As the Syracuse Crunch celebrate its 20th year of existence, Dan D’Uva takes us through the history of professional hockey in Syracuse:
The first ever Calder Cup was handed out in Syracuse. You’d assume the Syracuse Stars, playoff champions in the inaugural International-American Hockey League season, would’ve been the team doing the Cup lifting.
The title run in 1937 for the Stars was completed too soon for a trophy to be cast and christened.
A year later, the Stars reached the IAHL’s finals again, but lost. At the old coliseum on the New York State Fairgrounds, the Providence Reds clinched the Calder Cup Finals in Game 5. The Stars watched the opponents celebrate, this time complete with hardware hoisting, on Syracuse home ice.
The infamous fate that befell the Stars lingered. The team suspended operations in 1940. Decades passed, and six pro hockey teams came to Syracuse and left. The Blazers lasted longest: six seasons in two leagues (1967-73).
The brutish Eastern Hockey League play inspired the film Slap Shot (1977), but the silver screen depicted higher attendance in the Onondaga County War Memorial than did The Post-Standard’s box scores.
The Eagles, Firebirds and Hornets each lasted one season, and by 1981 the Salt City was dubbed a hockey graveyard.
On September 30, 1994 skeptics started biting their tongues. The Syracuse Crunch debuted before 6,750 frenzied fans at the War Memorial Arena, a crowd more that 500 over capacity.
The AHL was back in a big way, thanks in large part to owner Howard Dolgon, who in 1981 stood at center ice and took the Calder Cup from AHL President David Andrews and lifted it, 59 years after capturing the championship.
As affiliation switched from Vancouver to Columbus to Anaheim, attendance never wavered. But with only one division title in 18 seasons, the franchises’ switch to Tampa Bay came with high expectations.
Dolgon brokered a deal with Lightning g.m. and Hockey Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman to bring one of the highest rated farm programs to Syracuse.
The Baby Bolts did not disappoint. Tyler Johnson became the first AHL Most Valuable Player to wear a Syracuse uniform. Johnson and six others were called up to Tampa Bay for the first time, as more Crunch players made their NHL debut than any other team.
An East Division title in the regular season was the first step toward a memorable post-season run.
With sweeps of Portland and Springfield, the Crunch started the playoffs 7-0. Against divisional rival Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Syracuse won in five games, clinching the Eastern Conference title with the biggest postseason win in club history, a 7-0 drubbing of the Penguins.
And with the first conference championship in 19 years of the Crunch, Syracuse got to host its first Calder Cup Finals in 75 years.
Though two wins short of a Calder Cup title, overflow crowds packed the House of Pain for Games 1,2 and 6 of the Finals.
Once again, Syracuse had to watch opponents, this time the Grand Rapids Griffins, lift the Cup on Syracuse ice. But with the shortest off-season in Crunch history, attention quickly turned to the start of the 2013-14 season, defense of the Eastern Conference Championship and celebration of 20 years of Crunch hockey.
Another sellout crowd filled the War Memorial October 12 as the Crunch hosted its 20th home opener.
Always with an appreciation for the past and passion for winning, the Crunch embarks on its 20th season as the oldest active independently-owned AHL franchise. Continuing to silence critics, the Crunch are eager to further cement its place as the most enduring and successful hockey team in Syracuse history.