Right above the urinal in the washroom of the Norfolk Admirals dressing room. That’s where coach Jon Cooper placed The Hockey News’ American League predictions from our Oct. 17, 2011, issue before the start of 2011-12. We had Norfolk finishing 13th in the Eastern Conference. They ended up finishing first overall and cruising to the Calder Cup championship in a record-shattering season thanks to a remarkable run of 28 conescutive victories.
“Everybody had to stand and stare at it every day, so you can thank yourselves for being part of the motivation for our streak,” Cooper joked. “As soon as I saw it, I brought it in and said, ‘Look at where the biggest hockey magazine has put you guys.’ ”
Truth be told, for the first half of the season the Admirals were true to our predicted form. They were having a middling season to that point, sitting third in their division and on the fringe of the playoff picture. Our prediction was looking pretty sound. But on Feb. 5, 2012, Super Bowl Sunday, they blew a 2-1 third-period lead to the Falcons on the road, lost 4-2, and everything changed.
“The guys really took what happened in Springfield to heart,” Cooper said. “Instead of driving 10 hours home, we had a team gathering for the Super Bowl. It was great team bonding, a fun event. Ever since then the boys took off.”
Fast-forward to March 16, 2012, and the first-overall Admirals had just tied the AHL record for the longest winning streak at 17 in the opener of a two-game set in Charlotte against the Checkers. The players might have done a little celebrating that Friday night, Cooper said, but Saturday was St. Patrick’s Day and the team was in a hotel in downtown Charlotte, which boasts the world’s largest pub crawl. For the first and only time, Cooper set a curfew (10 p.m.).
Mike Angelidis, Norfolk’s captain, could have broken it without feeling too guilty. After all, he didn’t dress in the first game due to injury and wasn’t going to play in the second either. The team had only brought him along to share in making history. Angelidis, however, was as dedicated and driven as his teammates were to break the record.
“Everyone was in the hotel,” he says. “No one thought about missing curfew. Everyone was there ready to go and preparing for the next game. You could see the confidence in the guys and their will to want to win… You could see in the way the team was playing that the guys wanted the record. The scores of the outcomes show how hard the guys worked.”
Norfolk beat Charlotte 7-2 to tie the record and 5-0 to break the mark held by the 2004-05 Philadelphia Phantoms. The Admirals didn’t lose the rest of the regular season and lost only three times in the playoffs en route to the franchise’s first Calder Cup.
“After that Super Bowl Sunday game, we were pretty low and down in the dumps,” says Tyler Johnson, one of the team’s star rookies. “But we showed a lot of character in our team. We never took a night off from then. And what we did is unheard of.”
What they did was win 28 straight and rewrite chapters of the AHL record book to put Norfolk among the league’s all-time leaders. The 2011-12 Admirals rank No. 1 in four categories: wins streak (28), points streak (28) and record in the playoffs (15-3). They’re also tied for first in two others: road wins streak (13) and regular season road wins (28). And they sit second in regular- and post-season winning percentage (.745), tied for second in consecutive playoff wins (10), tied for fourth in regular season points percentage (.743) and tied for fifth in regular season wins (55). Also, Norfolk hogged much of the hardware that season. Cory Conacher was named regular season MVP and rookie of the year, Mark Barberio defenseman of the year, Cooper coach of the year and Alex Picard playoff MVP.
“As I look back at it now,” Picard said, “it’s the best year of my life.”
The Admirals’ winning wave was buoyed in large part by their freshmen, including Conacher, Johnson, Richard Panik and Ondrej Palat. They filled crucial roles throughout the season, with the coaching staff playing them a lot and putting them in critical situations. That was the plan from the start, though it required the vets’ seal of approval.
“For your rookies to have success, your veterans need to buy into them,” Cooper said. “As an organization, we believe you have to play your rookies early to see how they are late. You have to go through their growing pains and accept their mistakes.”
With the blessing of the veterans, Cooper and his staff stuck to that plan the entire season and it finally started paying off after Super Bowl Sunday. In total, they went 43-3 after caving in late in Springfield, losing only to Manchester (once) in Round 1 of the playoffs and Connecticut (twice) in Round 2. Norfolk swept St. John’s and Toronto to complete its storybook season.
After the Admirals dispatched the Marlies in Game 4 of the Calder Cup final, Cooper stood on the ice at Ricoh Coliseum in Toronto away from his players. He was overjoyed, but had mixed feelings as he watched them celebrate.
“This day is one of the greatest days of my life,” he said. “But it’s also one of the saddest because I know this team will never be together as one ever again.
“But we’ve made a case for ourselves to be in the same breath as one of the greatest teams the AHL has ever seen.”
And The Hockey News is happy to have played a part, albeit a stinky one.
Ronnie Shuker is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. Follow him on Twitter at @THNRonnieShuker.