TRENTON, N.J. – For the past three months, everyone had been thinking about these three days.
Ever since it was officially announced that the Trenton Titans were returning to the ECHL towards the end of July, fans in the capital city had been counting down the days until their beloved team returned to the Sun National Bank Center on Oct. 22.
Before the New Jersey Devils organization took over the Trenton membership in 2007-08, the Titans and New York Yankees-affiliated Trenton Thunder baseball team made for the most popular minor league sports duo in the state. But while the Thunder were able to largely maintain fan interest, and subsequently strong attendance numbers at the field, things slowly went downhill on the ice.
Poor performance both on and off the ice forced the Devils to cease operations in Trenton, which seemed to at least temporarily mark the end for hockey in the city. But just when it seemed that there was no hope, it was then that everything seemed to fall into place.
With Eileen and John Martinson stepping into an ownership role and Rich Lisk returning as President and General Manager, the trio were able to not only secure a new ECHL membership for the 2011-12 season, but a vital affiliation with the nearby Philadelphia Flyers as well.
Excitement about the game was as high as it had been in Trenton since the Titans won the Kelly Cup in 2005, but there was also a lot of work to be done. So, it wasn’t much of a surprise that there was a lot of that work still going on in the Trenton Titans front office on the eve of Opening Night.
He didn’t know it at the time, but Scott Bertoli was with the Titans at the beginning of the end. Now, he was sitting in his office at Princeton Day School as Associate Athletic Director and Varsity Boys Hockey coach thinking about getting to be a part of a new beginning.
Bertoli, the only player in the history of professional hockey in Trenton to have his jersey number retired, is back with the franchise as Senior Advisor of Hockey Operations after a stellar eight season career with the Titans that ended following the 2006-07 season.
"I think it’s tremendous that we didn’t lose hockey in Trenton," said Bertoli, whose #19 was re-raised to the rafters in a pre-game ceremony the next day.
"Me playing the better part of eight years and being so engrained in Trenton and Mercer County, and the surrounding area, and hockey being such a big part of who I am and still living in the area, I have close ties to a lot of the former players and coaches and Rich Lisk. I think that more than anything is what makes me feel comfortable and excited about the prospects of having the Titans back. I think the right people are working to make this happen."
Lisk, who is regarded as one of the best sports executives in the area – he won numerous awards during his first stint with the Titans and time with the Arena Football League’s Philadelphia Soul – is, no matter who you ask, the right man for the difficult task of turning hockey around in Trenton. It isn’t a task he takes lightly.
"This is probably my biggest accomplishment," said Lisk, who was scrambling to take care of any last-minute changes that needed to be made to the opening weekend.
"I’ve been involved with us here before with what happened, and I left and went to the Soul, and we won a championship there and that was great. I have a ring from here, and I won a championship from the Soul. I won a championship (with the Soul) in New Orleans, and that’s a great place to win a championship, and we were on national TV and it was great. But this was always, always my dream. People would ask what the next step was for me, what did I want to do? I used to say I wanted to own the Titans. I want to bring the Titans back and I want to own the Titans. I never in my wildest dreams thought it would be a reality. Tomorrow night, it’s going to be a reality. When I stand there tomorrow night knowing what this staff did, it’s not all me…there’s a lot of people behind the scenes, what they’ve done in ten weeks, that’s a great accomplishment."
As emotionally invested in his franchise as you’ll see any executive – Lisk is hardly the cliche "empty suit" – he simply couldn’t wait for all the hard work both he and his staff put in over the past three months to finally pay off on Saturday.
"I think when I stand on the ice tomorrow when we drop the puck with the alumni that are coming back and standing next to Scott and walking the red carpet back to the locker room and walk past Vince Williams standing behind the bench as the head coach and they turn the lights on and we hear the Titans chant again, that’s going to get me," he said.
"When we score our first goal, and they play our goal song and the fans keep doing the goal song after we get done playing it, that’s going to get me. I won’t be able to sleep tonight, this will be like Christmas to me."
Under Lisk, the Titans were largely successful both on and off the ice. Since he’s taken over the team once again, many long-time fans have approached him to tell him they wanted things to return to exactly the way they were.
