A Look Back at the 2000 Calder Cup Champion Wolf Pack
It’s June 4th, 2000 at Blue Cross Arena at the War Memorial in Rochester, NY. The Hartford Wolf Pack have just beaten the Rochester Americans 4-1 in game 6 of the Calder Cup Finals to secure the franchise’s first Calder Cup championship and the first professional title for Connecticut’s capital city. On April 10th, the Wolf Pack were to honor the 2000 Calder Cup Champions during their home finale for the 2019-20 season as part of Fan Appreciation Night. With the outbreak of COVID-19 having different plans, this reunion and celebration never took place at a time when the Hartford Wolf Pack had seen a resurgence in play and emphasis being once again placed on a winning atmosphere mixed with development of top New York Rangers prospects.
While we weren’t able to celebrate the the 20th anniversary of the Pack’s Cup winning team in person, I thought taking a look back at the team that brought Hartford it’s first and only, to date, pro championship was in order.
Coming off of a regular season where they finished 2nd in the New England Division and would exit in the 2nd round of the playoffs at the hand of the eventual champion Providence Bruins in a sweep, the Pack were looking to take the next step and become a serious contender for the Calder Cup. While the team kept much of their core players led by captain Ken Gernander, Brad Smyth, Johan Witehall, Derek Armstrong, Todd Hall, PJ Stock, Dale Purinton and Jean-Francois Labbe in goal, the Pack and the Rangers both knew that there were pieces that still needed to be added. EJ McGuire, who led the Pack behind the bench during the team’s first 2 seasons in Hartford was replaced by John Paddock, a former player and coach who had won Calder Cups with the Maine Mariners and Hershey Bears where he was also awarded the Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award as coach of the year in 1988. Pieces were then added on the ice as Terry Virtue, a key member the Bruins team that had beaten the Pack in the ’99 playoffs, joined the Pack along with Milan Hnilicka to partner with Labbe in net while other players such as Jason Dawe, Alexandre Daigle and Manny Malhotra would join the Pack at points later in the season.
While the Wolf Pack would face a few challenges that season, particularly from a resurgent Portland Pirates team that stayed with the Pack in the standings most of the season, Hartford would go on to win the New England Division with a record of 49-22-7-2 for 107 points and capture the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy in doing so. Derek Armstrong’s 82 points would lead the team in scoring while 28 goals for he and Gernander would rank 2nd to Brad Smyth as ‘Shooter’ would net 39 goals for the Pack. Armstrong would finish 3rd in the league in scoring while Smyth’s 76 points were 7th in the league. The duo of Labbe and Hnilicka in goal would combine for a GAA of 2.34 on the season and combine to win the Harry ‘Hap’ Holmes Memorial Award in that category. Labbe would lead the way as the Pack’s number one goaltender with his 22-11 record, 2.52 GAA and .924 save percentage while also becoming the 5th goaltender in league history to score a goal. He would do that on February 5th, 2000 against the Quebec Citadelles at The Coliseé. The stellar goaltending combined with a shutdown defense anchored by Virtue, Drew Bannister, Alexi Vasiliev and Tomas Kloucek also meant that the Pack only allowed 198 goals all season, the only AHL team to not allow more than 200 goals that season.
After finishing the regular season with the highest point total in the AHL, the Pack set sights on the playoffs. Beginning with the New England Division semifinals, a best of 5 series, the Springfield Falcons had the Pack on the brink. Down 2-1 in the series after an overtime loss at home in game 2 and being shut out in Springfield in game 3 the next night, the Pack stormed back with a 5-2 win in Springfield to tie the series and take a convincing 7-2 victory at the then-Hartford Civic Center to advance to the second round where they would face the Worcester Ice Cats. The Pack had an easier effort against Worcester taking the series 4-1 in a best of 7 setting up a playoff rematch against the team that eliminated them from the playoffs the year prior and defending Calder Cup champion Providence Bruins, who despite finishing last in the New England Division, made the playoffs with the playoff structure in place at the time.
The Wolf Pack and Bruins would split the first 2 games of the series in Hartford, the Pack taking game 1 and the Bruins taking game 2. The series would shift to Providence for games 3 and 4 where the both teams played very tightly contested games that saw the Bruins take both games which included a double overtime win in game 4. The Pack now found themselves back home down 3-1 in the series and their season to, again, be on the brink. The Pack would take game 5 in Hartford by a 3-2 score and win game 6 in Providence 2 nights later 5-3 to break a 16 game playoff home winning streak and set up a deciding game 7 in Hartford. Down 2-1 midway through the 3rd the Pack tied the game midway through the period to force overtime. In a battle along the boards for a loose puck, Johan Witehall threw a puck at the net that was stopped but the rebound found Terry Virtue, a member of the Bruins the prior season. What happened next would forever etch Terry Virtue’s name forever into Hartford hockey history as his rebound shot at 7:32 into that overtime deflected into the net off of ex-Wolf Pack Peter Ferraro and sent the Pack to the Calder Cup Finals and sending the crowd of 10,623 at the Hartford Civic Center into a frenzy. The call of Terry Virtue’s goal by legendary voice of the Wolf Pack, Bob Crawford, can still be echoed to this day.
In the Finals, the Wolf Pack would face off against the Rochester Americans, who’s 104 points were 2nd in the AHL only to the Pack. The Wolf Pack and Amerks would trade wins through the first 4 games of the series, including a JF Labbe shutout win in game 1. Labbe would post another shutout in the series with a 3-0 Wolf Pack win at home in game 5 of the series to put the Pack ahead going into a possible deciding game 6 in Rochester. In game 6, the Wolf Pack would jump out to a 3-0 lead after 1 period behind PPG’s from Derek Armstrong and Johan Witehall while Todd Hall would score the Pack’s 2nd goal. Hall and Armstrong each would also add an assist in that period. Rochester would answer back in the 2nd on a goal by recently inducted AHL Hall of Famer Denis Hamel but 3-1 would be as close as the Amerks would get as Witehall would put the series and the season on ice with an empty net goal for his 2nd of the game. To quote Bob Crawford, it was over, the Wolf Pack were AHL champions.
With 7 goals and 16 assists for 23 points in 23 playoff games, Derek Armstrong was awarded the Jack Butterfield Memorial Trophy as playoff MVP and Ken Gernander hoisted the Calder Cup when presented by David Andrews. Brad Smyth, Ken Gernander and JF Labbe would later be inducted into the AHL Hall of Fame while Gernander would go on to coach the Pack as an assistant for 2 seasons after retirement and go on to be head coach for the following 10 seasons reaching the Eastern Conference Finals in 2015. His number 12 remains the only number retired by the team. The Wolf Pack would go on to make the playoffs every year for the first 12 years of existence but would ultimately fall short in the 9 seasons that followed their Calder Cup win but find themselves missing the playoffs 7 out of the last 10 seasons including the last 4 seasons though with the hockey and remaining sports at a standstill, it may soon be a 5th straight season of no playoffs.
While much of the Pack’s recent futility can be blamed on poor personnel decisions, outdated coaching styles and transactions made by the Rangers to build them for a run to the Stanley Cup by dealing prospects and draft picks away. During Brad Smyth’s Hall of Fame speech, he referenced that Hartford teams were built to win when he played here, this season’s Wolf Pack team has seen many changes and appear to be trending back in that right direction with the possibility of one day raising the Calder Cup again for Connecticut’s capital city.