PRINCETON, N.J. – The ECHL announced on Monday that the only game being played on Opening Day for the 20th Anniversary Season will be a rematch of Game 7 from the first-ever ECHL Finals when the Johnstown Chiefs host the Wheeling Nailers at Cambria County War Memorial on Oct. 18.
The remaining 23 teams will open their seasons the weekend of Oct. 19-21. The entire 2007-08 schedule for the Premier ‘AA’ Hockey League will be released on Tuesday by the ECHL and its member teams.
Despite having three players suspended for Game 7 by then Commissioner and now Commissioner Emeritus Patrick J. Kelly, Carolina won 7-4 in front of a standing-room-only crowd at Cambria County War Memorial.
Wheeling and Johnstown will wear throwback jerseys for the Opening Day game, which will begin at 7:30 p.m. ET and will be broadcast to an international audience on B2 Networks, the “Official Broadband Broadcast Provider of the ECHL”.
“This stand-alone game is a fitting way to being our 20th Anniversary Season and focus the eyes of the hockey world on the City of Johnstown,” said ECHL Commissioner Brian McKenna.
The ECHL began in 1988-89 with five teams in three states and has grown to be a coast-to-coast league that will have 25 teams in 17 states and British Columbia in 2007-08. The 25 teams includes the Mississippi (Biloxi) Sea Wolves, who return after missing two seasons in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the expansion Elmira (N.Y.) Jackals.
The Chiefs and Nailers are the only two teams that have played in all 19 seasons and each has taken the ice for a record 1,302 regular season games. Johnstown, however, is the only one of the five original teams that has played every one of its 19 seasons in the same town and arena. The Thunderbirds played their first four seasons in Winston-Salem, N.C. before relocating to Wheeling where they played four seasons as the Thunderbirds before changing their name to Nailers in 1996-97.
Johnstown had its largest attendance since 1997-98 and raising its average by 6.5 percent, the fourth-largest increase in the league. The Chiefs had a sellout crowd of 4,136 on New Year’s Eve and their second sellout of the season with 4,021 on Feb. 28.
The other original teams are all still active with the Victoria Salmon Kings, the Utah Grizzlies and Myrtle Beach, which is scheduled to begin play in 2008-09. Victoria was the Erie Panthers from 1988-96 and the Baton Rouge Kingfish from 1996-2003. Utah was the Virginia Lancers from 1988-90 and after several relocations became the Utah Grizzlies in 2005.
Carolina goaltender Nick Vitucci was named the Most Valuable Player of the Riley Cup Playoffs after leading the postseason with eight wins. Vitucci, who coached the last four seasons in Toledo, was 8-2 with a goals-against average of 3.55 and a save percentage of .887. He went on to win four more ECHL championships – three as a player (1990, 1994 and 1996) and one as an assistant coach (2002) and he has more titles than anyone else in league history. Vitucci holds the ECHL career goaltender records for games (479), minutes (27,291), wins (265), 20-win seasons (7) and consecutive 30-win seasons (2) and the postseason goaltender records for games (80), minutes (4,841) and wins (43). He was named First-Team All-ECHL in 1991-92 and 1997-98 and was named Goaltender of the Year in 1997-98 while being named MVP of the 1996 Riley Cup Playoffs.
Johnstown goaltender Scott Gordon was named First-Team All-ECHL and Goaltender of the Year after going 18-9-3 and leading the league with a goals-against average of 3.82. Gordon, who has been head coach of Providence in the American Hockey League for the last five seasons, became the first ECHL player to play in the National Hockey League when he made his debut with the Quebec Nordiques against the Buffalo Sabres on Jan. 30, 1990.
Carolina’s roster also had John Torchetti, who is now the assistant coach of the Chicago Blackhawks of the National Hockey League, and Scott Allen, who was head coach of the Chiefs from 1996-2002 and is now an assistant coach for Omaha of the American Hockey League, as well as Toby O’Brien, who spent 10 years in Johnstown as general manager and coach and is now a scout for the New York Islanders of the National Hockey League.
In the playoffs, Carolina was coached by Brendan Watson, who took over behind the bench on Feb. 19, 1989 and guided the Thunderbirds to an 8-5-0 record over the last 13 games. Johnstown was coached by Steve Carlson, who led the team to a second-place finish in the regular season with a 32-22-6 record. Carlson coached the Chiefs each of their first four seasons and was 123-105-20 with three playoff appearances. Carlson gained fame for his role as one of the Hanson Brothers in the movie Slap Shot. The Hanson Brothers were inspired by Steve and his brothers Jeff and Jack, who played together for the Johnstown Jets in the North American Hockey League, the precursor to the ECHL in Johnstown.
The league officially changed its name to ECHL on May 19, 2003.
The Premier ‘AA’ Hockey League, the ECHL has affiliations with 25 of the 30 teams in the National Hockey League in 2006-07, marking the 10th consecutive season that the league has had affiliations with at least 20 teams in the NHL.
There have been 329 former ECHL players who have gone on to play in the NHL after playing in the ECHL, including a record 47 in 2005-06 and 26 in 2006-07. There have been 184 former ECHL players who have played their first game in the NHL in the past five seasons and 107 former ECHL players have skated in the NHL this season. More than 100 players under contract to NHL teams have played in the ECHL this season.
The ECHL was represented for the sixth consecutive year on the National Hockey League championship team in 2006, including Carolina Hurricanes head coach Peter Laviolette, who is the first ECHL coach to win the Stanley Cup.
The ECHL has affiliations with 24 of the 27 teams in the American Hockey League in 2006-07 and for the past 17 years there has been an ECHL player on the Calder Cup champion.
In each of the last two seasons there have been more than 225 players who have played in both the ECHL and the AHL and there were over 800 call-ups involving more than 500 players.
In the last five seasons the ECHL has had more call-ups to the AHL than all other professional leagues combined with over 2,000 call-ups involving more than 1,000 players since 2002-03.
Further information on the ECHL is available from its website at ECHL.com.