By Len Bardsley
The Times of Trenton
The curse of the Bambino may be done, but the Brabham Cup curse is alive and well.
The Brabham Cup is awarded to the ECHL’s regular-season points leader, but rarely does that regular-season success carry over into the playoffs.
The Greenville Grrrowl continued the ECHL tradition of knocking off the Brabham Cup champs early in the playoffs when they defeated the Pensacola Ice Pilots in five games in the first round.
The Brabham Cup champ now has been eliminated in the first round two years in a row, and has not reached the Kelly Cup finals since the 2001 season, when the Titans won the Brabham Cup before losing to South Carolina in the finals.
The winner of the Brabham Cup now has been knocked out of the playoffs in the first round nine times. South Carolina remains the only team to win the Brabham Cup and the Kelly Cup in the same season when they accomplished the feat in 1997.
There are several theories when it comes to the curse.
A coach may be lulled into thinking the Brabham Cup will make for a smooth path to the Kelly Cup and push his team to earn the regular-season title, then ease up once the Brabham is clinched.
Another theory is the Brabham winner often has cruised to its division title and takes the first round of the playoffs for granted, since it dominated its opponents during the regular season and earned significantly more points than its first-round playoff opponent.
Finally, the Brabham Cup winner often is a likely target for callups by American Hockey League teams, since they obviously have plenty of talent. A few key players called up to the AHL and not returned for the playoffs has a way of throwing off a team’s chemistry.
Grrrowl coach John Marks was blunt in his assessment of the Brabham curse this season.
“Sometimes I think it is disrespect,” said Marks. “You play a team that is 20 or 30 points down and you don’t think you can lose. I have always been taught you always respect your opponent.”
Marks, of course, used the underdog role to his advantage and picked up a crucial win in dramatic fashion to gain the early momentum in the series.
The Grrrowl came from two goals down in the third period of Game 1 to force overtime before winning the game in sudden death.
“Pensacola might have taken us lightly,” said Marks. “The first game was very big. Winning the first game is huge. It puts pressure on the home team.”
The Grrrowl were well on their way to the upset when they won Game 2 in overtime as well, heading home with a two-game advantage.
Titans goalie Andrew Allen was part of a Jackson Bandits team that pulled off one of the bigger upsets in Brabham curse lore in 2002, when they knocked off a record-setting Louisiana Ice Gators team which had finished the season with an amazing 116 points.
The 77-point Bandits lost Game 1, but when they claimed Game 2 in triple-overtime, they started to think they could win a best-of-five series against a team that finished 39 points ahead of them in the standings.
“I remember thinking, `We could win this thing,’ ” said Allen. “It is in the moment. You believe it, and once you believe it, it is amazing how far that can take you. They were a good team, but we were a good character team and it took us far.”
Titans coach Mike Haviland was an assistant to Troy Ward when the Titans won the Brabham Cup. Despite the fact the Titans won the division by 24 points, there was no easing up at the end of the regular season.
“The only thing I can think of is the teams are pressing so hard to win it, when they do, it is a weight off their shoulders,” said Haviland. “When you lose that edge you are in trouble. It is like a curse now, you don’t want to win it.”