In 2004 the New York Rangers selected Nipawan, Saskatchewan native Dane Byers with the 48th overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft. Two years later, Byers joined the organization and made his debut for the club’s AHL farm team, the Hartford Wolf Pack. He’d spend the next four seasons with the Wolf Pack, putting up 72 goals and 162 points in 255 games en route to earning the team’s captaincy in December 2009 for his leadership and on-ice effort.
Less than a year later, having received only a six game cup of coffee in the NHL over his four year pro career, Byers saw the writing on the wall and asked to be traded. On Thursday his wish was granted when the Rangers swapped the 24-year old heart-and-soul winger for 24-year old former Phoenix Coyotes seventh round draft pick Chad Kolarik, who was acquired by the Columbus Blue Jackets in a trade deadline deal last spring.
Byers’ request was issued shortly after sophomore winger Evgeny Grachev was re-recalled by the Rangers on October 28th. Those who’ve watched the Wolf Pack play this season could see that Grachev, a highly-touted 2008 third round pick, was neither ready for the NHL, nor deserving of the reward based on his play in the AHL. Yet the supposedly-skilled winger spent six games with the Rangers — primarily in a fourth line role best suited for Byers crash-and-bang style of play — the same amount of NHL action Byers has seen in four years in the organization.
The Rangers couldn’t have sent Byers a clearer message that he had no future in New York.
“I didn’t want to be a great AHL hockey player or a great Hartford Wolf Pack player,” Byers told Bruce Berlet after his new team, the Springfield Falcons, topped his old team in a shootout Saturday night. “My goal is to play in the NHL, and sometimes you have to take a risk and move on. I just wanted an opportunity before I get too old.
It was a quirk of the schedule that Byers’ first game for his new club came in the arena he’d spent his entire professional career calling home. And it looked like his replacement, Kolarik, would earn the night’s accolades when he scored to tie the game at two just under eight minutes into the third period and teammate Jeremy Williams scored his second of the game five minutes later to put the Wolf Pack ahead for the first time in the game. But with 4:25 remaining in regulation, Byers’ one-timer off a cross-ice feed from Maksim Mayorov was tipped past goaltender Cam Talbot by Mike Blunden to send the two clubs to extra time.
An entertaining but scoreless overtime period led to a shootout, where Byers solidified his statement. Shooting to clinch the win after teammate Tomas Kubalik had scored to give the Falcons a 1-0 lead and four Wolf Pack shooters — including Kolarik — had been thwarted by Springfield stopper and ex-Wolf Pack Chad LeNeveu, Byers beat Talbot high on the glove side to send the home crowd home disappointed.
Many of those who have rooted for Byers for four years couldn’t help but smile.
Last night marked the final game the Wolf Pack will play in Hartford before being re-branded the Connecticut Whale as part of a misguided plan by Howard Baldwin to return the NHL and the Hartford Whalers to Connecticut’s capital. (Or just cash in on nostalgia and memorabilia sales to those naive enough to believe his plan has legs, I’m not really sure.) What that meant for my husband and I is that it was the last time we’ll make the two-and-a-half hour drive to Asylum Street to see a hockey game.
I’m not a Whalers fan. I never was a Whalers fan. My love of the Wolf Pack was born of being a Rangers fan. And while it will be the same Rangers prospects who continue to skate on the XL Center ice, somewhere along the way my attachment to the team became as much about the Wolf Pack’s brand and history as it did about the Rangers’ prospects. Now, after thirteen years and a Calder Cup championship that history is being tossed in the trash bin in favor of the history of a team that left over two decades ago and has no chance of ever coming back, with the goal of luring in a fanbase that has either A. ignored AHL hockey or B. openly derided it for thirteen years.
If they come, they’re hypocrites. It’s still AHL hockey, and its still the hated once-rival Rangers prospects playing it. My guess is they won’t. Oh, maybe there will be an early boost in attendance, thanks in large part to the media blitz on which Baldwin is about to embark. But it won’t last. And once Baldwin realizes he’s not going to get the financial support he needs to build a new arena built in Hartford — the most necessary step in his master plan of returning the NHL to Hartford — he’ll ride off into the sunset once again, taking the money he made off Hartford’s wave of nostalgia with him.
I refuse to contribute by giving him my ticket money or the satisfaction of two extra bodies in the seats. Fortunately, we have a half dozen AHL barns as close or closer to us than Hartford. We’ll continue to watch the Rangers’ prospects play there and online.
It’s not a decision we made lightly. Making the drive up to Hartford on Saturday afternoons has become a part of our lives. It’s just something my husband and I do. We have some fantastic memories of those trips, most notably meeting my favorite prospect’s dad, and the friendship that grew out of that experience. It’s sad to think there’ll be no more circuits around the dingy XL Center concourse between periods. And no more late-night drives back to New Jersey with the windows open and stereo blasting to try to keep us awake.
Whether AHL hockey in Hartford (already suffering from steadily declining attendance) survives will be anybody’s guess. I’m not so vain as to think the dozen trips or so my husband and I made to Hartford each season will ultimately affect Baldwin’s bottom line. But I know we’re not alone in refusing to take part in his preposterous plan.
Baldwin’s got three years to bring his folly to fruition. After that the Rangers will be free to look elsewhere for a new location for their AHL affiliate. As long as he’s still at the helm, I’ll be rooting for just that to happen when the time comes.
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