The 2016-2017 Syracuse Crunch: They were our team

This past season’s Crunch was truly Syracuse’s team.

Two days after the Syracuse Crunch’s Calder Cup dreams ended two games short of a championship for the second time in its history, head coach Ben Groulx was interviewed in front of a wall with the words “Crunch Culture: Courage-Urgency-Believe” painted on it. It was a very fitting look for a coach whose team fully embodied all three of those ideals all season long.

I’ve had a lot of time to think about all of this during these past few days. In 2013, the Crunch lost the Cup at home, and I was back at work the next day saying goodbye to my first year-long group of students on the last day of school. The emotional strain of those 48 hours wasn’t healthy, and I ended up pretty sick in the days after. This year, with the series ending in Grand Rapids, I traveled and then had two days after game 6 of mostly quiet alone time. I used this time to cry, reflect, read goodbye notes from our players, cry some more, record a podcast, and, eventually, realize a level of peace with the season we all just went through.

Despite that peace, I cannot claim that it was any easier this time around to lose a championship to the Grand Rapids Griffins. I cannot claim that it didn’t gut me to my very core to watch them get to celebrate again. The loss affected me so much, in fact, that some very well-meaning Griffins fans around me stopped their own celebrations to check on me and ask if I was okay. (In hindsight, that was really nice of them. I can’t remember if I thanked them for that. I hope I did. If not, and they happen to read this - thank you.)

5 pages of transactions

What I can claim, though, is this: the 2016-17 Crunch was, without a doubt, Syracuse’s Team, so much more so than any other group in our history.

I am going to make a bold statement. If you’ve listed to the CrunchCast from this past week, you know what I’m about to say, but for those who haven’t listened, hold onto your socks: The 2012-13 Syracuse Crunch, the group that took us to our first Conference championship in our history, the team that brought us to the finals for the first time, was never really truly our guys.

Most people know about the Calder Cup run the Tampa Bay Lightning’s farm club went on during 2011-12. They won 28 games to finish the regular season, and never stopped running until they had captured the Calder Cup trophy. Their fans loved that team, and many were understandably devastated when, not long after that historic run, the Lightning announced they were moving their AHL club to Syracuse.

With that move, the Crunch’s fan base got a host of names that would eventually become synonymous with a winning culture here in Syracuse: Mike Angelidis, JP Cote, Eric Neilson, Mark Barberio, Tyler Johnson, etc. The team brought with them a list of expectations based off of what they had accomplished the previous year, and they certainly met and exceeded those expectations here during the 2012-13 season.

I want to be incredibly clear on that point: They absolutely 100% gave this fan base an amazing run that deserves to be looked back on with fondness. My comparison between these two teams is not, under any circumstances, meant as a way to diminish what the ‘12-13 Crunch achieved. However, I think a lot more people than just me eventually understood that we had a borrowed team that year.

Eric Neilson expressed his opinion of this awkward transition in Chasing the Dream: Life in the American Hockey League by Ted Starkey:

It was a shocker. I couldn’t believe they were going to do that. Going from Norfolk - and I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t really like Syracuse to begin with - when I heard where we were moving, I said ‘Oh no.’

That team didn’t know us yet, couldn’t know us yet. They didn’t fully understand us, and we didn’t fully understand them. We were strangers tossed onto an exciting, exhilarating ride, and we all made the most of it, but they weren’t fully our team that season. We embraced that borrowed team, and we absolutely wrapped our hopes and dreams for a championship into that borrowed team. We came to love those guys, no question, and they came to love us:

Once you get to know the city, and you get out into the community and see the people and meet the people and into the surrounding area, it was awesome. I fell in love with the city.

But by everyone’s honest admission, it was a relationship we had to grow into. We all made that mental shift, and many players on that team worked their way into our hearts and we worked our way into theirs. There’s nothing wrong with the way that happened; circumstances demanded it.

In contrast, however, the 2016-17 Syracuse Crunch was fully our team from the very start. That fact, more than any other, made this season into what it was for us.

Our roster at the start of the season looked really strong on paper, but there was an element to that list of players we started with that, I think, was underplayed in October: The Syracuse Element.

We started the season with a whole host of players who had developed their game here from the start of their professional careers. Luke Witkowski, Matthew Peca, Henri Ikonen, Adam Erne, Joel Vermin, Tanner Richard, Jake Dotchin, Dylan Blujus, Slater Koekkoek, Daniel Walcott, Kristers Gudlevskis, and Adam Wilcox all basically developed right before our eyes.

We also had other players on the roster who had a definite Syracuse flare to their game: Cory Conacher (played here for part of 2012-13), Matt Taormina (played here from 2012-14 and again last season), Tye McGinn (played here last season), and Yanni Gourde (was traded here in 2014). That core group knew the fans, the community, and the building well. They knew us.

As the season evolved, we added guys who just simply got here and immediately bought in regardless of the circumstances surrounding their arrivals. Erik Condra, Byron Froese, Mike Halmo, Gabriel Dumont, Michael Bournival, and Mike McKenna all made immediate efforts to get to know the Syracuse Crunch family, and all of them worked hard at becoming members of that family. All together, they set the perfect example for the youngsters, guys like Dominik Masin and Ben Thomas.

It was clear from the beginning that the final piece of the puzzle also felt that the Syracuse fan base deserved a winning, dedicated team. Coach Groulx dived into the Syracuse community headfirst, and immediately set a high standard of required conduct and effort for his team on and off the ice. The team respected him and rose to his demands time and time again.

This past season wasn’t always fair to our organization. Injuries often left both the Crunch and the Lightning scrambling for bodies to fill holes, which led to an almost constant back-and-forth stream of players between the two cities. Some players, like Witkowski, went up for good.

Others, like Condra, built up their frequent flyer miles. Sometimes the Crunch played short-handed; other times, the Lightning’s roster was bare. Guys like McGinn who deserved a full, healthy season didn’t get it. Good guys like Wilcox got traded. It was a long haul, one filled with the potential upsets and disappointments that an AHL season so unstable should have brought.

Through it all, coach Groulx and his assistants held our dreams together with little more than duct tape and WD-40. Somehow, despite the 5 pages of transactions totaled up for Syracuse’s ‘16-17 season, the Crunch almost always managed to give their fans something to cheer about.

This group clawed their way to the North Division championship during the final game of the regular season, and then buckled down for a wild and intense two month-long ride through the playoffs. Almost always proclaimed the underdogs, the Crunch was underestimated at every turn by everyone on the outside throughout their run to the Calder Cup finals.

We, their fans, knew better.

This potent mix of a team never really let this fan base give up hope. This group, more than any other team, understood us, played for us, and wanted desperately to win for us. Coach Groulx and his crew never once stopped pushing themselves with courage, with urgency, and with the belief that they were winners, that we were winners.

Coach Groulx, you got your wish: We will never forget this team. How could we? It was an incredible, special season with a group of guys that were truly Syracuse’s Team.