It is difficult in any sport to repeat as champions. In American League Hockey it has happened just eight times, with 2008-09 and 2009-10 Hershey Bears being the last to accomplish the feat. The old Springfield Indians are the lone AHL club to three-peat, doing so from 1959-62. In the 1995-96 season, the Albany River Rats were the pure definition of domination.
Fresh off a Calder Cup championship season in 1994-95, the Rats and their defending Stanley Cup champion parent club New Jersey Devils, were riding high and looking to capture a second consecutive Cup. Alas it was not to be, as the free wheeling River Rats fell to the clutch and grab Conwall Aces (along with some pennies from heaven on the ice in Albany from Cornwall Head Coach Bob Hartley and a pair of disallowed Rats goals in Game 4 at Cornwall) and while fans knew the Rats would be back with a vengeance, twenty years later and no second Cup, makes it an even tougher pill to swallow.
Just how good was that Albany squad? It was likely the best team in Albany history to never win a Calder Cup. Those River Rats were an Albany AHL best 54-19-7 (115 points), good enough for a .719 winning percentage, tallying a franchise best 322 goals. They were piloted by Robbie Ftorek, who became the second AHL Head Coach and first since Bill Dineen of the Adirondack Red Wings in 1984-85 and 1985-86, to earn the Louis A.R. Pieri Award in two consecutive seasons. Albany captured its second consecutive regular season points title, while winning the Central Division. That year also saw the River Rats run-off a 21 game unbeaten streak, from November 1 to December 27. Within that streak, the club ripped off 15 straight wins. For those of you younger fans out there, think of the 2011-12 Calder Cup champion Norfolk Admirals, who tore off 28 straight victories to close out that regular season.
That Albany squad was primed for a repeat performance but along with some of the aforementioned reasons, coupled with some of the New Jersey players sent down toward the end of the season, they just couldn’t quite get it clicking again when the playoffs rolled around. Despite the disappointing end result, we take a look back at a team to be proud of and where those players eventually wound up.
Brad Bombardir – Bomber won the Calder Cup with Albany and the Stanley Cup with the 1999-00 Devils and last played in the NHL for the Nashville Predators in 2003-04. In 1995-96, Bombardir had six goals, 25 assists and a +/- rating of plus 38, topping all Rats’ blue liners. Bombardir presently serves as the Director of Player Development and Senior Director of Community Relations with the Minnesota Wild.
Bryan Helmer – Won three Calder Cups during a 20-year pro career (Albany (1) Hershey (2)). Set an AHL record for points by a defenceman. Helmer scored 14 goals and added 30 helpers, along with 107 penalty minutes and a plus 29 rating in 1995-96. That season, Helmer recorded two goals in the Calder Cup playoffs against Cornwall. Helmer is now an assistant coach with the AHL Hershey Bears.
Steve Brule – Along with the aforementioned Bombardir and Helmer, Brule paced the club with 80 games played. Brule, who was a member of the 1994-95 Calder Cup squad, added to his accolades in 1995-96, scoring 30-goals for Albany. Scored the last playoff goal of a Devils affiliated team in Albany. Brule was last playing for Jonquiere Marquis of the LNAH, in 2012-13.
Bobby House – A member of the 1994-95 Calder Cup team, House had a huge 1995-96 campaign. That season, House netted a team leading 37 goals and posted a club best 86 points in 77 contests.. Last played during the 2004-05 campaign with the Hamburg Freezers of the German Elite League.
Scott Pellerin – Another member of the 1994-95 Calder Cup squad. Pellerin took over the reigns of the captaincy from Kevin Dean in 1995-96. That season, Pellerin notched 35 markers, 82 points and racked up 142 penalty minutes in 75 games. After playing 536 games in the NHL, Pellerin retired following the 2003-04 season. Pellerin was serving as the Head Coach of the AHL Bridgeport Sound Tigers through the 2013-14 season.
