Know Your Enemy
Jan 10, 2012
By Jason Karnosky
At its core, the American Hockey League encourages fierce rivalries.
Geography determines both divisions and conferences, with inter-conference games few and far between during the league’s regular season.
The result for member squads like Milwaukee is a schedule weighted heavily with just a limited number of teams (similar to the Original Six days of the National Hockey League). Over the course of its 76-game AHL campaign, the Admirals play 44 games against just four teams—their four Midwest Division counterparts (12 contests against Rockford, Peoria and Chicago, and another eight against freshly Western Conference-minted Charlotte).
“Playing these teams so many times, we know how important it is to win those games,” Milwaukee forward Mark Van Guilder said. “We need those points to keep teams behind you in the standings or to catch the ones you are chasing.”
Facing each other so often, divisional games become a test of wills, with few secrets withheld. Going into battles with the Wolves, Ice Hogs, Rivermen and Checkers, Milwaukee’s players and coaches know the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents and they in turn know the Admirals just as well.
“When you are playing the same team over and over again, there are no secrets there,” Van Guilder said. “(At times) there is so much familiarity there that it can be tough to create offense.”
That familiarity also breeds plenty of bad blood. Divisional games tend to promote a special intensity that spells itself out in fierce battles along the boards and with plenty of post-whistle scrums and fights.
“There are a lot of tight games played at more of a grinding style, which can sometimes cause guys to get frustrated,” Van Guilder said. “And it certainly gets feisty, especially when you see a team 12 times like we do.”
But of all of Milwaukee’s Midwest Division rivals, the team that stands out above the rest on the passion scale is Chicago. When the Admirals and Wolves take the ice against each other, the records are thrown out the window as the players fight for every inch and every possible advantage.
“Things are little bit different this year because Chicago changed affiliations from Atlanta to Vancouver during the offseason,” Admirals captain Scott Ford said. “But even now the games against the Wolves are always close, hard-nosed contests. We look forward to beating up on them as I’m sure they do with us.”
To date Milwaukee has had plenty of chances to get used to new-look Chicago. In the Admirals’ first 28 games this season, the Wolves were the opponent seven different times. Game eight commences this Friday at AllState Arena in Chicago’s northern suburbs.
“It seems like we’ve played Chicago every weekend this season,” Van Guilder said.
Familiarity due to scheduling is just one reason why the Amtrak rivalry is one the league’s fiercest. Franchise history also plays a big part. The Admirals and Wolves, former combatants in the International Hockey League, represent two of the AHL’s most successful teams.
“We know we don’t like them,” Van Guilder said. “But we respect them because we know how good of hockey team they have down there.”
Dating back to their first season in the AHL (2001-2002), Milwaukee owns 443 league victories, just eight behind Chicago’s total of 451. The Admirals have missed the AHL playoffs just once in that span (during their first season), while winning the Calder Cup in 2004 and reaching the finals in 2006. Meanwhile, Chicago owns two Calder Cup titles (2002 and 2008) and reached the finals in 2005. That playoff success for the Wolves offsets just three missed postseason appearances.
“It is always great when you have a rivalry where both teams are always at or near the top of the league,” said veteran Wolves forward Darren Haydar, whose current team carries a 3-3-0-1 record against the Admirals this season. “Other teams in the AHL use Chicago and Milwaukee as measuring sticks when they face us.”
Haydar carries a special perspective on the battle thanks to his distinguished career background. Over the course of his 10-year professional hockey career, Haydar spent the majority of four seasons in Milwaukee and another four more with the Wolves, winning a pair of Calder Cup titles.
“When I played for Milwaukee, Chicago was the team you wanted to beat because of their success as a franchise and because they carried a lot of older players who had won at this level before,” Haydar said. “We always looked forward to competing against the Wolves and trying to beat them.”
Beyond just the competition level on the ice, the Milwaukee-Chicago rivalry carries significance due to the dynamic between the two cities off the ice.
“Milwaukee is sometimes looked at like it is Chicago’s little brother,” Ford said. “We try to use that mentality to our advantage as motivation on the ice and to do the best we can against them.”
That intensity level carries over to the fans of each team, who carry a healthy disliking for their counterparts from across the state border.
“The rivalry probably means more to the fans than it does to the players,” Haydar said. “Because of the new organization here in Chicago and the fact that there isn’t a lot of guys on either team that are from the area, many players don’t fully understand the significance of the rivalry.”
To a slightly lesser extent, Milwaukee fosters similar resentment toward each of their other 12-time opponents, especially Peoria, who has faced off against the Admirals five times since December 2nd. Milwaukee posted victories in each of the first five meetings of the series, all in regulation, before the Rivermen turned the tables on the Admirals with two straight victories of their own.
With Rockford, the blood seems likely to start boiling in the months ahead. Thanks to scheduling quirk, only three of Milwaukee’s dozen matchups with the Ice Hogs came in the fall of 2011. Instead, most of those contests are back loaded on Admirals’ slate (Milwaukee faces Rockford seven times in their final 24 games).
Once the AHL season reaches that playoff stretch run—expect the passion of the divisional rivalries, especially between Milwaukee and Chicago, to reach a whole other level as the games take on a greater and greater significance.
“That’s when you will see the rivalry take that next step—coming down to the wire for the season,” Haydar said. “That’s when we have meaningful games to decide who gets into the playoffs or who gets home ice in the first round.”