They came agonizingly close to claiming the Central Hockey League championship, but even though they eventually fell in six games to the Rapid City Rush, the Allen Americans accomplished a great deal in their first season.
Just getting that far was an impressive accomplishment, as the Americans became the first CHL expansion squad to reach the Finals since the league’s merger with the old WPHL in 2001. And in addition to their success on the ice, the long playoff run helped elevate them into an important part of the Allen community off it.
Headquartered out of a beautiful new building a half-hour north of downtown Dallas, the Americans captured the imagination of the flourishing suburb, particularly during their inspiring post-season.
“It took a while for the crowds to kind of open up, I think it took toward the end of the year for them to find their identity, with the chants and cheering and really being behind us,” said goaltender Chris Whitley, who set league records for games played by a netminder (20), minutes played and saves (636) in a single playoff year. “They supported us all year, with events, it was awesome. We had great support in this community and we’re all grateful for it.”
Still, it’s tough to see the big picture after coming oh-so-close. Following a convincing 5-2 victory in Game 3 at the Allen Event Center, the Americans led the best-of-seven Final series 2-1, but dropped Game 4 at home and were hammered 7-2 in Game 5 in front of a franchise-record home crowd of 6,003.
Then, facing elimination in Game 6 on the road on May 4, the Americans jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first period. But Rapid City made it 3-1 in the second, and then Allen surrendered two goals in the final five minutes of regulation to send the contest into overtime.
With the championship on the line, the Americans ultimately succumbed when Rapid City’s Scott Wray scored with 32 seconds left in the second OT period.
“It was tough, I thought we deserved a better fate,” said Whitley, who made 60 saves in that final game. “Being up 3-0 in Game 6 and losing that lead, it was tough. We were playing a really good hockey team that always comes at you. We held off for a bit, they got a couple of goals late, which was tough. It was disappointing, but I think we accomplished a lot this year as a team, as a group. There’s a lot to be proud of.”
Still, despite the stinging disappointment, a couple of days later, the Americans began to recognize that they achieved a great deal this year. They posted a 42-17-5 record in the regular season, good for second in the Southern Conference and fourth overall, with a 23-5-4 mark at the Allen Event Center. In the Conference Semi-finals, they overcame a 3-2 series deficit, winning the final two games to defeat Laredo in seven, then took out the CHL’s best regular season team, Odessa, by winning Game 7 on the road to advance to the Ray Miron President’s Cup Finals.
“We all wanted to win, that’s for sure, and when you’re that close, it’s kind of like, ‘shoulda coulda woulda,’ but at the same time, you’ve got to be realistic,” conceded center Justin Bowers, who led all playoff scorers with 30 points (12 goals, 18 assists) in 20 games, finishing just two points shy of the CHL record for one post-season. “We have a lot to be proud of this year, we played with a lot of heart and class all year. We can’t really have any regrets, we played hard every game - we didn’t get the outcome we wanted, but it was definitely a good year and special.”
“When you look at the big picture, we really accomplished a lot of great things, not only the players, but even for the whole organization,” acknowledged Coach and General Manager Dwight Mullins. “I think there’s got to be a lot of satisfaction in that. I don’t think you can get as close as we came and just kind of get over it in a day or two. In fact, it’s probably going to take a while, but at the same time, I haven’t lost sight of the fact that we really helped bring a lot of awareness to our hockey team, especially here in North Texas.”
Since the Americans, who bill themselves as the ‘AA affiliate of the Dallas Stars,’ were the last hockey team in the Metroplex still playing, they did manage to raise their profile in the area and that will undoubtedly help them attract more fans - and players - next season in Year 2.
“It makes things easier in the sense that these players have really established an identity for our team, so it helps in recruiting,” Mullins noted. “It helps in the overall business model for the hockey team and then it helps the sport in general. Those are three pretty exciting things that are all kind of intertwined with each other. I think we’ve given ourselves a good start out of the gate.”
It was the outstanding recruiting ability of Mullins and his associate coach/director of player personnel Bill McDonald that was a key to the Americans’ success on the ice in their debut season. Much of the credit goes to the 57-year-old McDonald, who actually ranks fifth in CHL history with 319 coaching victories from four different franchises, including the 1997 Cup champion Fort Worth Fire that was captained by Mullins.
After coaching Dayton of the ECHL last season, McDonald joined his old protégé Mullins in Allen and lured six of his players from Dayton with him, providing the Americans with their captain (Jarret Lukin) and two-thirds of their top line (Bowers and Nino Musitelli, who led all playoff goal-scorers with 13), as well as several other important components.
