By Will Graves
Copyright © 2005 Naples Daily News
ESTERO, Fla. — They stood off to the side, bent over their sticks in exhaustion and anguish as the championship they desperately and valiantly chased for the last eight months skated by.
Another long ride. Another great year. Another near-miss for the Florida Everblades.
The signs that sprouted up inside a packed Germain Arena on Wednesday night read “Grab the Cup.” But the Everblades could never really get a handle on the Trenton Titans.
Titans 4, Blades 1.
The Kelly Cup Finals came down to will. The Everblades had enough. The Titans simply had more.
The Everblades made plenty of big plays during the greatest season in franchise history, but the Titans made the little ones when it mattered most.
A blocked shot here and a backcheck there might not look like much the moment they happen, but in a series between two teams as evenly matched and well-coached as Florida and Trenton, they can be the difference.
The Titans knew they couldn’t make any mistakes in front of a Germain Arena-record crowd, and they didn’t. The Everblades could never find the space to create the magic that worked so well during the team’s dominant run to the Finals.
“We played the perfect road game,” Trenton head coach Mike Haviland said.
The goal that ultimately propelled the Titans to victory was a microcosm of the series as a whole. With Trenton on the man advantage, Titans forward Nick Deschenes lost his helmet with the puck still in the offensive zone. Later in the play Deschenes checked Florida defenseman Matt Pagnutti off the puck and fed it to teammate Paul Brown.
Pagnutti did what he’s supposed to do, chasing after the puck, but it left Deschenes all alone behind the net. He took Brown’s pass and hit Leon Hayward in the slot for a perfectly placed wrister over Florida goaltender Tyler MacKay’s shoulder that gave the Titans the lead.
The Blades made the right play, the Titans made the extra play. It’s what champions do. The Blades didn’t lose the series as much as Trenton won it. The Titans blunted Florida’s momentum with two wins at Germain Arena to open the series, and played the best 20 minutes of their season in Game 5 to prevent Florida from getting a clean sweep in New Jersey.
It was a series with no villains or goats, only men who love playing this game that’s seduced them and defined them ever since they learned to skate.
Down the hall from a somber Florida locker room, champagne flowed, speeches were made and tears were shed.
Trenton captain Rick Kowalsky, a minor-league lifer who has spent the last 12 years bouncing from town to town and league to league in search of the championship he never thought he’d see, cried on the bench as the final seconds ticked away.
He was the last player to shake hands with the Everblades and the first one to lift the Kelly Cup aloft over his head. It was a 15-second skate almost 30 years in the making.
“This is why we all play the game,” Kowalsky said.
This is why he stuck around four years longer than he promised his wife, why he continued to play even when his body screamed for him to stop.
“You guys are like my sons,” said Kowalsky, at 33 the oldest player in the ECHL. “This is probably it for me, but they can never take it away from us.”
When he was done, he took the 14th and final piece of the Kelly Cup puzzle that Haviland had created before the playoffs started and put it in place. He stepped outside the locker room to call his wife. After all these years, he’s finally coming home for good.
The time will come when the Blades will get to feel that joy. They’ve certainly proven they’re capable — no matter who the future owners may be — of playing with the ECHL’s best.
The day will come when Patrick Kelly will hand the trophy with his name on it to the Everblades.
The day will come when they’re ready to grab it — with both hands — and hold on for dear life. It’s easy to point fingers in blame or mourn the death of a season filled with so much joy. Do the Everblades a favor: