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IN DEPTH: A proper sendoff

by Chris Wescott / Edmonton Oilers
EDMONTON, AB - Now is the time of year where Oklahoma really begins to show its beauty. The warm breeze brings with it both beautiful, and sometimes deadly, super storms. The sunshine is abundant and it, combined with the aforementioned rain, brings the redbuds, Oklahoma’s state tree, into bloom.

The weather is nice enough to hit one of the many golf courses in the area, but golfing in April is not something the Oklahoma City Barons are accustomed to. There isn’t time. For the fifth straight season, the Barons are playoff bound in the month of April.

Five straight years since the Edmonton Oilers brought their American Hockey League affiliate to the Sooner State in 2010. The 2015 Calder Cup Playoffs will also be their last as the Barons of Oklahoma City.

Beginning in the 2015-16 season, the Oilers will move their affiliate even further out west to Bakersfield, Calif. The Condors will move up from the ECHL and the Barons will cease operations.

“We were very happy in Oklahoma City, we had a great experience there but we came to the decision with Prodigal (the Oklahoma City Barons operating company) to mutually part ways at the end of our term this year,” said Oilers Assistant General Manager Bill Scott. “For us, we were at least mentally set up that if we weren’t able to return to Oklahoma City that we’d have a great place to play in Bakersfield and really be a linchpin in that AHL (Pacific Division) with two teams to the south and two teams to the north of us.”

For many, it’s the end of an era. It’s hard to believe that it has only been five years. The Barons have steadied the development of Oilers prospects since they came to be.

The end is coming, but it has yet to arrive. An historic Barons season has the chance to go out with a bang, and provide a proper sendoff to the loyal fans who have lent their support for five memorable seasons.

THE RIGHT FIT

On February 9, 2010, the Oilers made the announcement that they would be moving their AHL franchise to Oklahoma City. In an attempt to stabilize and advance their prospect development, OKC seemed to be the perfect fit.

It was a safe city, with good people. The prospects would have everything they needed, within close proximity, to learn how to be adults and professionals. Some prospects had never cooked for themselves before, or lived in their own place. The AHL provides so much more than a place to play, and so did Oklahoma City.

“The Oilers have felt for some time now that Oklahoma City is the right fit for our American Hockey League franchise,” Oilers President of Hockey Operations Kevin Lowe said when the move was announced. “There is a rich hockey history and tradition in Oklahoma City and we anticipate this partnership to be very successful.”

Although Oklahoma City had housed professional hockey in the past, the AHL brought an entirely new level and brand of the sport.

Just as the Oilers felt OKC was the right fit for them, there was another who felt it was also a match made in hockey heaven.

Todd Nelson had just finished his second season as an assistant coach with the Atlanta Thrashers. With nothing presenting itself to Nelson as an assistant in the NHL, he turned his sights on the AHL. He was on the hunt for a new job and knew he wanted to be a head coach in the AHL. It’s a natural progression for someone seeking a path to the NHL. Much like with players, the AHL provides a proving ground for coaches.

With the Oklahoma City franchise being announced, Nelson narrowed his choices. That was the one.

“Oklahoma City, it was really quiet about what was going on there,” said Nelson. “I heard rumblings that there may be a vacancy and that was the job I wanted all along. I was hoping there was an opportunity there.”

In fact, there was just that opportunity. Then General Manager Steve Tambellini reached out to Nelson and the rest is history.

Photo by Steven Christy | OKC Barons

“When I got the call from Steve to come up and interview, I was ecstatic,” said Nelson. “When I came up and had the interview I tried to put my best foot forward and things worked out. When Steve called the next day to say I got the job, I was really happy."

"With Oklahoma City, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew it was a city that was up and coming, there was a lot of excitement, everyone talked about how great the people are. For me, it was kind of a homecoming because I played and coached out east. When I came out west, it felt like I was coming back home.”

Nelson had won two championships in the UHL as a head coach before in his career. It was his winning background that helped him get the job in OKC.

“Todd has demonstrated a winning record and attitude throughout his professional career and we know that he will be a very valuable asset mentoring and developing our players in Oklahoma City,” said Tambellini, after the coaching announcement was made. “He has a wealth of experience both as a player and a coach in the NHL and AHL, which will be an added benefit to our organization. We are extremely excited to have him as our coach.”

Nelson and the Barons finished eighth in the Western Conference, with a 40-29–2-9 record, in his first season behind the bench. Although they lost in the first round of the playoffs (Hamilton won in six games), it was a sign of things to come.

“The first year was (all about) getting the team to the playoffs,” said Nelson. “That was something that wasn’t done before in the previous eight years of the Edmonton organization. To get into the playoffs was a feather in our caps.”

It was just the beginning of the Barons successful run.

HISTORY OF SUCCESS

The Barons bettered their record from their first season, going 45-22-4-5 in year two. That was good enough to be the top seed in the West. A first-round exit was not the result this time around, with the Barons beating the Houston Aeros (3-1) and San Antonio Rampage (4-1) on their way to a Western Conference Final battle with the Toronto Marlies. The Barons lost the series, 4-1.

The third season was a wild one. The NHL lockout stocked the Barons pond full of high-end talent. Taylor Hall joined Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Justin Schultz as the “A-Team” for the AHL, since all four players were still on entry-level contracts, thus able to play for the affiliate. Eberle hit cruise control, recording 51 points, including 25 goals and 26 assists, in 34 games.

Justin Schultz was named the AHL’s outstanding defenceman of the year, capturing the Eddie Shore Award, despite only playing half a season. Things were looking up for the Barons, but then the work stoppage came to an end and, much to the joy of hockey fans everywhere, the NHL returned to action. The roster turned over immediately, and it could have sent the team into a nose dive. Instead, the Barons finished with a record of 40-25-2-9 and repeated their appearance in the conference final.

Getting in comfortably as the fifth seed, the Barons snuck by Charlotte 3-2, then crushed their rivals to the south, the Texas Stars (4-1). That set the Barons up for a showdown with the Grand Rapids Griffins, in which the Oilers affiliate unfortunately dropped a heartbreaker in seven games.

Photo by Steven Christy | Oklahoma City Barons

The Barons got a 4-3 lead 1:21 into the third period and seemed to be heading toward their first Calder Cup Final. But Jan Mursak and Tomas Jurco scored two-straight goals to lift the Red Wings affiliate to victory on home ice.

“Then we got in the second and third year, playing in the conference final and having two pretty long playoff runs,” said Nelson. “That third year was the lockout year where it was a really gratifying year where the team was turned over, we had some success.”

The fourth season could have been doomed. Some say it took a minor miracle for the Barons to four-peat and return to the playoffs, and Nelson and his staff “willed” the team to make it.

The Barons finished eighth in the West, with a record of 36-29-2-9, their first non 40-win season since moving to OKC. The finish was nothing short of impressive, as the team found themselves a season-low 14th on January 30, 2014. 152 roster transactions shook the makeup of the roster, including 85 before Christmas. 58 different skaters played for the Barons last season, including nine goaltenders.

Photo by Steven Christy/OKC Barons

Nelson says that year is the season he and his staff are most proud of.

“When you look at that fourth year, we got into the playoffs as the eighth seed. It was a battle all year. That was the most rewarding year, when you look at it from a coaching standpoint of trying to get in the playoffs and we were depleted, with the lineup we had. The first four years, they’re all different. But I was proud of the fact we got into the playoffs all four years. I’m proud the team got into the playoffs this year. That’s five years in a row for an American Hockey League team.”

Fast-forward to present day, the Barons clinched their fifth consecutive playoff berth on April 11, with a 5-0 beatdown of the Chicago Wolves.

While their player personnel was a bit more consistent this year, 2014-15 saw perhaps a more critical turnover than the year before, because they lost their head coach halfway through the season. Nelson replaced Dallas Eakins in Edmonton, serving as interim coach and leading the Oilers to a 17-24-7 record under his tenure.

“That’s the problem with the American Hockey League. Not a problem, but it’s a development league and there’s so much turnover,” said Nelson. “It’s hard enough to make the playoffs, but when you do it five years in a row, that’s a tremendous feat.”

