I had the opportunity to send some questions to a Norfolk Admirals season ticket holder to get his view on life in the minors with a team that's an NHL affiliate. Scott M. was kind enough to answer, and he has some very enlightening responses. Here's what he had to say....
How long have you been a ticket holder for the Norfolk Admirals?
I have been a season ticket holder since mid-season 2004.
What do you enjoy most about being an Admirals season ticket holder? What do you like the least?
It may sound rather simple and self-explanatory, but I like knowing I'll have the same seat every game, that's it's one of the cheaper seats in the league, and that the front office staff makes it a point to make themselves available for the STHs. I also enjoy getting to know the other season ticket holders around me knowing that the same great people will be sitting with me to enjoy and discuss the games. The only real complaint I have is that there are no discounts for parking afforded to STHs, although there is an opportunity to at least get reserved parking for the season.
Do you play hockey?
My career hasn't afforded me the opportunity to lace up my skates for anything other than a public skate lately, but I played hockey from age 7 through high school.
In your experience, is the average hockey fan in Norfolk more likely to be a fan of the local NHL team, the Washington Capitals, or is it mixed bag among the fans there?
For fans who grew up here it's safe to say their allegiance is with the Caps, however this is an area that is defined by its national diversity because of the military. You can look around Scope and see jerseys from all over the NHL, but the cool thing is that no matter who their favorite NHL team is, they are 100% cheering for the Admirals. There's also an affinity towards the Chicago Blackhawks who were Norfolk's affiliate prior to TB. We watched a majority of the Hawks' Stanley Cup team "grow up" here in Norfolk. I grew up in PA and I'm a Penguins fan which provides for an interesting scenario when the WBS team comes to town. One night I could be booing a particular player on the baby Pens team, and the next day be cheering them on because they've gotten a call-up!
Do you think the Admirals should renew their affiliation with Tampa Bay? As the contract expires after this season.
Had you asked me this question a year ago I'd have said NO without even blinking an eye. After the changes brought in by Jeff Vinik and Steve Yzerman I'd have to say that Norfolk would be crazy not to renew the affiliation. There are just so many positives that have been brought in by new ownership and new management that it makes sense that TB and Norfolk would renew very quickly. Tampa made it very clear they are serious about icing a good product here in Norfolk which is a complete 180 from previous years. It has been good to be an Admirals' fan this season.
During the time of the Lightning's affiliation with the Admirals, who has left the best impression? (Does not have to be a player.)
It took me a while to think of the answer as there have been so many players that have been here in Norfolk, from fan favorites to skilled players to leaders. But in my opinion the person who had the best and most dramatic impression on the team would have to be last year's coach Jim Johnson. Having had to suffer through Steve Stirling and then "get better" but not quite get there with Darren Rumble, Jim Johnson seemed to be just what the Admirals needed. When he took over he held the players accountable and put a product on the ice that won games. He took a team that had the talent to win but hadn't been and pushed them in to serious playoff contention. Admirals fans got excited about the team and absolutely loved him. I also know who significant his impression was on the team when he was suddenly yanked away by ex GM and team-killer Brian Lawton in an attempt to make a power play against TB coach Rick Tocchet. Fans here (including me) were so angry that Johnson was toiling away in an office with no apparent impact on the TB team while the Admirals fell from the playoff race one game at a time under Leigh Mendelson who had been the video coach before being forced in to the head coaching role. When news came that J.J. was being returned to Norfolk, fans everywhere went nuts believing there might still be a chance at the post season simply because he was back behind the bench. It came as a huge shock that he wasn't retained this year as fans felt very comfortable having him on the bench.
Which of the players currently on the roster for the Admirals impresses you the most?
We have so much talent on this team that it's hard to pick out just one guy. I've always been partial to stay-at-home defensemen, the guys who don't rack up a ton of points but take their job of keeping the puck out of their own net very seriously. That player to me is Scott Jackson. He sat out with an injury and missed a good number of games in the beginning of the season but since his return has been a rock on the blue line. His ability to read plays and be in the right position almost all the time is uncanny. He's just one of those guys that you know is going to do the right thing, make the right play, and react quickly enough to take the heat off the goaltender who's under fire. 2-on-1s are bad, but if he's the "1" you just know he's going to play it the right way. While he may not be the fastest guy on the ice or have a lot of upside offensively, I think it speaks volumes that he is in the line-up for every game and has been made an Alternate Captain, especially considering the depth and the numbers the Admirals have at defense.
What did the average fan think about Lawton's coaching fiasco last season? Or about the most recent off-season coaching change, for that matter?
Brian Lawton lost whatever credibility he had with both Tampa and Norfolk fans last year. As I mentioned earlier it's my opinion that he was the sole reason that the Admirals did not make the post season last year. There really isn't much more to be said about that situation other than I'm glad he's no longer with the Tampa organization. As far as bringing in Jon Cooper, it was definitely a surprise that Jim Johnson wasn't kept on this year considering his success last year. There were some reservations about Coach Cooper in the beginning, especially since he had no experience at the AHL level, but I think fans will tell you they are happy with what he's done with the team thus far this season.
I tend to focus more on the defensive side of the game since more often times than not it's some sort of defensive break-down that leads goals, and obviously at the end of the game the team with less goals against wins!! Wishart slipped down the depth chart significantly this season both with off-season signings and the better play of the other defensemen on the roster. Wishart was part of the number one pairing last year with Jackson and had come to be relied upon to provide offense, which over the last month he was here that part of his game seemed to suffer. He also started to have lapses in judgment in the defensive zone and could be counted on to give up at least one significant scoring chance a game. Granted any number of defensemen will admit to making those mistakes but in his case they would rack up and be at very inopportune times of the game. I think a change of scenery may help him regain his form and I know that all Admirals fans wish him luck (except when he comes to Norfolk to play!) The Roloson part of that trade was not surprising as there is often talk of not if, but when Norfolk will lose Cedrick Desjardins to Tampa. It's fairly obvious that the goaltending situation in Tampa is shaky at best and that some serious changes are needed if Tampa is to be competitive.
What do you think the biggest misconception by NHL fans is of the AHL?
I'm not sure fans realize just how important the AHL affiliate is to the NHL parent club. You'll find a large number of players that could be in the NHL but because of roster limits and salary caps just can't be there. Norfolk in particular could probably put together some definite NHL third and fourth lines and possibly even a second line on some NHL teams. The AHL provides players not only a place to continue to maintain and improve their skills but to also provide an opportunity for younger players to be groomed by some older players with NHL experience. Take Dana Tyrell for example-he was here in Norfolk last season playing with the likes of Ryan Craig and Adam Hall. I truly believe his development was due to the mentoring and the experience gained from playing on a line with them. I also don't think casual NHL fans understand the relationship the parent club has with the minor league club. For instance, when a player in Tampa gets hurt, his replacement has to come from somewhere, and that somewhere would be Norfolk. While Norfolk has depth at almost every position, some AHL clubs aren't that lucky, and that call-up could mean that an AHL team no longer has any significant offensive threat or a goaltender that can consistently keep the puck out of the net. That one player, that one call-up can literally spell disaster for an AHL club if there isn't enough depth to support it. We all know the AHL is a developmental league, but knowing that doesn't make it any less painful to lose your leading scorer when your team is playing divisional rivals.