Welcome to minor league hockey.
The PEI Senators made their debut at the Civic Centre on Saturday, October 9, 1993 as they hosted the Fredericton Canadiens. The game was a sellout as the AHL marked its 58th season with its newest franchise.
The Senators went 1-3 in the pre-season in September that included a 7-5 win over the Cape Breton Oilers in Summerside on September 30 and a 5-2 loss to the Moncton Hawks in Charlottetown on October 2. The Sens also lost 7-3 the Oilers and 4-3 to Moncton. Winger Jarmo Kekalainen led the attack with three goals and four assists while another winger, Greg Pankewicz scored five goals in the exhibition games.
The PEI club was not exactly healthy going into the season opener with eight players on the injured list. Right wingers Tomas Jelinek and Claude Savoie were added to the roster. Jelinek spent the 1992-93 season with Ottawa while Savoie scored 70 goals playing alongside Senators budding star Alexandre Daigle in Victoriaville in the Quebec Major Jr. Hockey League. Island native Kent Paynter was named captain and Andrew McBain and Scott White alternate captains before the season began.
Part of Ottawa’s training camp was scheduled for O’Leary and Charlottetown, September 16 and 17, a Thursday and Friday. After flight to Charlottetown Team White and Team Black were to practice in O’Leary and play in an evening scrimmage at the Civic Centre after a bus ride to Charlottetown. The line-up included highly publicized rookie Alexei Yashin.
A PEI Senators Booster Club was formed which carried out a number of activities during the season and sold 50/50 tickets at the home games. Nalda and Bruce Wheeler who were among the owners of the Armour Fence Islanders that won the Allan Cup in 1990-91 were behind the formation of the Booster Club. Nalda Wheeler was President, Bill Acorn, 1st Vice-President and Bruce Wheeler, 2nd Vice-President. The Booster Club had 40 adult members to start and 12 junior members who helped with stuffing programs and handing out pamphlets on game nights. Edwin Peterson was named Secretary and Damien Flood Treasurer. Gloria Large was named Club Historian. The Boosters helped raise $150,000 for the team in its first year. The proceeds from a Super 50/50 and car draw went to several Island charities. The Booster Club also organized the Senators awards banquet and other functions involving the players and the community.
Season ticket holders and those who bought corporate boxes were treated in the Senate Club located on the second floor of the Civic Centre each home game with a bar and tables filled with finger food. The Senators players got involved with a number of visits to schools, the children’s ward at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and other community and service clubs.
CHTN radio broadcast the Senators games with Rob Landry providing the play-by-play and Kevin Barrett, sports writer for The Guardian newspaper, the colour commentator. Landry was in his first year at calling the games and got his start with the Senators intra-squad game played at the Slemon Park Arena in Summerside in training camp. Landry was the voice of the Senators for the next three years with Barrett and then Dave Holland as his colour man in the final season. Scott Chapman also was behind the microphone doing play-by-play on road trips in the final season. The PEI Senators received tremendous media coverage during their tenure in Charlottetown.
On the ice, the Senators struggled with a 23-49-8 record and missed the playoffs finishing last in the Atlantic Division. The Portland Pirates won the AHL Calder Cup finals in six games over the Monton Hawks. Rookie Swede Robert Burakovsky led the Senators with 29 goals, 28 assists and 67 points in 52 games. Greg Pankewicz led the team in goals with 33 and had 62 points in 69 games. Rookie Chad Penney scored 20 goals and future NHL star Pavol Demitra, who was just 18, had 20 goals and 50 points. Former Toronto Maple Leaf goalie Mark LaForest played in 43 games in the nets with a 9-25 won-lost record and 4.09 goals against average. He was named the PEI Senators Booster Club Most Valuable Player in a vote among his team-mates. Andy Schneider was named the Guardian-Patriot Rookie of the Year with his 15 goals and 61 points in 61 games.
The Senators averaged 2,296 fans per game 40 home games which was better support than they received in the previous season in New Haven but still not the 3,000 the Ottawa Senators were looking for at the start. Total attendance could be just under 92,000. The parent club expected to lose $750,000 in fees and its expenses in the first year which was on par with other NHL farm teams.