Gerry Fleming replaced Nelson as the interim coach in OKC. As the Barons saw their roster depleted by injuries and NHL call-ups, they dropped from being the top-ranked team in the league to the middle of the standings. Together, Fleming and assistant coaches Kelly Buchberger and Tony Borgford kept the players from falling too far out of contention.

“I’m proud of them, I’m happy that Gerry and Tony and Bucky have done great with the group that they’ve had,” said Nelson. “They’ve been decimated by injuries, but they’ve found a way to keep the ship afloat and that’s a credit to them. It’s a very tough situation for them, but I’m very happy they’re in. Anyone can win the Calder Cup, all you have to do is get in.”

SAYING GOODBYE

You could almost picture Curtis Hamilton walking the Oklahoma City downtown area, which is called Bricktown. Perhaps the 23-year-old would be enjoying the weather, riding his bike around the canal area (as many Oilers prospects do), or grabbing some food at one of the many local eateries.

Hamilton, a second-round pick in 2010, has spent all four of his professional seasons with the Barons. Oklahoma City has felt like home to him, and in a lot of ways it has been a home. It might be hard for him to imagine potentially playing somewhere else, should he return to the AHL with the Oilers next season.

Photo by Steven Christy | OKC Barons

“It’s kind of hit me a little more as we’ve gone on here,” said Hamilton. “The weather has started to heat up and it’s a beautiful city. We don’t get a ton of fans, but the fans that do come appreciate us. Just thinking of never going back there, it’s been weird. It will be good next year, being in Bakersfield. It will be nice there as well. Leaving Oklahoma City, that’s where I started my pro career.”

The city and the community has been good to players like Hamilton, and the coaching staff as well. For Nelson, coming to OKC in 2010 was like coming home.

“I like the way the city laid out,” said Nelson. “The people, first and foremost, are caring. The people are down to earth. It’s more of what I’m used to. Growing up in Saskatchewan, they were very similar. I identified with the people quite well. The city itself, cosmetically, you could see the Devon building was being built and there were a lot of exciting things going on with the city. Downtown was reshaping with Bricktown. Having hockey there, as well as the (NBA’s) Thunder and (Triple-A) baseball with the Red Hawks, it was a big, little city I guess you could say. It just appealed to me. It comes down to the people, the people were outstanding.”

On December 18, 2014, the Barons announced they would be ceasing operations.

“The decision to cease operations of the OKC Barons at the end of the current season was business-driven. This was a very difficult decision to make because we love the team, love the city and love our fans,” said Bob Funk Jr., CEO of Prodigal, the OKC Barons management company. “Without a more equitable financial agreement with economic terms to provide the best opportunity for sustained success, we can no longer justify additional investments in the operations without higher returns. We have the highest regard for the Edmonton Oilers organization and it has been a privilege serving as its primary development club. Even though we were not successful at completing an agreement, we have enjoyed an excellent working relationship with the Edmonton Oilers’ management and coaching staff over the past five years. We are also grateful for the committed partner we have had in the City of Oklahoma City. They shared our passion for bringing hockey to Oklahoma City. Most of all, we want to thank our fans in Oklahoma City for five years of unconditional enthusiastic support. We appreciate your dedication to the OKC Barons and the sport of the hockey. The management team at the OKC Barons is unequaled. They are simply the best. We will never say never to bringing professional hockey back to Oklahoma City in the future. We will always leave the door open.”

It was a somber moment for the Barons players, who have made OKC their home for multiple seasons.

“It’s going to be tough leaving OKC, because everyone here has been great to me and my family,” said Barons goaltender Richard Bachman. “The organization here has been awesome, but when you play hockey for a living, you’re expected to move so this will just be another stop on the way.”

Tyler Pitlick, drafted 31st overall the same year as Hamilton, will look back on his time in OKC with fond memories.

“I had a great time in Oklahoma City,” said Pitlick. “The fans were always good. The ones that were there were always huge fans and they came to every game. The city was great. Nice weather, good little downtown, had everything you need. I definitely enjoyed my time. A lot of great guys, I met a lot of great people. It’s going to be sad to see the team move. I think it will be good as well to go to Bakersfield. It seems like they get a good fan base and like hockey there a lot so I think it will be good.”

