent visitors to the rink by O’Hare.

Dragons co-owner, Don Levin, also owned the Chicago Wolves and the Dragons were an investment gone wrong for the movie producer, who owned the club along with Bruce Saurs, who moved the franchise to SA from Peoria. Saurs just passed away last summer. It was never confirmed, but I heard the duo lost four million on their South Texas adventure from 96-98.

But the building has some special moments for me.

I loved the “Goonies” type ramp that goes from the first level and winds around inside the walls to the top level where I’d wheel my radio gear up into the pressbox area at center ice. It was there where I called Grigori Panteleyev’s series winning overtime goal in the five-game playoff series with the Wolves that first season against Wendell Young – who was a master at taking the goal off its moorings without the ref knowing about it when the action got serious around the crease.

The Wolves sharpshooter in those days was Rob Brown, who either led the IHL in scoring or was right in the thick of the race. A talented and quick skater, I got in some hot water when I suggested Brown got some home cooking on the scoring sheet by picking up non-earned assists. When the Wolves scored on a penalty shot, I remarked on the air that I was surprised Brown didn’t get an assist on the goal.

As far as I knew, the Wolves pre-game introductions were the first to use pyrotechnics. The arena crew would wheel this monstrosity onto the ice and after the Wolves were announced, the thing would practically explode with fireworks that would cause the arena to fill with smoke. It was always great to be there for Wayne Messmer’s amazing vocal of the National Anthem. To this day, broadcasters, who usually cover the anthem with a commercial break, hold off and carry Messmer’s baritone blast of the Star Spangled Banner.

Odd, both San Antonio AAA-level playoff wins were against the Wolves, both were in overtime, both clinching goals scored on Rosemont ice and both by players from Russia. The Rampage winner was scored three years ago by Roman Deryluk, his only goal of the post-season and only his third of the year.

A couple of fun stories — former Iguanas star Brian Shantz was up with the club the first week of December. John Torchetti, the great Iggy coach, was the Dragons assistant, but was hired by the Fort Wayne Komets that week. Shantz and I were sitting watching the Wolves-Long Beach Ice Dogs game the night before our contest when the Fort Wayne score was announced…4-0 after one, they were losing. Both Shantzy and I had the same comment, “betcha they come back and win it.” Sure enough, the Komets rallied for a 6-5 win.

The other story comes from that same weekend. Because of a weird schedule, we played in Milwaukee on Wednesday and were off until Sunday when we played the Wolves. On Friday, the team decided to have the “rookie dinner,” and the players said since this was my first year in the IHL as well, I was a rookie too. I had no idea what this meant. Shantzy explained to me, “You go to the bank machine, get your life’s savings out and get ready to split the cost of dinner for the rest of the team.” My face must have told quite the story. I had zero money and almost declined the invite, but went anyway, hoping not to land in jail when the check bounced.

We went to this really nice place where Shantz and myself drank water and ate crackers to avoid raising the bill. At the end of the frivolity, which seemed to imitate a medieval food orgy of steaks and wine, the bill came due…over $3,000! Shantz and I almost died. Coach Jeff Brubaker put on this serious, no-joke look on his face and then burst into tears laughing, saying don’t worry about. Big joke on us. From what I hear, Mr. Levin wasn’t pleased when he received the bill. An inebriated Brian Glynn told me on the bus back to the hotel not to sweat it — “nobody with eight kids is paying for a meal while I’m here.” He was on a $500,000 contract with the Detroit Red Wings. Classy guy right there.

College Prepares You for Life
If you look at Connor Brickley’s college career at the University of Vermont, you might be tempted to yawn or simply move on to the next prospect’s bio. In four years with the Catamounts (a large cat – cougar – I looked it up), Brickley scored 21 goals in 117 games. This season, the 2nd round Panthers pick in 2010 leads the AHL in rookie goal-scoring with 18 in just 50 games.

