WORCESTER – There is no such thing as King George I, nor Queen Elizabeth I, and in baseball you can’t reach second base without reaching first.
This is probably why hockey fans in town remember the IceCats so fondly. They were our first real pro team. Without them the Sharks might never have stopped here and the Railers might never have settled down.
The IceCats returned briefly on Saturday night when the Railers, dressed in vintage ‘Cats’ uniforms, lost to the Florida Everblades, 4-2.
The game was played at the DCU Center, aka the Centrum, on October 1, 1994, when the IceCats played their first home game, a 5-5 tie with the Springfield Falcons.
“I had never been to a hockey game before this,” said longtime propellant Dave Jaffarian of Worcester, “and I’ve been here ever since. I had never even heard of the AHL before the IceCats arrived and I was hooked on it on that opening night.
Jaffarian is on his third Booster Club – IceCats, Sharks, Railers – and all three teams have generated intense loyalty among their fans. In each incarnation, Worcester’s Professional Team Booster Clubs have been among the most active in their league – AHL, now ECHL – with both hockey and community outreach activities.
It all started with the IceCats, which were represented on Saturday night by Terry Virtue and Shawn Heaphy.
Vertu is the town’s Mr. Hockey, but he wasn’t in the building on that first opening night. Vertu was acquired as part of a trade with Atlanta from the former International Hockey League a few weeks after the start of the season. Heaphy was not only here, but he scored the IceCats’ first two goals of the night.
Among those in attendance on October 1, 1994 was Railers Chief Operating Officer Mike Myers. He was there as a fan, two days away from traveling to South Carolina for training camp with that state’s ECHL team, hoping for a career as a professional hockey player, never considering a career. as a hockey frame.
Myers designed Dwayne Roloson’s goalie mask but never actually worked for the IceCats. Myers started with the Sharks and was then hired by Cliff Rucker when he moved to town with the Railers.
Myers has seen the evolution of city hockey for its entire quarter century and understands where the IceCats fit into.
“The thing with the IceCats,” he said, “is that they were the first team and they laid the groundwork. There is a little more nostalgia with them. Lots of parents at our games right now – they were kids when the IceCats were here and now they bring their kids to the games, so Worcester has really come full circle with sports.
“It has become generational.
IceCats was a fun team
The IceCats were, indeed, a lot of fun. The world of minor league hockey was not yet computerized and there was no caller ID, so people pick up the phone when it rings. There was no video replay which was a good thing on opening night as Walt Poddubny’s tying goal at 19:47 of the third period (Heaphy assisted) came from behind the net when knocked down in a scrum.
A simpler time, indeed, as Jaffarian recalled about the introductory ceremonies.
“I remember Bob Lobel was the emcee,” he said, “and I think someone skated in front of the microphone.”
Not quite, but close enough. The first IceCat presented by Lobel, the late Lance Brady wearing number 2, slipped on the power cord and cut it right in the middle of the sentence.
Worcester’s coach was Jimmy Roberts, who was old-fashioned even by 1994 standards. Roberts’ idea for pre-match preparation was to visit the opposing coach in his office – Roberts knew everyone. hockey – and look at the lines on the board.
His scout idea was to have announcer John Wiedeman – who will be a strong contender for the Hockey Hall of Fame broadcaster wing when he retires and who made a video presentation on Saturday night – file a set of team statistics across minors. Roberts was going through the numbers and figuring out which guys he might want to watch. Most of them weren’t very good, but sometimes he found a Harry York.
When things went bad, Roberts would assign each player a breed of dog, and woe betide the skater who appeared on the roster as a poodle or chihuahua.
Arrest of personalities
Things happened with the IceCats, like the time Virtue arrested a citizen outside the team store which was then in a separate building on Main Street. Coming up from the Centrum, Virtue saw a customer stuffing merchandise under his coat. When the thief left the store, Virtue grabbed him and solved the crime.
In fact, it wasn’t really a citizen arrest because Virtue was Canadian and not American.
Then there was the night of January 21, 2000, when the IceCats played in Albany, New York. When defenseman Bryce Salvador stepped onto the ice to warm up, his skate blade broke and he sprained his knee. Then, after the game started, Jamie Thompson was checked in the face by Andre Lakos of Albany, a 6-foot-7 defenseman.
Thompson’s nose changed from pointing outward to pointing inward and he was done for the night. Worcester’s next stop was Wilkes-Barre, so coach Greg Gilbert asked this reporter to bring the two injured players back to the Worcester ER.
The hockey writer became EMT – that would never happen today.
The IceCats were really fun.
A Worcester hockey icon
Virtue holds almost all of Worcester’s professional hockey records. Undrafted as a junior player, he persevered and eventually made his way into the National Hockey League with appearances for the Bruins and Rangers. It might not have happened without his stay in town.
“I don’t think it would have been,” he said. “Jimmy Roberts helped me. He kind of took me under his wing, gave me an opportunity that I might not have had elsewhere.
While Virtue has performed in many cities, this one has always stood out.
“I live here,” he says. “It’s always been special. It was the city I loved, and that’s why I came back to the area. I made so many friends; I had friends who came to visit me from Worcester in the summer, I always stayed a bit after the season. I have never been eager to get out of town.
The IceCats weren’t eager to leave town but eventually did, leaving for Peoria, Illinois after the 2004-05 season.
What would have happened if they had stayed?
This is just “Back to the Future” speculation. Myers never worked for the IceCats and entered the front office end of the sport due to his relationship with Sharks goaltending coach Cap Raeder. Without this transition, Myers probably wouldn’t be the Railers COO today.
NHL stars performed here
If the IceCats had stayed, fans wouldn’t have seen Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Thomas Greiss and Alex Stalock. There wouldn’t have been nine years of eclectic training from Roy Sommer, not nine years of his family’s involvement in the Central Massachusetts community, no Castan Sommer, and probably no Shrewsbury State Hockey Championship. .
The IceCats have sent dozens of players to St. Louis. Their three full-time coaches – Roberts, Gilbert and Don Granato – ended up coaching in the NHL. General manager John Ferguson has been hired as general manager of the Maple Leafs.
It was a beautiful hike, which hockey fans in the area still fondly remember. They have embraced the successors of the IceCats, but there will never be another first time.
Worcester Booster Club officer Chris O’Shea was at opening night in ’94 and remembers it well.
“It was so nice to finally see hockey here in Worcester,” she said, “and not have to drive all the way to Boston. I enjoyed the experience so much and they were all great guys. All three teams were my favorites. First the IceCats, then the Sharks and now the Railers.
However, how did O’Shea react when she first heard that the IceCats were leaving town?
“I cried,” she said.
The Worcester IceCats – Gone and Never Forgotten.
Contact Bill Ballou at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @BillBallouTG