Charlottetown Mayor Tex MacDonald cited that the $12.50 ticket price was third highest in the six-team Atlantic Division. He said it may keep some fans away. The Mayor also noted the need for a $5.00 student ticket. The Senators tried a $7.50 children’s ticket for one home game in December but only 1,985 fans showed up. Director of Operations Gary Thompson was optimistic the crowds would get bigger. He noted “Farming just stopped three weeks ago (in November). We’ll get more fans when work slows down”.
RookieChad Penney 1993-94
The Inaugural Season – 1993-94
The Ottawa Senators pulled the plug on their AHL affiliate on PEI on April 29, 1996 the morning after bowing out in the first round of the playoffs to the Fredericton Canadiens. A hastily put together news conference was called at the Civic Centre just hours after the players had put the cap on the season. Oleg Petrov scored in the third period on a breakaway and set up two others as the Fredericton Canadiens got by the Senators, 5-3 on April 28, 1996 before 3,224 fans. Most fans went home disappointed knowing the season was over after just the fifth game of the playoffs. They had no idea the parent club was planning on taking their farm club out of Charlottetown.
Tom Nicholls who was the Assistant Director of Operations said the only indication that something might be up was a request to prepare a news conference the morning after the game. A short 22-word news release was issued to media members following the contest.
Kevin Barrett, who covered the Senators for three seasons for The Guardian figured the news would not be good. “It was stunning to even think that might happen, but not so surprising to others.” Barrett and other media members attended the media conference the next morning along with staff from the team, some booster club members, team owners and a few fans. The proceedings were short and not so sweet. Senators President Randy Sexton made it official that Ottawa was moving out of Charlottetown and reiterated the lower than expected attendance as being a major factor in the decision. What began just three years previous was now over. The Senators decided to share their farm team with St. Louis in Worcester, Massachusetts for 1996-97.
The final season at the Civic Centre was a dramatic one. Darcy Simon, a rugged defenseman, was captain of the Sens in the 1995-96 season. He was as much disappointed as the fans at the news but pointed out that pro hockey is a business.
The final edition of the PEI Senators repeated as first place finishers in the Atlantic Division (tied for first in points with Saint John but they had three more regulation wins than the Flames) with a 38-33-9 record for 85 points. St. John’s Maple Leafs finished third and only five points back. The Fredericton Canadiens were fourth and just six points out of first.
Jean Yves Roy, a crafty right winger, finished as the team’s top scorer and eighth in the AHL with 40 goals, 55 assists and 95 points. Shawn Heaphy tied Michel Picard for second in team scoring with 82 points. Heaphy was a 40 goal scorer. Pavol Demitra, now a 20-year old with three years pro experience, scored 28 times and set up 53 others for 81 points. Chad Penney, a promising 21-year old forward had 23 goals and 60 points. Frederic Cassivi led the team in the nets with a 20-14-3 record while Lance Leslie, the main back-up, was 12-12-3.
Saint John won the Atlantic Division final over Fredericton. Rochester Americans won the Calder Cup in ’96 in seven game set over the defending champion Portland Pirates.
Pavol Demitra went on for a fine NHL career with Ottawa, St.Louis, the Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota Wild and Vancouver Canucks. He was several players and coaches who died in a horrific plane crash on September 7, 2011 when the jetliner crashed taking off with the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team of the KHL on board. Ray Murphy, whose family welcomed the young Demitra to stay with him at their home in Sherwood when he arrived on the Island, was devastated by the awful news. “He was a young man with a lot of character and was true to his profession”, said Murphy who was a director with the Senators. “He was just a teenager when he came to the Island but was quite mature and made a solid effort to learn English and adjust to North American life”. Demitra played in 847 NHL games scoring 304 goals and picking up 768 points. He won the Lady Byng trophy for sportsmanship and ability in 1999-00.
Demitra as the youngest on the team was tested by the veteran players. One practical joke in particular stands out. In his first season the Senators went on a long road trip that would last about two weeks. Goalie Mark LaForest and a couple of other team-mates decided to pull a fast one on the 18-year old. Demitra had just purchased a new Jeep and the players had the vehicle taken and hidden in the back of LaForest’s residence in Parkdale. When they returned Pavol couldn’t find his new Jeep in the Civic Centre parking lot for the players. He called the Charlottetown Police Department and reported his ride was missing. Legend has it that a couple of the police officers were in on the deal although it was never proven. After a few days the Jeep was returned to the parking lot. Demitra couldn’t believe his eyes. Eventually those in on the disappearance of the Jeep owned up to it.
