I’m currently reading the hockey edition of the popular Chicken Soup for the Soul series. There are some great stories in it, stories that have some amazing hockey history behind them. Although there are honestly too many of the “I didn’t even know I lived on the same planet as hockey until I met my boyfriend!” variety, there are more that are meaningful and inspiring.
The central theme that runs through quite a few of the stories I enjoyed revolved around The Moment/The Team/The Player. As I thought about these kinds of stories, I began to ponder what story I’d write about for the Crunch. Next year will mark the decade milestone for me as a fan. Out of all of my memories, which one want included in a CSFTS book?
It didn’t take long to figure that one out.
Back during the 09-10 season, things were looking kind of bleak. The summer had been long and fairly uneventful, giving away with a whimper to a season that was looking to be the same way. Movement during the off season had been barely enough to stir paper around. Returners like Alexandre Picard and Jon Mirasty gave fans something to be hopeful about, but fan favorite Dan Smith, a defenseman who had played two seasons with the Crunch, was left unsigned. As the season got going, it was apparent that goaltending was shaky, that defense was rough, and that the offense didn’t have enough fire power to combat those issues.
Fans were repeatedly asked to have patience with our group of guys, to give them until Christmas, then until the middle of the season, and then basically until CBJ left town, which they were once that season was done. We could all see in October where this was going, and as Dan Smith continued to be ignored, I decided to do something about it. I was confounded as to why one of the best defenseman in the AHL remained unsigned, especially by the organization he had fought for so recently.
Dan had earned a place in my heart during the much-adored 07-08 season, although I’m not exactly sure when. I’ve tried to pinpoint exactly when he became the epitome of an AHL defensemen in my mind, but the only thing I can remember is how nervous the team felt playing without him during the first few games of the ’08 Calder Cup playoffs, and how excited they all felt when he was healthy enough to rejoin them. That said a lot to me, and it stuck with me throughout the next season, during which Dan was Captain.
For those of you who don’t know him, Smitty is pretty much responsible for the current amount of enthusiasm I have for Radko Gudas. Gudy reminds me a lot of Dan, and I imagine that Gudy will continue to do so as he grows more mature in his game and mindset. If you picture Gudy in ten years, you pretty much have what Smitty was, give or take a goal or two.
Heart, soul, body-sacrificing, workhorse. All words that can describe both Smitty and Gudy.
I started my “campaign,” as it was, early in the 09-10 season. I really had no idea what I was doing, but I basically figured I would make as much of a nuisance of myself as I could and see where it got me. I made a petition and regularly e-mailed and wrote Chris MacFarland, the assistant GM of the Blue Jackets. I started a Facebook group to gather people together, and took their comments and sent them off. I did pretty much everything I could to get the attention of everyone I could think of.
In a lot of ways, my efforts didn’t work. I don’t live in a movie. Dan didn’t get invited back to the team with open arms. In fact, he ended up retiring later that season with a devastating injury in his knee. There wasn’t a savior to that season, and the CBJ years ended pretty unremarkably.
But, you know, in some ways…it didn’t turn out so bad after all.
First, it made difference in myself, as both a fan and a blogger. Although I had no real idea of what I was doing, I did manage to make connections and get myself further into the minds of pretty important people. My professional relationship with the Crunch’s front office developed quite a bit during this season, something I am still eternally grateful for. On the CBJ side, Chris MacFarland actually favored me with a phone call and an interview, which you can read here.
To be frank, I was taken seriously, and I really appreciated it. I never expected it, but when it happened, it felt good.
The second way it made a difference was, and I think I can say this, in what it did for Smitty. Somehow in the back and forth between myself, MJ–my blogging partner at the time—and our beat writer, I ended up with Dan’s e-mail. After agonizing over it longer than was probably necessary, I shot him a quick e-mail thanking him for the way he played while he was here, and emphasizing how upset I was that he hadn’t found a job yet.
