By Don Hammack
The Sun Herald
BILOXI, Miss. – Sitting in the Mississippi Coast Coliseum a few weeks back for the Prince concert, my mind wandered a bit from his Royal Purple Badness.
I’m not much of an arena concert-goer, so it dawned on me that it had been a few years since I remembered that venue being that noisy.
Turns out, less than a month later, it’s the fifth anniversary of the occasion. That’s right, it’s been five years ago today since the Mississippi Sea Wolves won the Kelly Cup in a sold-out Coliseum.
(Technically, I know, the game didn’t end until early morning on May 31, but we’ll deal with the day the puck dropped because, although my bosses cringe when they see how long my stories of late have become, I don’t think I’ll write for two days despite the abundance of material.)
“It’s been that long, eh?” Bruce Boudreau said last week.
He’s the guy who put together the franchise on the ice for its first three years, culminating with the East Coast Hockey League (now just ECHL, thank you) championship. He’s now the coach of the Manchester Monarchs, his second stop during his five years in the American Hockey League.
Boudreau’s Monarchs were bounced from the AHL playoffs in the division semifinals this year and his clubs haven’t made it past the second round, testament to how difficult it is to be the last one standing at the end of a playoff season.
“Championships are hard to win, I’m telling you,” he said.
He talked about leadership and good goaltending, luck and talent, injuries and commitment.
The 1998-99 Sea Wolves had all of those things. As we talked last week, things started popping into my head.
I remembered Mikhail Kravets throwing himself down in front of a shot from the point in a game’s dying moments, trying to preserve a shutout – in an exhibition game the Sea Wolves were leading 7-0.
I remembered Travis Scott’s shutout streak of 199 minutes, 59 seconds, a league playoff record that still stands. The streak began early in Game 2 of the Southern Conference finals against Pee Dee, a game which the Sea Wolves would lose in the third overtime after Scott threw up in the crease during the second overtime because of dehydration.
Geez, I remembered overtimes. The Sun Herald’s deadlines were pushed to the limits repeatedly by the Sea Wolves, who won five of their 14 games in overtime, a record that has been tied but not broken.
I remembered Kevin Hilton ending what was then the longest game in league history in the first round against South Carolina, a game where the concession stands in the Coliseum passed out free popcorn and coffee at the beginning of the deciding third overtime to help folks make it through the five hour-plus marathon.
I remembered injuries and how the team not only survived an early-season rash of them that saw the Sea Wolves start the last two games in a four-games-in-four-nights span in November with only 13 skaters, but persevere and close out the four-in-four sweep. They were also able to make it through the playoffs relatively unscathed when it came to significant injuries.
I remembered the remarkable balance of that team, something Boudreau expanded on. He could balance their scoring-but-poor-defensive forward line with strong defensemen, offset a poor offensive line with offensive defensemen and hide lesser defensemen with strong two-way forwards. He remembered Cody Bowtell was their 10th forward most of the playoffs – a pretty good weapon to have tucked so far down the bench.
Most of all, I remembered the remarkable comebacks in the finals. For a team that had cruised through the first three rounds of the playoffs, losing only once, the Sea Wolves responded to adversity like the eventual champions they became against Richmond.
They were down three games to one before rallying to tie the series. They were down 3-1 going into the final period of the seventh game before tying that game.
I’ll never, ever forget Kelly Hurd’s goal early in the third period to get the Sea Wolves within one. Going full speed, he undressed two guys at the Richmond blue line, got behind them and scored.
Bob Woods, the team’s current coach and new general manager, scored with 2:23 left in regulation to force overtime. Scott survived a 2-on-none breakaway in the first overtime to force the second, when either Kevin Hilton’s stick or Chris Schmidt’s derriere (more likely a combination of the two) set off one of the loudest celebrations ever in the Mississippi Coast Coliseum.
“It just seems like yesterday,” Woods said last week. “Things like that always seem to stick in your mind. I always get chills thinking about it, thinking about the excitement in the building.”
I remember wandering on the ice that night, way past our deadlines as the celebration raged. I remember the look of pure glee in the players’ eyes, the Kelly Cup being passed hand to hand as it made lap after lap around the ice and the jubilation in the locker room and one bar in particular that raged well up until sunrise.
I still get chills thinking about it, too.