Photo by Getty Images

Pitlick finished his Barons career with 64 points (21-43-64) in 159 games.

2009 second-round pick Anton Lander is the perfect example of what Oklahoma City provided as a developmental stop for Oilers prospects. Lander played 56 games in Edmonton as a rookie in 2011-12, before going down to OKC and honing his skills.

Lander hit a new gear offensively in 2013-14, recording 52 points (18-34-52) in 46 games with the Barons. This season, he started the year in Oklahoma City and once again lit up the score sheet. 31 points (9-22-31) in 29 games helped earn Lander another call-up with the Oilers.

After posting just eight points in his first 94 NHL games, Lander had 20 (6-14-20) in 38 games this season with the Oilers. Helping him along this time was Nelson, who he had as his coach down in OKC. The centre flourished under Nelson’s tutelage.

Lander will also miss the on-ice and off-ice environment in OKC.

“I definitely have fond memories,” said Lander. “I had a great time there, growing as a person and a hockey player. It is a great atmosphere for the players to go out and play and work on their game. The city and the community has been great for us, very friendly and taking care of us. The fans started growing too, now we have to leave. Fans were coming to the games. It’s not fun, but it’s going to be good in Bakersfield as well.”

Nelson is headed to OKC to watch the Barons the rest of the way and offer his help to Fleming and the staff.

“I’m going to go back and watch them in the playoff run,” said Nelson. “If Gerry needs my help with anything, I’ll gladly assist. But otherwise, I’ll stay out of the way. It’s an opportunity for me to enjoy watching the Barons play. Injuries have taken their toll. If we had a full lineup, like we had at the start of the year, we’d have a heck of a chance at winning the Calder Cup. It’s still achievable, but it gives the opportunity for others to step up. With the goaltending tandem they have there, and with the defence getting bolstered from the three guys (Martin Marincin, Brandon Davidson and David Musil) we had up here, defensively they should be as strong as anybody in the league. As for forwards, I think there is offensive output there. It comes down to playing as a team.”

It’s a chance for Nelson to see old friends, to keep his mind off the Oilers coaching search (of which he is a candidate), but it is also a chance to say goodbye.

A PROPER SENDOFF

For the loyal fans that have supported the Barons since they arrived on the scene, and for the players, this year’s playoff run means a lot.

Photo provided

“A lot of guys have been there for a while now,” said Lander. “I really want them to go far and get that win. We were close there my first and second year. We went pretty far, we were close. That’s something that actually bothers me. We had a great team, we were there. We had the game but we couldn’t close.”

Attendance for the Barons dropped each regular season, despite steady success with the on-ice product, as well as unique promotions like Drive Away Every Saturday. (The Barons gave away a new car each Saturday home game, guaranteed, for two seasons. In total, they gave away 27 cars worth about $860,000.) But the fans that did attend, did so regularly and with a fierce loyalty that would be rewarded nicely with a championship.

“It would mean a lot,” said Hamilton. “It would mean a lot to everyone in the city too I think. It would be a good parting gift. We just need to get everyone back there, everyone healthy and back on the same page. We have a good team. Anything can happen in the playoffs, you just make sure you get in.”

Pitlick says all the players and staff that have been there since the beginning would love to close things out the right way.

“I think it’d be huge,” said Pitlick. “I think it’d mean a lot to everybody. A lot of those guys down there like Curtis Hamilton and a few other guys who have been there almost all four years, just like I was. We’ve been in the fight every year. I think it would be huge for them to win one.”

At the beginning of the season, it seemed like the Barons were possibly Calder Cup favourites. As the season chugged along, injuries and call-ups took their toll. But with healthy bodies coming back and the Oilers season complete, there is still a chance.

When the heat dial turns up and people begin to flood downtown, the storms roll through and the redbuds bloom this time next year, there won’t be AHL playoff hockey in the 405 area code. It is their last chance at winning the hardware that has eluded them so far in four post-season appearances: the Calder Cup.

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