Some other notables on the Senators continued their careers. Bruce Gardiner played in part of six NHL seasons and collected 34 goals and 88 points in 312 games. Claude Savoie, who was promising as a draft choice, finished out his career in Europe. Chad Penney, a Labrador City, Newfoundland-Labrador native ended his pro career in 1998-99 and was just 26 when he hung them up.
There were some success stories. Ray Shero who spent a winter on PEI, went on to a fine career as an NHL general manager. Pierre McGuire, who also spent several months with the team, became an announcer and analyst for NBC and TSN after being a scout for Ottawa and later an assistant coach. Two other general managers were born out of the Senators. Players Jarmo Kekalainen (Columbus) and Brad Treliving (Calgary) made the jump to the front office. Goaltender Mike Bales became goalie coach for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Darren Rumble wound up coaching the Moncton Wildcats in the QMJHL. Steve Larouched became assistant coach with the Shawinigan Cataractes in the Q.
There was a lot of sadness in the Senators front office after Director of Operations Gary Thompson suffered a near fatal stroke in September, 1995. Everyone associated with the team was affected. Nicholls took over as director of operations. Thompson did recover but had to retire.
Nicholls called him “the best boss I ever had in my life”. The front office rallied behind him and carried on but it was not business as usual.
Head Coach Dave Allison had a trying year. Ottawa had yet to make the playoffs as a now five year NHL expansion team. Rick Bowness was the only head coach they had known. He was fired just nineteen games into the new season with a 6-13 record. Allison was summoned to Ottawa who finally got his chance to coach in the big leagues. But it was a short stay as the Senators went 2-22-1 under him during the next 25 games. Allison was let go (along with assistant coach Pierre McGuire and goalie coach Chico Resch on January 27, 1995) and replaced by Jacques Martin (who had better luck with a 10-24-4 mark in the final 38 games). Allison had a 51-42-10 record with PEI over 2 and a half seasons and helped coached the team to pair of first place finishes in the Atlantic. He ended the campaign in ’95-96 as an analyst on the CHTN radio Senators broadcast. Allison became head coach in Grand Rapids in the IHL in 1996-97 and was not out of job too long. He’s spent the last number of years coaching in the minors and wining a league championship in the SIJHL with the Borderland Thunder. At age 57 he was coaching the Des Moines Buccaneers in 2015-16. Allison was just 35 when he began coaching the Sens back in 1994-95.
There were some other great characters with the Senators. None was finer than Ken “Gunner” Garrett who was the team trainer for three years. Gunner ran a tight ship and kept the media in line. He was the un-official greeter in the dressing room and constantly reminded the media members to keep out of the alley way that led to the dressing area. Player interviews were often held in the alley way and the scrums got into the way of the training staff. Gunner spent a lot of the 70’s as Toronto owner Harold Ballard’s right hand man at Maple Leaf Gardens. He pushed Pal Hal around in a wheelchair as one of his duties. Garrett had a picture of himself and Bob Hope in the Senators trainer’s room. One of the players remarked, looking at the black and white framed photo, “Bob Hope and No Hope”.
Gunner made one good friend with the media. Scott Chapman, who did the play-by-play on road trips for CHTN, helped carry the equipment into the dressing room off the bus in Springfield on one trip. Chapman became an instant hit with the training staff and in particular Gunner Garrett.
Another character was super fan Wade Babineau (aka Conehead) who entertained the home crowd each night and often picked on opposing players. He wore a cone on his head and many nights a kilt and often danced in the stand or near the visitor’s penalty box where he would straddle the pipes that separated the seats and the walkway below. He carried a horn and PEI flag. He could also get on player’s nerves. One of his favourite targets was Donald Brashear of the Fredericton Canadiens (and later in Montreal and Philadelphia). One game he dangled a brassiere attached to a hockey stick and dangled it over Brashear in the penalty box. On another occasion Conehead and former Leaf Gary Leeman of the Saint John Flames almost got into it as Babineau got a little too personal. He later apologized to Leeman and the dust settled.
Canadian actor Dan Akroyd (who starred in the movie “Coneheads”) wanted to meet Babineau on a trip to promote his new wine brand in Charlottetown in 2007. “Take me too him. I want to meet him”, said Akroyd in his best Conehead voice when learning about his counterpart.