"I want that too," said Lisk, "but I also don’t want to rest on what it was.
"I want to move it forward to the new era. We’re going to take a little bit of the old and a little bit of the new and mix it together and hopefully it’ll work."
Everyone involved, however, is realistic about what they’re facing. Lisk spoke at great length about having to rebuild the brand, and Bertoli is hopeful they can do just that.
"You’ve got a lot of people who lost interest in hockey in Trenton, whether it was the Devils or the Titans…I think with Rich being here those first seven or eight years and me being a part of that, I think our two philosophies are very much aligned in that we want to be competitive and provide opportunities for young players to play at the next level, but we want to be an extension of the community.
"We want our players out in the community doing different things, so the marketability of the team is a big priority and reconnecting with Mercer County is a huge piece to making this a success. For any sports franchise to survive, they need to sell tickets and sell to corporate sponsors. You’re only going to do that if you’re out in the community and you’re successful and you’re building those relationships."
Success on the ice is where Vince Williams comes in. Williams, who was named head coach of the Titans after six seasons as a player in Trenton and an additional four as assistant coach, has been put in charge of the newest incarnation of hockey in the capital city.
"It was an easy transition from a coaching standpoint, because I went from playing here to being an assistant coach and everything just evolving from there," Williams said.
"It’s exciting for the people and the community and the city of Trenton, but it’s been a lot of work, and there are a lot of people that deserve a lot of credit for where we’re at today, the league included for being patient with it and letting the system work out."
Williams takes over a team that, in large part, looks completely different than the last one that skated at Sun National Bank Center, with the exception of a few holdovers like goaltender Dave Caruso and veteran blueliner Andy Thomas. It’s also a team that got off to an 0-2 start, and Flyers prospects like Rob Bordson, Tyler Hostetter and Brad Phillips were going to need to mesh with veteran captain Randy Rowe and the rest of the squad to help turn that around. But, while there still 70 games left on the schedule, a home opener had never seemed so important to so many.
As for Williams, he was hoping that the magnitude of the events of the next two days wouldn’t add any extra butterflies for his relatively inexperienced group.
"I think it hasn’t really sunk in for some of these guys yet, and I think that’s really going to be the eye opener, the opening weekend," Williams said.
"The only guy that really would know would be Randy Rowe, because he’s played in this building. We’ve only been home for the first week here, but for me and the people that have been around like the fans and people who’ve been a part of this, it certainly is a big night. I think it will be magnified ten-fold for the guys that aren’t really aware because these guys weren’t here. It’s one thing for us to talk about it, but it’s going to be a different feeling when they see it for themselves."
The goals for Saturday seemed simple: A big crowd, good hockey and hopefully a win. After all, fans will support a winner.
"Hopefully we win tomorrow night," said Lisk. "A win, that would be icing on the cake."
It was almost as if the Titans had never left. Over 5,000 fans packed the Sun National Bank Center, many of them waiting to be pinched to wake up from what seemed like a dream. But the Titans return was a reality, and so was their exciting, come-from-behind 8-5 victory over a familiar foe, the Florida Everblades, on Saturday night.
Fans clad in old Titans jerseys taken out of the depths of their closets waited outside for the gates to open, and many walked their way back to their old seats, seats they hadn’t sat in since 2007. And those fans – 5,211 of them to be exact – got their money’s worth.
In pre-game ceremonies conducted by the team’s former voice, Joe Zydlo, a steady stream of former Titans players were brought out to enjoy one more round of cheers from their familiar home crowd; Bujar Amidovski, Nick Deschenes, Rosario Ruggeri and others included.
Bertoli’s banner was re-raised to the rafters, and after some last minute advertising additions were made to the dasher boards, the fans settled in for an impressive display of wide-open, offense-first hockey. Down 5-3 late in the second period, the Titans rallied to score five unanswered goals, including four on the man-advantage, and Andy Bohmbach capped off the night with a hat trick goal fired into an empty net to send the crowd home happy.