Not only did he respond, but we ended up talking a bit here and there as the season went on, and he gave me the heads up before it went public that something was happening, although he also apologized that he couldn’t tell me exactly what. When Smitty announced he was retiring, I didn’t really know how to feel. I was so caught up in “the campaign” that I was completely taken aback, although I probably shouldn’t have been. There had to have been a reason that no team was signing him. But I kind of felt like that was it, things were over.
Happily, I was wrong.
Not too long after his announcement, I got up the courage to ask Dan if I could interview him for our site. As stated, Smitty had easily become my favorite player, so when he said yes, I was pretty much on cloud nine. During the course of the interview, which is still in its entirety here, I asked the following question:
What was your favorite memory from your time spent with Syracuse?
Smith’s response surprised me. He said the following:
To be honest, and it’s kinda gonna sound weird, but this past summer was kind of cool. The way I play, I don’t really…it’s not that I don’t like attention, but I just go out there and do my job. I don’t take praise, I don’t take anything, and then for the fans to respond the way they did during the summer…you know I was checking Lindsay’s blog, and for everyone to spend their time to try to get me back there…Honestly, I didn’t expect it, so if I’m going to remember anything it’s probably gonna be that and how the people there tried as hard as they could to get me back playing there. It was unbelievable. If I remember Syracuse for anything it’ll be that. It’s gonna be the last place I played so that’s kind of cool, too.
How I functioned for the rest of the interview after that, I’m not really sure. I wasn’t alone in the efforts to try to get him back, not in the least, but I kind of felt like those efforts were my brainchild. To hear him respond that way made me feel like we had accomplished something. We had made him see how loved he really was here. That was, in my mind, a victory worth being satisfied with.
Amidst all of this, Crunch fans actually did have something to look forward to. One of the only bright spots of that season happened three years ago today. The Syracuse Crunch took their game outdoors in the first-ever AHL Outdoor Classic. It happened at the New York State Fairgrounds, and the Crunch did it all on their own. The league we play in doesn’t fund the outdoor games that happen now, and it certainly wasn’t going to risk funding ours. This was something that had never been done in the history of the AHL.
The Crunch was planning on going big. They wanted to get the AHL attendance record in addition to having the first outdoor game. They figured if they were gonna do this thing, they were going to do it right. They had originally planned on having it at the local minor league ball park, but the Onondaga County legislature wasn’t willing to work with them. The game looked stalled until Senator Chuck Schumer stepped in and let the team use the fairgrounds.
The game was set to be against our interstate rivals, the Binghamton Senators. The Crunch had brought back fan favorite announcer Bobby Mac to play-by-play the game, as our announcer that season wasn’t all that great. Guests were planned from various moments in Crunch and New York State hockey history. The date was set. Merchandise was sold. Fans were getting ready to bundle up and brave the chilly CNY winter for an afternoon of old school pond puck (except, you know, not actually on a pond).
As the game approached, my mind kept going back to another question I had asked Smitty. I had asked about the game, wondering if the Crunch had extended an invitation for him to come back. He said he had talked with Jim Sarosy a little bit about it, but nothing more. I didn’t like that. I wanted him here for that game. So, I e-mailed Jim and asked. He agreed, and thanked me for that push to get him going about it.
On February 20th, 2010, Dan Smith was introduced as one of the most popular Captains in Crunch history to a record-breaking crowd of 21,508. Although he didn’t get to play, he got to be there. Alexandre Picard scored the first-ever goal in an AHL outdoor game, while Jon Mirasty got the first-ever fighting penalty in an AHL outdoor game. Kevin Lalande got the “W” for the Crunch in the first-ever AHL outdoor game. We got to see the first-ever AHL outdoor game.
There wasn’t too much to be proud of or happy with during that season. But The Player had pretty much made my life as a hockey fan. The Team—in this case, the Syracuse Crunch front office—had reached out to me and had listened. All in all, The Moment, an outdoor game that almost seemed fated to not happen, was definitely one to remember.