Know Your Enemy
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.”