“I feel very fortunate that I was asked to come and join this group of people,” said McDonald, who won WPHL Coach of the Year honors in 1997-98 after guiding the Fort Worth Brahmas to the league Finals. “Obviously, my connection with Mully goes way back, and I coached in the East Coast League and I could have gone back there, but when this came available, with (co-owners) Doug Miller and Steve Duchesne, it was just a different mix for me. I’ve been around for awhile and I’ve coached in situations where they were really good and maybe not so good. There were guys that I enticed to come here and I think it helped, obviously, but they’re really happy, because I brought them into an unbelievable situation.”
Also, by focusing on mostly younger players, the Americans fostered an environment where a special chemistry flourished among guys that had a lot in common with each other.
“The majority of the guys on our team was 24-27 years old, we’re all around the same age, which reminded a lot of guys of junior hockey all over again,” noted Whitley, a 27-year-old first-year pro who led the CHL with 31 victories during the regular season. “We all got along really well and I think that was a big part of it this year for us.”
“We had a unique bond this year and it was something special,” added forward Bruce Graham, 24, who led the Americans with 31 goals and 79 points during the regular season and chipped in nine goals and 22 points in the playoffs.
In a league that allows each team four roster spots for players with over 300 games of professional hockey experience, virtually every CHL club but Allen took advantage of that rule to infuse their lineup with the stabilizing influence that older players can provide.
But the Americans adopted more of a developmental philosophy, seeking out younger, hungrier, more driven players, and employed just one veteran, 30-year-old defenseman Erik Adams. Adding another dimension to attracting players intent on advancing up the professional hockey ladder is Allen’s affiliation with the Dallas Stars.
“Our design was to target the 24-to-26-year-old hockey player and take advantage of the opportunity from an affiliation and a developmental process that was afforded to us,” Mullins said of the club’s mindset. “We just felt that was the direction that we wanted to go and how we wanted to structure our organization. As far as the veteran component, it really came down to fitting criteria, that’s how we made our selections.”
Majority owner Doug Miller pointed to the importance of the connection with the Stars, and their AHL affiliate, the Texas Stars, based in the Austin suburb of Cedar Park.
“It helps a lot, because they’re talking to Austin,” Miller said of the Stars’ organization. “We had 11 kids at (the AHL training) camp, so they know where we are, they know what we’ve got and that’s helping us recruit kids. They know we’re trying to move them up, where a lot of teams at the CHL level, they’re trying to hide their players, they don’t want them going anywhere. We’re pushing them, and that gets around, so we’ve got kids calling us. We chose the high road and it’ll pay off.”
Already this season, four Americans spent some time in the AHL, while one Dallas prospect, Tyler Shelast
, came down from the AHL squad to play five games with Allen. Players take note of that kind of movement and want to be a part of it.
“My goal is to move up, I hope that the right people saw me play and could be interested,” admitted Bowers, who was recalled for two AHL games with Abbotsford in late January. “I want to move on and get to the highest level I can, so I’m going to keep working hard and see what happens. And I think that’s the way they look at it, too. If they can have a player that’s here for a year and he gets signed to a team in the American League, it looks good on this franchise. The Allen Americans are here to develop players, they’re in it for the right reasons and if I come out on the good end, I’ll be thankful, for sure, for what Allen has done for me.”
“You want to play the best possible and move up, it’s your whole goal,” added Whitley, who also spent some time in the AHL this year, earning a victory in his first AHL start by making 37 saves for Lake Erie on Feb. 28. “I know for next year, hopefully I’ll have some options with some teams in the American League. This is a great place to play and I had a great year and if things maybe don’t work out in the American League, then this is a place I’d love to play.”
As well as they performed, it is likely that some Americans will get opportunities to move up a level or even to make more money playing in Europe. That is the reality of life in the minor leagues - there is usually a fairly significant turnover of personnel from one season to the next. But regardless of which players inhabit the signature red jerseys in 2010-11, the Americans already have a blueprint for success that will only help them going forward.
“I think that the criteria that we put forth with regards to age and motivation and with personal character, really helped carry us through a lot of difficult times,” Mullins said. “I don’t know if there’s a right way or a wrong way, but for the Allen Americans, the way that we structured our hockey team really fits the objectives of the organization, and it fits the regional and geographic advantages that we have.”
Unfortunately, none of that makes accepting just how close they came to the Ray Miron President’s Cup any less gut-wrenching.
“It’s tough to put into words,” Graham summed up. “It’s so tough after you lost, just to sit there with your guys and for one, know that you lost a championship that was so close and just know that this group of guys will never play as a team again. I don’t know if I’m going to cry, but it’s emotional. You just think about great times, and it’s weird - some of these guys you’ll never see again, some of these guys you’ll play against and some of them you’ll play with again.”