Rampage coach Tom Rowe says Brickley, who is related to former NHL defenseman and current Boston Bruins color commentator Andy Brickley, and who played his college hockey next door in Vermont, has a game better suited to the pro game than the college ranks. So far, I’ll take Tom at his word.

You have to like Brickley’s tenacity around the net and in the corners. Many of his goals have come on the jam from the top of the crease. Not much to garner assists at the beginning of the season…at one time, he had a line that looked like this 6-0-6…Brickley made a pretty play against the Wolves at the AT&T Center, setting up Mark Mancari for the game’s first goal with a backhanded set-up to Mancari, who buried the puck.

Former Rampage Coach In S-I
No, not the swimsuit edition, but the Rampage coach with the shortest time-span from the beginning of the season, Peter Horachek, was quoted in the sports standard of America. I was flipping through the latest edition and, to my surprise, there was the guy who began last season here, and was promoted to the head coaching job with the Panthers in November 2013.

Horachek landed in Toronto as an assistant coach, and was elevated to the head coaching job when Randy Carlyle was canned in November after a 3-7 spell. Since the changeover, the Leafs have won four of 21 games. Horachek doubted the team’s effort in a 5-4 loss, citing the “give a sh** meter has to be higher.”

That kind of honesty is what got Peter the SI ink. Just when it looked like the Leafs turned a corner early in the season, they panicked after a 2-5 road trip, gave the boot to Carlyle, an excellent coach, and the team has not responded to Peter’s style, which is reminiscent of another former Rampage coach, Pat Conacher.

Conacher, like the affable Peter, felt players should be self-motivated and be happy to play the game, especially for the money they make. Being light on the motivational end of the coaching handbook, both former NHL players who carried their lunchpails to work every game, didn’t have much luck as a head coach, although both men were excellent assistants.

Bold Prediction Time
Unless the Panthers dismantle the team at the trade deadline next week, I’m thinking this club has the moxie to get into the playoffs for the first time in three years and fourth time overall. They have the excellent veteran leadership they sorely missed last season when Greg Zanon was hurt.

Have you seen Greg close up? If that beard isn’t intimidating enough, perhaps that zero body fat frame he carries around would get your attention. BEFORE the game, Zanon is doing wind sprints around the AT&T basement and then plays 25 minutes a game, practically forcing Rowe to physically restrain him on the bench for a minute or two.

Bobby Butler is having a career season. His 23 goals is an AHL best for him and he’s in the top 5 of scoring. When he’s on his game and shot, you won’t see prettier goals anywhere. Butler owns the top shelf and even scored from BEHIND the goal line this season – a corner shot the goaltender is still is trying to figure out.

Brickley, Rocco Grimaldi and the recently recalled Vincent Trocheck give the team youth. If the Panthers falter, Trocheck might be back. Garrett Wilson adds toughness and grit around the net. Having John McFarland back now will pay dividends in April. His speed alone is a blast to watch and he should have his full legs by then. Corban Knight has been a downgrade from Drew Shore thus far, but this trip seems to be helping him find his game.

Any contributions from him, Ryan Martindale, Logan Shaw, Brett Olson, and Quinton Howden should give opponents a headache just from the thought of playing these guys. And then there’s Mancari, who looks like he’s skating around the ice with a rhino on his shoulders, but somehow gets to his spots and he’s finding his range again.

This nice 2-0-1 run this week, allowing only four regulation goals, should remind us this is the highest scoring hockey team in the league and now that the power play has recovered from the doldrums, this weekend series in OKC may go a long way in determining where this team is going.

A snooker in the Cox Center won’t be devastating, since there’s a lot of games left. But imagine what a split or a sweep would do for the confidence of the club?

This season, San Antonio is an amazing 6-0-2-0 against the Barons – one of the AHL’s elite teams and 12 games over .500 this late in the season.

Believe it or not, but right now, Rowe and assistant coach Scott Allen have these guys playing excellent hockey.

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