After 14 seasons, the Kings will be making a switch in the Queen City.
The Manchester Monarchs, who have been among the most competitive regular season teams in the American Hockey League over that span, are, for the first time since the league expanded into Southern New Hampshire, playing for the Calder Cup.
There have been close calls: in 2007 and 2010 the team dropped Conference Final games to league pillar Hershey. In the other 11 seasons, there were 10 first round exits and the 2008-09 season, when the club missed the playoffs entirely.
And now, with the club two wins away from its first championship – the Monarchs currently hold a two-games-to-none lead over the Utica Comets – comes the reality that once the season ends, and perhaps, as many of the players, staff and fans hope, the confetti is cleaned up from a potential parade down Elm Street, that many of those who engineered the longest run playoff run in club history will depart for the Inland Empire, where next year they will be wearing the chevron of the Ontario Reign. Because of the AHL’s migration into California and points west, Ontario will become an AHL team, and Manchester will become an ECHL affiliate. In essence, the Kings’ affiliates are flip-flopping.
It’s a bit too easy and perhaps a bit vague to consider the team’s current run “bittersweet.” The players are focused only on Game 3, Wednesday at the Utica Memorial Auditorium. But for the staff and fans of the team, there’s certainly the awareness that while there will be competitive hockey returning to Manchester in the fall, this current group won’t be returning.
“We got close, we had some good teams and things just didn’t work out, but we have a really good bunch of guys this year, and, as we talk now, we’re on our last road trip actually, and we go home after this. It’s certainly mixed emotions,” said Hubie McDonough, the Monarchs’ Director of Hockey Operations, a Manchester native and the all-time leading scorer at St. Anselm College, a small school located outside of the city center.
“Nobody really wanted to move, but you have to do what you have to do. So, we’re enjoying this now, enjoying this run we’ve had, and … [have] never made it this far, so it’s certainly a great accomplishment for all of the guys, all these young kids. It gives the Kings fans hope for the future because there are a lot of players here that can make that step.”
The sentiment is shared by many on the outside, as well.
“It’s tough knowing this, but we know the Kings have to do what they have to do for themselves,” said Rene Therrien, a season ticket holder since the club entered the league. “It’s closer for them. It’s a stepping stone for the players and they want them closer to home.”
Therrien is an outlier in that he’s a Montreal Canadiens fan. While Monarchs fans are partial towards the Kings, this is still New England, and Boston-area teams – the Patriots, Celtics, Red Sox, and, of course, the Bruins – form the emotional and cultural backbone of sports fandom in the region. When the Comets, a Vancouver affiliate, took the ice, the vociferous boos that rained down from the concourse surely contained pearls of animosity stemming from the Bruins’ 2011 Stanley Cup win over the Canucks.
Tom Fauscher is one of those fans who probably wouldn’t be in the running for Vancouver Fan #1. Wearing a Bruins shirt underneath his Monarchs jersey at Game 2 Sunday evening, he spoke about the open mind he’s keeping towards the affiliation switch.
“We bought our tickets for another year and see how it goes,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of friends that sit around us and just people that we’ve met from being here and being season ticket holders. All of us got together and talked about it and we all bought our tickets again. We’ll try it for another year and see how it goes. We’ll support the team.”
His wife, Elaine, listed Kevin Westgarth as among her favorite players to have spent time in Manchester. Both she and her husband fondly recalled Jeff Giuliano, a Nashua, New Hampshire native who, along with Monarchs alums Derek Bekar, Jeff Giuliano, Eric Healey, Matt Moulson, Doug Nolan and Richard Seeley, were honored in a pre-game ceremony prior to Game 1.
For many fans, there is a prevailing sense that players in the ECHL, one rung below the AHL, will be “hungry,” to use a term borrowed from those aware of the league switch. There are key members of the current Los Angeles Kings who played portions of their young professional career in the ECHL. Jonathan Quick was a Reading Royal. Dwight King and Jordan Nolan played for the Reign.
Vincent LoVerde, a Kings defensive prospect and the Monarchs’ captain, is vying to be among those who have risen multiple ranks to make the NHL. He totaled 12 goals and 41 points over 91 games in Ontario in the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons.
“In my time there, the fans were very supportive. We had a great relationship with the city of Ontario and Rancho Cucamonga, the whole Inland Empire. It was a great place to play. Obviously I’ve only played two places as a pro, so I don’t have much of a comparison. We have great support here, as well.”
As LoVerde began to explain, there’s an emotional attachment between so many current and former Monarchs and the city referred to as “Manch,” or perhaps even more endearingly, “ManchVegas.”
Though Manchester is the largest city in Northern New England, it’s still a smaller city, comparatively, to many other American Hockey League cities and the largely suburban conglomerate of communities that form the focus of the Ontario Reign’s support. There’s a strong city-team relationship in Southern New Hampshire, and most of all, it is part of an area where hockey, especially in the winter months, is near the forefront of everyone’s mind. Though Southern California hockey fans are undoubtedly passionate, the move may require a bit of an adjustment.
“It’s sometimes weird coming to the rink and you’re wearing sunglasses and it is 90-degrees out and it’s late November,” LoVerde said of his time in Ontario. “Other than that, it really wasn’t much different. Travel is relatively consistent; maybe it’s a little bit farther.”
But those comparisons are for another day. Right now, the team is in Utica, preparing for what will be a difficult set of games against the Western Conference’s Comets as the Kings’ top affiliate continues to vie for its first championship.
“There’s so much going on, next year is going to come so fast,” said McDonough, who hasn’t had much time this spring to reflect on his 14 seasons with the club.
“This year we’ve played so long, the summer is just going to go right by, so I haven’t reflected too much. I was going around when we were playing – I think maybe in Hartford or Wilkes-Barre – and I didn’t know if that would be the last time we would be skating around on the ice there, so you’re looking around trying to take it all in. I’m certainly enjoying it and I’ve had a great 14 years here in Manchester.”
Jon Rosen is on the East Coast covering the Manchester-Utica series. Read more at LAKings.com and LAKingsInsider.com