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Calder Cup champions made big impact in Ottawa

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Jim O'Brien went from Calder Cup champion in Binghamton a year ago to playing a key role with the Ottawa Senators during the final months of their 2011-12 season (Darren Abate/

Has it really been a year already?

Have 12 months truly flown by since that steamy night in Texas, when the Binghamton Senators became American Hockey League champions for the first time?

Indeed, the calendar says it is most definitely so.

The good folks who have supported the B-Sens through thick and thin surely won't forget the evening of June 7, 2011 anytime soon. The night their beloved hockey heroes vanquished the Houston Aeros 3-2 at the Toyota Center, ending nearly three decades of frustration for the Ottawa Senators' primary affiliate and its fans.

For a hardscrabble city of 47,000 in New York's Southern Tier which was hit hard by the economic downtown — and would be ravaged by floods several weeks later — it was a moment of pure euphoria. Thousands packed the streets of downtown Binghamton for a parade saluting their first champions in 29 years of AHL participation. The joy carried over to a loud and proud rally outside Broome County Veterans Memorial Arena.

"It had to have been when we came back and had that parade in downtown Binghamton," forward Erik Condra said when asked to describe his favourite memory of that championship run. "It was really a big part of what we had there."

None of it would have happened, mind you, had the B-Sens not survived a harrowing first-round series against the Manchester Monarchs. Five of the seven games in that affair went to overtime and Binghamton won four of them — only the second team in AHL history to pull off that feat. The B-Sens also became the first league team to win Game 5, 6 and 7 of a series in OT, which showed a remarkable resilience in the face of elimination by head coach Kurt Kleinendorst's troops.

"I’ll always remember that first series we played against Manchester," recalled forward Colin Greening. "It’s probably one of the most emotional rollercoasters I’ve ever gone through. After that series, because we had to go through so much as a team to battle back and win four games in overtime, it just set us up for the rest of the run. It was such a phenomenal experience."

Then the B-Sens stormed past the Portland Pirates and Charlotte Checkers to reach the Calder Cup final. After falling behind the Aeros 2-1, they reeled off three straight wins to claim the AHL's ultimate prize.

For the Senators organization, it signalled the farm was surely fertile again after so many barren years. But not only were there talented prospects on hand, it was a group that collectively had the will and way to get the job done with the biggest stakes on the line. They were winners and had the hardware to prove it.

"Our lack of depth down there when we (first) got here was not recognized," said Senators assistant general manager Tim Murray, who oversees the hockey operations in Binghamton. "Sometimes fans in that league assume you can rebuild quickly and you can't. You have to have a pipeline. You have to have it in the (National Hockey League), and you have to have it in the American league. It does take a little time, but I think we knew we could do it."

The table, the Senators believed, was also set to carry those winning ways over to the NHL.

"You have to create a certain culture down there and it'll translate to the NHL," Murray predicted confidently in the days after the B-Sens' triumph. "I hope (fans) believe this wasn't a fluke, that we did this the right way and we can continue to do it."

When the Senators entered what was billed as step one in a rebuilding phase in Ottawa, the "Bingo boys," as they became known, were a major part of the plan. As it turned out, they became invaluable assets, with no less than 10 members of that Binghamton championship squad seeing time in Ottawa in 2011-12. By season's end, Greening, Condra, forwards Zack Smith, Jim O'Brien, Bobby Butler and Kaspars Daugavins were fixtures with the big club along with blueliner Jared Cowen, whose late-season addition in 2011 helped solidify an injury-plagued blue line in Binghamton.

Time and again along the way, a number of that group talked about the glorious run in Binghamton and how much it helped them grow as players. And the Senators, who needed the B-Sens grads to be a big part of their team, couldn't have made it all the way to Game 7 against the New York Rangers without their contributions.

"That was the difference in our team," Senators general manager Bryan Murray said of the Binghamton influence. "When we talked about expectations at the start of the year … a lot of these guys have lived it. They’ve gone through it, they know the pressure, they handled it and they rebounded in a couple of cases from real tough situations where they may not have made the playoffs or could have lost early in the first round. And they found a way to do otherwise.

"I really think that it had a big influence on our team."

And there's more to come. It's expected that Mark Borowiecki and Patrick Wiercioch, two other members of the B-Sens' defence corps during their title run, will eventually play significant roles in Ottawa. Also potentially a part of that future are goaltender Robin Lehner, the AHL's playoff MVP a year ago, and forward Mike Hoffman. All saw some action in Ottawa in 2011-12, with Lehner helping carry the ball in goal when starting stopper Craig Anderson was sidelined by injury.

At some point, they'll all look back on a June night in Houston and say it made a difference.

"If you want to win a Stanley Cup, you know you're going to have to draw on your own experience," said Tim Murray. "Ten seconds left, up by a goal, are they going to reach back and remember (that) night? I think they probably will. Winning breeds winning and certainly, (the Calder Cup crown) should help the organization."

Already, that's proving to be the case. And then some.

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