"These guys knew what was on the line," said Titans coach Vince Williams. "(The fans) certainly got an exciting brand of hockey tonight. They got a lot of action. To get the first one under your belt is nice."
The atmosphere was unlike anything many players had seen before at their home rink, but especially for Dave Caruso. Caruso, who as the starting goalie led his team out with their familiar "gold dome"
Titans sweaters to the ice, had been with Trenton since 2007-08, and rarely played in front of crowds like the one he did tonight.
"It was fun coming for pre-game warmups and seeing a good amount of fans there and then coming out for the game and seeing a lot more and just the energy they brought. Hopefully, we can continue that. To be honest with you, the 8-5 game is probably better for the fans to bring them back."
Captain Randy Rowe, who added a goal and two assists in his first home game with the Titans, had skated on Trenton ice before as a member of the Peoria Rivermen, Johnstown Chiefs and Toledo Walleye. But the 31-year-old winger had likely never been a part of anything like this.
"It’s been great since training camp, we had a lot of hype before the season started. I’ve played here the last three or four years, and there wasn’t much. I remember the old days when it was the Titans, and you didn’t really want to come here because you knew the fans were going to be all over everybody and they were going to be like an extra person on the ice. It was great to have some fans here tonight. That helps a lot, it motivates the guys."
Fans or no fans, however, it’s up to Williams to motivate the guys, and he did an admirable job of that in earning his first professional win as a head coach.
"One thing I’ve known from the get go is that every time we’ve kind of let up a little bit, we kind of took matters into our own hands in a good way," said Williams, whose Kelly Cup ring sparkled as he wiped the sweat from his brow.
"The fans, they supported us, and I remember that’s what they do here. They were behind us the whole time, and these guys see that…this was good for everybody, everybody that’s been a part of this from day one. I don’t want to say I’m glad it’s over…but everything leading up to this has been stemming since August, and it’s been non-stop for everybody. To finally be able to sit back and enjoy it and breathe, it’s nice. To be able to end on this note, it’s fitting for this team and it’s a direct reflection on the way these guys played."
Perhaps the Titans used up all of their good karma on Saturday.
With a good portion of the announced crowd of 2,543 perhaps at home watching the NFL on Sunday, the Titans lost by a field goal…well, three goals to the Cincinnati Cyclones, 3-0. It probably wasn’t really that close, either.
In the grand scheme of things, a loss wasn’t all that important.
Trenton had won back their beloved sports team. However, a 1-3 start isn’t the greatest way to ring in the re-birth of a team.
Titans goalie Brad Phillips, who made 32 saves in the loss but let up a goal on the first shot he saw, was the tough-luck loser between the pipes for the second time this season, and witnessed a much different game in front of him than the wide open style that his tandem-mate Caruso had the night before.
Trenton spent much of the night on the penalty kill, and only managed one shot in the second period in a somewhat inconsistent effort.
"We took a lot of penalties, so that whole second period we were in our own end," said Phillips, a seventh-round draft pick of the Flyers.
"It’s kind of tough to score when you’re playing defense the whole game. But the guys did a good job of blocking shots, we just couldn’t score."
Williams certainly wouldn’t concede to his team being a little emotionally drained after Saturday night’s festivities, but seemed to be a little relieved to have the home opening weekend over with, finally able to focus on the remainder of the regular season and hopefully beyond.
"A lot of emotion went into (Saturday night)," Williams said.
"Sometimes that translates into the next day, but for a lot of these guys it was a quick turnaround. We left here at 11 p.m., and to be back here at 2 p.m. and ask them to have that same intensity is a lot.
But that is part of being a professional, it is what this league is about and something you are going to have to get used to if you want to be a hockey player."
Standings aside, a two-game split at home never felt so much like a win, especially to those in the front office.
"The Titans are back, and between the two nights we’re probably going to average somewhere around 3,800 (fans), which is better than it’s been the last five years so I am very excited about that," Lisk said.
"Opening night was such a big night, and if you are going to choose one game to go to it’s going to be that one. It’s funny. I got one complaint this weekend and it was someone who wanted to buy the seats next to them, but we already sold them. Hey, I’ll take that. It’s been a great, great response so far."