AHL's 80 years filled with legendary stories

When it comes to legendary sports tales, no other league can compete with the American Hockey League.

The AHL is celebrating its 80th anniversary this season, and there is an endless supply of anecdotes -- you know, the "Slap Shot" stories -- to mark the milestone.

"It's hard to come up with only one," joked AHL president and CEO Dave Andrews, who has been with the league for 22 years. "There is a bunch. There have been a lot of great times. I've been really lucky. I would have never imagined I would have been in this job this long. It's been good. The anecdotes, I wouldn't even know where to start."

Here's one that reached legendary status:

During the 1947-48 season, the Indianapolis Capitals' Lloyd "Red" Doran viciously swung his stick at the head of the Providence Reds' Chuck Scherza, who needed 17 stitches to repair the damage. Every time the teams played after that, whether in Indy or Providence, Doran never played, the Capitals protecting their player from retribution.

Later, when the Reds were playing in Indianapolis, Scherza was walking down the street before the game when he spotted Doran in a restaurant. Scherza walked in and, without saying a word, Scherza punched Doran in the face, knocking him off his chair. As Scherza walked out, legend has it someone yelled, "He probably deserved it!"

Two-time Stanley Cup winner and current Florida Panthers forward Shawn Thornton spent parts of 10 seasons in the AHL. One of his all-time favorite teammates was Greg Smyth, better known as "Bird Dog."

"His last year [1998-99], he played only 40 games because I'm pretty sure he was suspended for the other 40," said Thornton, 38. "He was the craziest guy I have ever played with my whole life."

One day before a game in Fredericton, the Canadiens (the affiliate of the Montreal Canadiens) were holding their usual morning skate. Then-coach Michel Therrien decided to stay on the ice a bit longer than their allotted time.

Smyth, who recorded 1,970 penalty minutes in 361 career AHL games, felt the Canadiens were out of line.

"He just left the room and we thought he was going to talk with our coach or something, and all we hear is loud bangs and chaos," Thornton said. "He comes walking back in five minutes later and said, 'The ice will be ready in a second, guys.' Come to find out, he went on the ice with just his lower gear and skates on and just started taking slap shots at their whole coaching staff and extra players."

Fredericton's tough guys at the time -- Terry Ryan and Dave Morissette -- were in the locker room when they heard the commotion and came running out to the bench.

"[Smyth] started firing slappers at those guys and they're ducking like they're getting shot at," Thornton said. "Pucks were flying all over the place. It was chaos. But they cleared out and we had the ice in 10 minutes and almost on time."

Most players don't spend a lot of time in the AHL these days due to the NHL's salary-cap system and entry-level contracts. But before the cap, many Hall of Famers spent countless seasons toiling in the AHL.

Hall of Fame goaltender Johnny Bower won four Stanley Cups with the Toronto Maple Leafs, but before that, he won three Calder Cup championships with the Cleveland Barons in the AHL. He spent 11 seasons in the AHL at different times during his pro career, making his NHL debut at age 29 with the New York Rangers in 1953-54. After a few more trips back to the minors, the Maple Leafs claimed him in 1958-59 and the rest, as they say, is history.

Besides the memories of his championships and his teammates cutting the laces in his shoes and skates, Bower, now 91, remembers the grind.

"It was a tough go for me, a tough struggle of mine because my dream was always to make the National Hockey League and win a Stanley Cup," Bower said.

With just six NHL teams in those days, many talented players were stuck in the AHL, including Bower.

"I just kept working at it and my dream came true," he said.

Along with the four Stanley Cups in Toronto, he won the Vezina Trophy twice and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1976.

"I fooled them here in Toronto and I played 12 years," Bower said with a laugh. "That's where hard works comes from, and I worked really hard to do it. My dream finally came true."

The AHL has been helping players reach the ultimate goal of playing in the NHL for eight decades. In today's landscape, the AHL is thriving. From a business standpoint, the league has never been more stable.

Andrews began his AHL career as the general manager of the Cape Breton Oilers, the minor league affiliate of the Edmonton Oilers, in 1987. After seven seasons, he became president of the AHL.

In order for the league to survive, changes needed to be made, the most substantial being relocating affiliates to be closer to their NHL parent clubs. Under Andrews' leadership, league attendance has climbed, and more than 92 million fans have attended AHL games in the past 14 seasons, an average of 5,400 per game. In 2001, the AHL absorbed the International Hockey League to form one league and now the relationship between the NHL and AHL is solid.

"Then to create something that really established a one-to-one relationship with NHL teams and established the American Hockey League as the place where players developed before they get to the NHL was pretty important, not only from a branding point of view but from a business perspective," Andrews said. "It gave all of our independent owners better footing to work with our NHL partners."

The AHL is the feeder pool and testing ground for the NHL, and even though the leagues are separate business entities, Andrews and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman have built a strong relationship. Having the league act as a testing ground for new rules for the NHL, such as 3-on-3 OT and the shootout, is part of the success as well.

"If you look at where we are today with 30 franchises and the markets that we're in, and the role that we play for the NHL, and the percentage of players in the NHL that have come through [the AHL], I'm very proud of it," Andrews said. "We're in as good of a place as we have ever been as a league."

Current Minnesota Wild coach Mike Yeo spent time developing his coaching skills in the AHL.

"It's a real tough league," said Yeo, who was an assistant for six seasons with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and a head coach with Houston. "There was a time we were playing in Hartford and we had five guys on our team with over 300 penalty minutes and they had something similar. Our five guys and their five guys were stretching at center ice facing each other and you could tell it was going to be a war that night. We didn't get through warmups before a brawl basically broke out. As a coach, I was up in the stands taking lines and what stood out most to me was all of our players are fighting, and we had our backup goalie taking shots on our starting goalie to try to warm him up."

Learning how to become a professional on and off the ice in the AHL helped New Jersey Devils goaltender Cory Schneider's transition to the NHL. After being drafted by the Vancouver Canucks in 2004, he made his professional debut in 2007-08 with the Manitoba Moose.

"I didn't know much about it, coming out of Boston College," Schneider said. "I signed my contract and was all excited and they said, 'OK, now you're going to Winnipeg.' I had to look at a map and figure out where it was and what it was all about. In retrospect, it was a really good experience for me. The three years felt like a long time at the time because you want to get to the next level, but once you've completed [time in AHL], you're a much better player for it."

It's definitely not an easy life, especially when you play three games in three nights every weekend.

"That third game on a Sunday afternoon might have been some of the worst hockey games you could see because everyone's beat up and tired," said Schneider, 29.

It doesn't matter if you coached, played, officiated or worked in the AHL, it's a rugged and not-so-glamorous lifestyle with a legendary impact.

"There's really something to be said for having to earn your way and having to fight, not literally fight, but battle night after night and going into tough buildings, ride the bus and play three games in three days," Yeo said. "Whether as a coach or player, it gave you that reminder every day how lucky we are to be [in the NHL] and to never take it for granted."

Thornton believes every pro player should spend time in the minors to get a better appreciation for the game. He remembered how close everyone was on the team, how everyone lived in the same building, and most of the time had more than one roommate. He had a kegerator in his room and his door was always open.

The bus rides and late-night cheese steaks were the norm, opposed to charter flights and filet mignon.

"It didn't matter if you were a first-rounder or a ninth-rounder, you showed up, respected the old guys, respected the system, respected the coach and you did what you were told," Thornton said. "After practice, the single guys, the married guys, everyone went to the same bar, had a few beers and played pool. Everyone was on the same page and it was awesome. It was a great time."

That's the life of an AHLer.