There’s a lot of tight-knit groups and families following the team. They really rally around the team. It’s fun. It definitely makes for a good following. It keeps you focused on hockey and the task at hand, for sure. - Adirondack forward Taylor Vause
GLENS FALLS, NY -- Glenn Merkosky’s last stop in junior hockey before turning pro was with the Calgary Wranglers in 1979-80, the same year Glens Falls, N.Y. got its first AHL franchise -- the Adirondack Red Wings.
Six years later, the Kamloops native helped lead the Wings to the first of two Calder Cup championships during his tenure as team captain. The other was in 1989.
After hanging up his skates, Merkosky became Adirondack’s head coach from 1996-97 and still frequents Glens Falls Civic Center, where the Adirondack Flames play, as a scout for the Detroit Red Wings. Like many former players and coaches, he’s made the Glens Falls area his home.
“We all laugh about it,” Merkosky said. “In the 1980s we were driving a car up the Northway (Interstate-87) saying, ‘Where in the world are we going?’ And 25 years later we’re all still living here.”
“When I got into scouting, Detroit gave me the option of moving to a few different cities all over the country,” he said. “I really had no interest in leaving. We’re in the Adirondack Mountains. There’s lakes, golf courses, it’s a resort area. And yet we’re a three- to 3-1/2-hour drive from some of the greatest cities in the world -- Montreal, New York, Boston. This is just a great place to live, a great place to bring up a family.”
Glens Falls is also just 90 minutes from Lake Placid, where the underdog U.S. men’s hockey team pulled off the greatest upset in sports history, by defeating a heavily-favored Soviet squad in the 1980 Winter Olympics.
With so much regional interest in the sport, it’s no wonder the Glens Falls area is home to a “Who’s Who” list of hockey legends. Former Adirondack players and coaches that have settled there are four-time Stanley Cup champion Pete Mahovlich (Canadiens); Bill Dineen, who won two Stanley Cups as a Detroit player (1954, ’55) and guided Adirondack to its 1986 and ’89 AHL titles; and well-known ESPN hockey analyst Barry Melrose, who played for and later coached Adirondack to its last Calder Cup championship in 1992.
Each of Dineen’s five sons maintain year-round or seasonal residences including Kevin, head coach of Team Canada’s gold medal-winning women’s national ice hockey team at the 2014 Winter Olympics; and Gord, current head coach of the AHL’s Toronto Marlies.
NBC hockey play-by-play sportscaster Dave Strader, a Glens Falls native, got his start with the Adirondack Red Wings.
The Wings spent 20 years at Adirondack before leaving town following a period of declining attendance in the late 1990s. After that, Glens Falls hosted a United Hockey League franchise for seven seasons, followed by a three-year hiatus with no team at all.
With a small population base -- approximately 50,000 in the immediate Glens Falls area -- and faltering corporate support caused by the nation’s economic downtown, it looked as if Adirondack pro hockey might be a thing of the past. The AHL in particular was trending toward large metropolitan markets such as Toronto, Milwaukee and Chicago.
Then, Glens Falls got a surprise reprieve when the Flyers moved their AHL affiliate, the Phantoms, from Philadelphia to Adirondack while awaiting completion of a new arena in Allentown, Pa. (Lehigh Valley). Construction delays extended their stay from three to five years. While keeping hockey alive, the Phantoms never reached the playoffs. But fans continued turning out in large numbers last season to show that Adirondack could still be a viable market.
Obviously, someone took notice, as Calgary moved the Abbotsford Heat to Glens Falls at the end of the 2013-14 campaign. Although far removed from the parent Flames, Glens Falls is strategically located at a geographic crossroads of the AHL. There are five other teams in New York State alone, along several others only a few hours away in neighboring New England.
Fans have been quick to embrace the Flames, thanks to their relentless work ethic under coach Ryan Huska. The latest example was last Wednesday night’s come-from-behind effort that ended in a 3-2 sudden-death overtime victory against the visiting Hamilton Bulldogs.
Players, in turn, say they enjoy the atmosphere at Adirondack.
“You get a little bit of that small-town feel,” said forward Taylor Vause, a Calgary native. “I actually played in a very small market in junior so I know what that’s like. The benefit is that you get to know a lot of people. There’s a lot of tight-knit groups and families following the team. They really rally around the team. It’s fun. It definitely makes for a good following. It keeps you focused on hockey and the task at hand, for sure.”
In summer, some players stick around to enjoy nearby attractions such as beautiful Lake George, the “Queen of American Lakes,” and historic Saratoga Springs, home to America’s world-famous Saratoga Race Course, featuring the best thoroughbred horses, jockey and trainers.
Mahovlich, a current Florida Panthers scout, said the setting couldn’t be better for young players trying to work their way up hockey’s ladder. “You can either surround yourself with good people or not-so-good people,” he said. “It’s critical. Sure this area is aesthetically pleasing, but that’s not enough. It’s the people you interact with that makes you want to live where you live. It’s the community and people you’re comfortable around.”
“Merkosky got so comfortable, he moved right next door to me,” Mahovlich said, laughing.