Patrik Elias – During the 1995-96 season, a then 19-year-old Elias, scored 27 goals, totaling 63 points in 74 games, playing alongside Scott Pellerin and Steve Sullivan. In four playoff games, Elias registered a goal and an assist. Presently, Elias is in his 19th NHL season with the New Jersey Devils. Elias is the all-time leading scorer in Devils franchise history, potting 395 goals, totaling 993 points. Elias also played for two Stanley Cup championship winning teams in New Jersey.
Geordie Kinnear – Across 73 games in 1995-96, Kinnear, who was a member of the 1994-95 Calder Cup team, racked up 170 penalty minutes. Kinnear would play parts of seven seasons with Albany and would also serve as an assistant coach with the team. In 1999-00, Kinnear appeared in four games with the Atlanta Thrashers. Additionally, Kinnear’s number four still hangs from the rafters in Albany. Presently, Kinnear is an assistant coach with the AHL Charlotte Checkers.
Eric Bertrand -In the 1995-96 season, Betrand played 70 games, scoring 16 goals and totaled 199 penalty minutes. Betrand played four years with Albany and got into 15 NHL games between New Jersey, Atlanta and Montreal. In 2012-13, Bertrand last played professionally with Sorel-Tracy Carvena, of the LNAH. Currently, Bertrand works as an Account Executive at Colgate Palmolive in Quebec.
Vadim Sharifijanov – The “Sharif” totaled 14 goals and 42 points in 69 games, during the 1995-96 season. Sharifijanov was a member of the 1994-95 Calder Cup team and played parts of five years with Albany. He last played in the NHL during the 1999-00 season with the Vancover Canucks. Was spotted playing in some lower level Russian leagues until the 2009-10 season.
Pascal Rheaume – Potted 26 markers that season, acros 68 games. Rheaume, who totaled 68 points that season, added a goal and two helpers in the playoffs. Also a member of the Rats 1994-95 Calder Cup and 2002-03 Devils Stanley Cup winning squads. Rheaume played parts of six seasons with Albany. Rheaume last played in the NHL in 2005-06 and the AHL in 2009-10. Currently working as Head Coach with the Sherbrooke Cougars of the QJHL.
Denis Pederson – Yet another returning member from the 1994-95 Calder Cup winning team. During the 1995-96 season, Pederson posted 71 points, with 28 goals and 43 helpers. In four playoff contests, Pederson picked up a goal and a pair of assists. Pederson played parts of three seasons with the River Rats. Last played in the NHL for the Nashville Predators in 2002-03. His final professional season came with the Berlin Polar Bears in 2011-12. Now lives in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.
Ricard Persson – Also a member of the 1994-95 Calder Cup team, Persson set a franchise record for goals by a defenceman with 15, across 67 contests. Persson led Albany blue liners with 46 points and had a rating of plus 31. Last played in the NHL during the 2001-02 season, with the Ottawa Senators. His final professional season came with Cortina SG of Italy in 2009-10.
Darin Kimble – During the 1995-96 season, Kimble accumulated 144 penalty minutes in 60 games. An NHL veteran of 311 games, Kimble last played professionally in 2001-02 with the UHL Missouri River Otters. Currently, Kimble resides in Granite City, IL, coaching advanced youth hockey.
Chris McAlpine -Played 48 games for the Calder Cup squad in 1994-95 and was a member of the Stanley Cup champion Devils, playing 24 contests in 1995. McAlpine played parts of three seasons in Albany. In 1995-96, McAlpine had 19 points in 57 games, along with 72 penalty minutes and was a plus 21. McAlpine skated in 289 NHL games, last playing for the Los Angeles Kings in 2002-03 and professionally with the AHL Cincinnati Mighty Ducks in 2004-05. Presently, McAlpine is a Player Rep at Octagon in Minnesota.
Steve Sullivan – A member of the Calder Cup winning club in 1994-95. Scored 33 goals and had 42 helpers and 75 points in 1995-96. Sullivan also had three goals in four playoff games. Sullivan played in over 1,011 NHL games and scored 290 goals. Sullivan played parts of three years with Albany and was elected into the River Rats Hall of Fame. Presently, Sullivan serves as a development coach with the Arizona Coyotes.
