By Brian Compton
TRENTON, N.J. – Rick Kowalsky provided some magic at Sovereign Bank Arena one more time.
The captain of the only professional team in New Jersey’s capital city to win a championship in the last half-century was a surprise guest for Saturday’s emotional pre-game ceremonies honoring the 2004-05 Kelly Cup Champions, as No. 27 skated around the ice with the ECHL’s Holy Grail much to the delight of the raucous crowd at SBA–a place where Kowalsky made fans stand up and shout time and time again last season.
It was all made possible by Mike Haviland, the man who delivered Trenton a Kelly Cup in his first and only season as Titans head coach. Haviland only received permission to send Kowalsky from the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday, which was just enough time for the Norfolk Admirals’ assistant coach to pack his family in his minivan and head north.
“I was thinking on the way up (from Norfolk) that he was the reason that I was here a year ago, and he’s directly responsible for putting this thing together to get me here this time,” Kowalsky said. “I didn’t know it was going to be anything like this. I just wanted to come back here and be a part of it as far as getting my ring, but the whole on-ice ceremony and getting to carry the cup one last time … that was amazing.”
Kowalsky joked about putting the skates on again, how he felt fortunate that there weren’t any accidents during the tremendous tribute. Even if he had slipped, you can bet the 7,093 in attendance would have roared the moment he got back to his feet. It’s just the way the people feel in this area about one of the greatest sports leaders in the history of this city.
“I don’t do much skating in those skates anymore,” Kowalsky said. “I was a little nervous, but it was an unbelievable feeling with a big crowd here tonight. I’m just thankful for this organization, but also to Havie for putting this together for me.”
Perhaps there was just a bit of anger going through Kowalsky’s mind as he skated around the ice with the Kelly Cup. To think how electric it would have been in this building had the Titans finished the job after winning the first two games of the finals in Florida.
“Honestly, I was thinking about how crazy it would have been if we won it here,” Kowalsky said. “That’s what went through my head. But seeing those guys that were a part of this last year was pretty good.”
Chris Thompson’s debut as Kowalsky’s replacement as captain was pretty good, too. After watching his predecessor skate around SBA with the Kelly Cup, Thompson went out and recorded a hat trick in Trenton’s 5-3 win over Wheeling.
“I was happy to see him,” Thompson said. “I played against Killer quite a bit. It was a good surprise for the fans. I enjoyed it when they announced his name. I was just hoping to get a win tonight. It turned out a little bit better.”
Indeed it did. As good as it was for Kowalsky and the fans, it was also a special moment for players like Vince Williams and Scott Bertoli, who had the chance to briefly relive a season they’ll never forget. And they got to see their old buddy.
“I thought that when you get into coaching, you can get your haircut,” Williams joked. “And he used to make fun of my hair? But you could just tell by the ovation he got that everyone’s got respect for him. The place blew up. It was like Hulk Hogan came back to WWE. He’s a great friend and he deserves it. You couldn’t ask for a better tribute. It happens once in a lifetime.”
“It was great to see Rick back,” Bertoli said. “It was great for the fans. We didn’t get to win it on home ice. It’s something that we were looking forward to. It was awesome. He deserves that recognition.”
Bertoli deserves recognition, too. After all, “The Franchise” has been here since Day One. To be able to finally get the elusive championship, it’s a feeling No. 19–a number that will one day be raised to the rafters just like this championship banner–will never, ever forget.
“Seeing the highlights from last year, because that more than winning the cup and more than raising the banner and getting the rings, that’s what’s special–the process and knowing how hard you worked and knowing how the guys came together,” Bertoli said. “It’s special moments that you’re never going to forget. Hopefully, the fans enjoyed it.”
The fans saw their banner go up. They saw their captain come back. And then they saw their team erase three one-goal deficits to win a hockey game.
You bet they enjoyed it.