Some great memories were all that were left as the Senators brass ended the three year franchise. There was a little irony in place with average attendance up to 2,508 in the final season and nearly 100 fans better per game than 1994-95. But it was not enough to save the team.
The PEI Senators had an all-time record of 240 games played, 102 wins, 113 losses, 22 overtime losses and 3 shootout losses.
Pavol Demitra was the all-time leading scorer for PEI with 72 goals and 196 points in 150 games. Michel Picard was next with 69 goals and 171 points.
It was only three years but no doubt most fans would not have traded the experience of having pro hockey on PEI for anything.
The PEI Senators made their mark.
First Head Coach Don MacAdam 1993-94
1995-96 – The Final Season
Second Head Coach Dave Allison 1994-96
The Second Season – 1994-95
Changes came for the sophomore season with a new coaching staff headed by Dave Allison who was hired on July 18, 1994. Allison was head coach of the Kingston Frontenacs of the OHL the previous two years. Allison was a good fit for the Senators having played with the Nova Scotia Voyageurs, Montreal’s top farm club, from 1979 to 1984. He played three NHL games with the Canadiens. The big red head brought some excellent coaching credentials with him as a motivator and a man with an excellent work ethic. He also communicated well with players and had a deep understanding of the game. His brother Mike played ten seasons for the New York Rangers, Toronto and Los Angeles. Allison brought his wife Marion and daughter Avery to Charlottetown, a place his family loved. Allison had a slow fuse but keep out of the way if he got upset. After one particular close loss, the media attempted to parade down in the alley way in the Senators dressing room in the Civic Centre which led to the coach’s office for post-game comments. The door opened abruptly and a glass coffee pot came flying out hitting the adjoining cinder block wall. Glass and black coffee flew everywhere outside the players’ dressing area. No interviews tonight.
Allison, other than tossing coffee pots, was tremendous with the media. On one occasion he explained the psyche of the modern minor league player saying “these guys don’t want to be here – they want to be in Ottawa”. He made no excuses for losing or being shorthanded when the parent club called players up from their affiliate. “You play the hand you’re dealt”, was his answer when questioned about having a short bench. Allison expected toughness and grit from his players, no matter what the situation.
The Senators added some new faces prior to the season. High scoring Steve Larouche, a member of the IHL Turner Cup champion Atlanta Knights joined the Sens. He was also MVP in the playoffs. Michel Picard He picked up his third Calder Cup ring in the previous spring playing for the Portland Pirates (he also won two Calder Cups with the Springfield Indians. Picard was selected to the AHL Second Team All-Stars scoring 41 times and adding 44 assists in only 61 games.
The Senators defense was bolstered with the addition of Darren Rumble and Lance Pitlick and Corey Foster, both from Hershey and goalie Mike Bales, who played in Providence. Rookie defenseman Patrick Traverse (3rd round pick of Ottawa in 1992) and centre Bruce Gardiner from Colgate University were among others to join the team. The Senators showed dramatic improvement in their second year in Charlottetown jumping 36 points in the standings with a 41-31-8 record and capturing the top spot in the Atlantic Division – going worst to first. The Senators dropped the Saint John Flames in five games in the opening round of the playoffs but lost to the Fredericton Canadiens in the second round in six. The Albany River Rats went on to win the Calder Cup in a four game sweep of Fredericton.
Steve Larouche was second in scoring in the league with a Senators record 53 goals, 38 assists and 101 points. Picard finished with 32 goals, 57 assists and 89 points. Peter White of the Cape Breton Oilers topped the AHL with 105 points including 36 goals. Larouche averaged 1.4 points a game. He had five hat tricks during the season. Pavol Demitra had 26 goals, 48 assists and 74 points in 61 games. Greg Pankewicz was second in goals with 37 plus 30 assists for 67 points. Mike Bales had a 25-16 record in goal and a 3.62 goals against average. Rookie netminder J.F. Labbe had a 13-14 record and 3.10 goals average. In eleven playoff games Andy Schneider led the Sens with 5 goals and 5 assists. Picard had 4 goals, 4 assists. Larouche only played in two post season games and scored a goal.
The Senators improved immensely during the season and captured the Chrysler Cup as Division champs. Attendance increased to 2,430 per game at the Civic Centre but just 134 more per game than 1993-94.