Krzysztof Oliwa – Another member of the 1994-95 Calder Cup club. Oliwa piled up a team leading 217 penalty minutes across 51 games in 1995-96. Oliwa played parts of four years with the River Rats. Oliwa amassed 1,447 penalty minutes in 410 NHL games. In 1999-00, Oliwa became the first Polish player to win a Stanley Cup, as member of the Devils. Oliwa last played in the NHL in 2005-06 and was involved for a time with the Polish national team.
Mike Dunham – Co-winner of the Harry (Hap) Holmes Memorial Award, for playoff MVP with the 1994-95 Calder Cup champs. In the 1995-96 campaign, Dunham won 30 games, posting a goals against average of 2.52. Dunham played parts of four seasons in Albany. Dunham last played in the NHL for the New York Islanders in 2006-07. Currently, Dunham is a goalie coach in the Isles organization with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers of the AHL.
Cale Hulse – The solid defenceman had 215 penalty minutes on the 1994-95 Calder Cup winning squad. In 1995-96, Hulse was a plus 27 and had 107 penalty minutes in 42 games, before being dealt to the Calgary Flames. I remember as a kid I was not very happy that Cale was traded but I digress. Hulse played parts of three years with Albany and netted a goal in the Calder Cup clincher at Fredericton. Accrued 1,000 NHL PIM, was an alternate captain for the Flames, Predators and Coyotes and last played in the NHL during the 2005-06 season. Presently, Hulse is a Senior Advisor of Business Development and Alumni Relations with the Arizona Coyotes.
Peter Sidorkiewicz – “El Sid,” played parts of four seasons with the River Rats. During the 1995-96 campaign, Sidorkiewicz had a goals against average of 2.95, registering 19 victories and three shutouts. An NHL All-Star with the Ottawa Senators, Sidorkiewicz suited up for 246 games. Sidorkiewicz last played professional in the AHL with the River Rats in 1997-98. Currently, Sidorkiewicz is an assistant coach with Dornbiner EC of the Austrian Hockey League.
Mark Strobel – Strobel played 28 games with the 1995-96 River Rats, posting a goal and an assist, along with 36 penalty minutes. Strobel last played professionally in the AHL with the 1996-97 Rats. After his playing days, Strobel was an assistant coach at the University of Minnesota-Duluth and the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Strobel currently resides in Minnesota, where he is a District Sales Manager for Tornier.
Dan Keczmer – When the Devils traded Hulse to Calgary, one of the players they received in return was Keczmer. Keczmer had been playing for the Saint John Flames and suited up for 17 games with the River Rats in 1995-96. In those 17 games, Keczmer recorded four assists. A veteran of 235 NHL games, the defenceman Keczmer last played professionally in 1999-00 for the AHL Worcester IceCats. Keczmer presently lives in Nashville, TN, working as the VP of Distribution for Carlin Obrian.
Bill Armstrong – A member of the Rats 1994-95 Calder Cup title team, the London, Ontario native and master of the “high wrap trick shot,” totaled seven points in ten games that season, before being dealt to the IHL Detroit Vipers. While Armstrong’s career was cut short by a brain tumor, after his playing days he would become an assistant coach with Guelph Storm and serve as a scout with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Currently, Armstrong is working in Real Estate in the London, Ontario area.
Robbie Ftorek – Won consecutive Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Awards for best AHL coach in 1994-95 and 1995-96. Ftorek would also coach the Devils, Boston Bruins, River Rats again, the Erie Otters of the OHL and as recently as last season, was an assistant coach with the old Abbottsford Heat.
(Note: There were many more players who contributed to the River Rats that season. Those who played in less than ten games that year, are listed here: Rob Pattison, Petr Sykora, Jay Pandolfo, Reid Simpson, Peter Ambroziak, Kevin Dean, Sheldon Souray, Curt Regnier, Bob Hoffmeyer, Mike Vukonich, Brad Willner, Nathan Perrott, Mike Strobel, Corey Schwab, Matt DelGuidice, Andre Racicot, Mike Heinke).