When you get down to the nuts and bolts of it all, the American Hockey League exists for two very distinct, but very intertwined reasons. First, and the farthest reaching, is for development purposes. Young, immature, inexperienced, and tawdry sportsman push hard to earn both a bigger paycheck and accomplish a lifelong dream of playing in the NHL. The minors have a way of thinning the heard in this regard, and the path to big league glory is very narrow. The second, and most pertinent to this argument, is the selfish successes that the hosting AHL city hopes to procure. An AHL squad cannot succeed as an organization without both of these roles working in tandem, with a careful attention towards not being negligent on either side.
In Oklahoma, a version of minor league hockey has been around since the early 30’s. Skipping the history lesson (but read it hear) , the players who’ve succeeded at becoming “faces” of Oklahoma hockey look nothing like those at higher levels. Typically they are under-sized, slight, awkward, un-fancy, slow, gangly, and generally not tier one talent. They work off-season jobs to make ends meet, but they play hard, and win the hearts of people in the stands. Stacey Bauman, Jared Bourassa, Joe Burton, Rod Branch, Jean-Ian Filiatrault, Hardy Sauter, Alan Perry, Sylvain Fleury, George Dupont, and Peter Arvanitis (to name only a few) all fit this bill at points in their Oklahoma hockey life.
The AHL is a different monster when compared to previous minor league teams that resided in OKC. But the need for the bantam player still exists. That is, the big moneymakers aren’t always the most important puzzle piece locally. Often it’s the least likely of the NHL-caliber lot.
Guys like Mark Arcobello whom emerge from double A hockey with a ferocity that seems unexpected. Or how about David LeNeuve? A guy who has faced many obstacles of geographic location, bouncing around from team-to-team, league-to-league with equal amounts of success and disappointment. Yet, he soldiers on playing the game he loves dearly and winning admiration along the way. Then there’s Bryan Helmer. The minor league journeyman with 146 games of NHL play, who has played pro hockey since 1989, and is able to lead a team of youngsters better than nearly everyone else in the league. Another would be Andrew Lord who did double duty last season between Wheeling of the ECHL and Oklahoma City of the AHL, and through 204 professional games has only had one negative +/- season and 508 PIM. He’s rough, raucous, and nasty when he needs to be. I, along with others, love him to pieces as a result.
Now, before Andrew Lord reads this and corners me on Reno one day, let me also say that the never give up attitude of “lifers”, “minor leaguers”, or “bantam” players is perhaps their most endearing quality. In off-ice interviews, the dream of hitting the NHL level nearly never goes away. All those players mentioned above will seek greatness even long after they remove the laces; through managing, coaching, directing, and instructing – they find ways to push on.
These players are needed in the minor leagues, and selfishly mean more to the local organization than even the organization themselves realize. They embody the best parts of hockey – hard work, intensity, fervor, and excitement.
In Oklahoma, we are still in the “selling the game” phase with a new team, and a new set of governing entities. Although the selling points have become three times what they were, the heart of what actually sells remains the same. The small, but strong. The eager, but not greedy. The passionate, but held back. The hard working, but lacking in talent. This is where the minor league clubs declare – We Need The Bantam!