The "career" of a minor league hockey fan (MLHF) can be challenging.
Your loyalty is split, much like any major league fan, between the team and players. Your devotion to the team is rewarded when the club wins and it’s tested when they lose.
But here's the crucial difference between MLHF and major league hockey fan (MaLHF) -- MLHF's buy the jerseys of their favorite players, only to see them leave in the middle of the night, or in the case of Rocco Grimaldi, in the middle of a game, to seek fame and fortune at the next level.
MLHF's wince and rejoice at the same time when their favorites leave, even though the absence may make their team number nine in an eight-team playoff race.
There is something to be said for the MLHF’s pride in seeing a major league hockey player (MaLHP) you saw one night, wearing number 82 in Miami, playing 2:22 the next night, or in Grimaldi’s case, THAT night, on TV.
Friday night, San Antonio MLHF’s devotion was rewarded by their MaLHP’s playing in the Panthers win over Ottawa.
Last season’s Rampage unofficial rookie of the year, Vinnie Trocheck, picked up two assists – he’s now at seven as most Panther and Rampage fans will point out with pride, and was given the game’s top star.
Trocheck had to have been majorly disappointed when "The Turk" knocked on his training camp door and handed him a ticket to the Alamo City in September. The creative centerman emerged as the offensive catalyst for a moribund franchise that has found success in two-game winning streaks.
But hats off to the Pittsburgh kid, who accepted his assignment like a pro, worked hard, and, well, as Rampage fans now say, "Vinnie, it was nice watching you here and it will be cool watching you on Fox Sports Florida, never to skate on AT&T Center ice again," especially after his one-armed assist on the gamer Friday.
Goaltender Al Montoya is a whole different story.
The former Rangers top pick wasn’t about to dislodge Henrik the Great in Gotham City, and the thought of being a career-AHL masked man just didn’t sit well with Montoya. He knew, more than anyone, that he was an NHL goaltender. His AHL performance, however, tried the patience and devotion, of Rampage fans.
If you walk along the concourse before a Rampage game, you’ll see fans with Trocheck, or Drew Shore, or Colby Robak jerseys. But you won’t see any Montoya jerseys.
The perpetually pleasant goaltender was a "tough love, work in progress" down on the farm. Rampage fans watched Montoya make a spectacular save negated by two flubs one too many times in his parts of four seasons with the club.
Post-game interviews about the miscues were met with casual shoulder shrugs, affable comments, and amazing, honest reflection on how the puck evaded his glove at an agonizingly slow speed.
The former University of Michigan standout – he had 13 shutouts in three season with the Wolverines, ONE in 79 games with San Antonio—made Rampage fans and reporters cringe on each odd-man rush.
He was 30-48-3 with two seasons of plus 3 GAA and sub 90 percent save percentage. But then, when called up to Phoenix (SA’s NHL mentor after and before the Panthers), Montoya was a wall.
The Chicago native blanked the Colorado Avalanche in his first NHL game. The Coyotes had Bryzgalov, who did his own AHL Montoya imitation at the NHL level, and Al was 3-1 in his five game stint in 08-09. But the Yotes went with Bryz and Jason Labarbera and Montoya was dealt to NHL purgatory – the New York Islanders.
Considering Montoya would sit on the bench awaiting Rick DiPietro’s next injury, the former overall sixth pick in the 2004 draft, would enjoy a lump of playing time in lieu of the former top pick of the 2000 draft who was an IR entry waiting to happen.
Montoya responded in his NHL glory. Overall, the former Rampage netminder has performed well at the major league level, and San Antonio fans can revel in knowing he was one of those guys that found the NHL more to his liking.
Montoya, two games away from his 100th NHL game, is 39-27-14 in his major league career. His non-Islander record is 21-11-4 with stellar 2.16 GAA.
Friday night’s number 2 star, and Wednesday's top star when he relieved injured starter Roberto Luongo, has been lights out in his reserve role.
From a MLHF’s perspective, they can boast, "Hey, he wore #35 here, (albeit shakily – always wanted to use albeit in a story)."
And that's the reward of being minor league hockey fan.
In addition, the Alamo City connection continued in Friday’s game, when Dylan Olsen scored off a Trocheck feed. If Rampage fans sneezed they missed the former Blackhawks recruit in his four-game stint here last year. And Kyle Turris, arguably the best former Rampage player, looked good in a Senators uni as well.
Now MLHF’s continue to buy those jerseys, and revel at the antics of the players on the ice and brace themselves for the next departure…Shore, Grimaldi, Bobby Butler or whomever Dale Tallon summons, and then smile at their favorite’s success on the big screen.
P.S. Coaches Trivia!
The last two Panthers opposing head coaches have an Alamo City connection.
Senators coach Paul MacLean almost coached here. MacLean was the coach of the Peoria Rivermen when the team moved here to become the IHL’s Dragons in 1996. (Same league as the Orlando Solar Bears). MacLean stayed two weeks before getting the call to be an assistant coach with the Coyotes.
Carolina coach, Bill Peters, once ran the hockey program at the Crystal Ice Palace, THE small ice rink in NW San Antonio. Peters played one pro game, with the San Antonio Iguanas, and scored a goal and two assists as a replacement player. He drove the Zamboni and kept the palace running while his wife went to med school here. He later went on to coaching the Spokane Chiefs to the Memorial Cup before moving on to the pros in Rockford and the Red Wings.
About the writer: Tony Uminski was born in Boston and settled in San Antonio after a 22-year Air Force career, where he served as a broadcasting and journalism specialist. He broadcast San Antonio Iguanas (CHL) and San Antonio Dragons (IHL) games, along with a year with the Indianapolis Ice. Following his return to San Antonio, Uminski has been covering the San Antonio Rampage since the team's inception in 2002 for the San Antonio Express-News, and is widely hailed as Mr. Hockey in the Alamo City. Currently, a high school teacher full-time, Uminski teaches speech and world geography at Incarnate Word High School.