Thursday, March 23, 2006

Age-old rivals close out season

Stars gear up for playoffs vs. Alpena

This weekend’s three-game series with the Alpena IceDiggers will put a cap on the Traverse City North Stars’ inaugural regular season, but it is also the latest chapter in a rivalry that dates back to the turn of the century in a now-defunct league.

The North Stars are a first-year franchise, and the IceDiggers are spending their first season in Northern Michigan, but the enmity between the two North American Hockey League franchises goes well beyond the heated on-ice battles the clubs have waged in 2005-06.

The often-contentious competition between the teams goes back to the days of the now-disbanded Continental Elite Hockey League, when current North Stars head coach/GM Scott Gardiner served in the same capacity for the Traverse City Enforcers, and present Alpena head coach/GM Kenny Miller was an assistant for the Toledo franchise. Miller’s club was originally known as the Toledo Storm during the CEHL’s inaugural 2001-02 season, and became the Toledo Wolfpack before the 2002-03 campaign.

The franchise jumped ship before the Continental League folded prior to 2004-05, and the newly-monikered IceDiggers moved operations from northern Ohio to Alpena before the 2005-06 season, the same year the Traverse City North Stars joined the NAHL.

“Yeah, it goes back a ways,” said Gardiner, who won the CEHL Coach of the Year award following both the 2002-03 and 2003-04 seasons. “My first year (as coach), we faced them in the playoffs and it went down to the final game before they took us out. The next year, we handled ’em pretty well, but the rivalry was already underway.”

Miller, who was an assistant to Mike Mankowski – now a Canisius assistant -- during the Diggers’ formative years, remembers those early CEHL clashes well.

“We had some nice battles back then,” Miller recalled. “In fact, that first year in the (Continental) League, we lost just two games at home all year, and I remember the first one was to Traverse City on a Sunday afternoon. That’s really where it all started. It was pretty competitive. I don’t want to knock that league, because that’s where we got our starts, but it was pretty competitive between our teams even back then.”

The Stars and Diggers have been in 4th and 5th place in the NAHL’s North Division for much of the 2005-06 season, but have waged some tremendous ice wars during the year. The Diggers had won nine games through the month of February, but four of those victories have come against Traverse City, including a 4-3 victory that spoiled the North Stars’ inaugural home opener on Sept. 23. Since then, the teams have played nine more times, with TC claiming five. Alpena earned victories in overtime (2-1 on Oct. 14) and in a shootout (3-2 on Oct. 15), while the Stars recently set a franchise record for goals in a 9-5 drubbing on Feb 18 at Centre ICE arena in Traverse City.

“We all get along fine with each other, but when the puck drops and we’re out on the ice, it can get heated. Combine that with the geographic proximity of the two towns and it’s been quite a rivalry so far.”

North Stars forward Jake Erway, who grew up in the Grand Traverse Hockey Association and played for Traverse City Central High School before joining the junior ranks, says the municipalities have held a longstanding on-ice grudge against one another.

“It isn’t just in juniors or high school, it starts in mites. I don’t know why, but that’s just how it’s always been. When my brother (Pat Erway) was playing high school, it was always the biggest games of the year when Alpena (H.S.) came to town or we went over there. They’ve always had a good program, too, so it was just a natural rivalry I guess.”

Miller found out pretty early on this season what it meant to his fan base to knock off Alpena’s rivals to the west.

“The day we went to Traverse City for our first game with them this year, I was a speaker at the ‘Wake Up, Northern Michigan’ breakfast and I heard quite a bit from the crowd how important it was to beat Traverse City, and that it goes all the way back to high school hockey, and really all sports. That’s when I knew that it (the rivalry) may have started off geographically, but had grown into something even more.”

One current North Stars player actually saw duty for the Toledo Storm/Wolfpack in the CEHL days. Goalkeeper Jeremy Kaleniecki, who has presided over four of TC’s five wins vs. Alpena, played for Mankowski and Miller before playing collegiately at Robert Morris College.

“There aren’t a lot of them left from when I was with them,” Kaleniecki said. “Just Coach Miller and (owner Michael) Bihn. It’s always nice to get a win against an organization that basically didn’t want you back. After the CEHL ended, I emailed and tried to get them to have me back, and they didn’t jump at it. They didn’t contact me at all, other than to have me fill out a player profile form or something. When I asked coach Gardiner about coming (to the NAHL), he got in touch with me right away, and here I am.”

While Kaleniecki won’t find any former teammates on the current IceDiggers roster, there are plenty of connections between players on both teams. Erway and Diggers defenseman Erik Peterson were opponents for many TC Central-Alpena prep matchups, while Alpena’s Eric Roman and Arturs Kret were high school teammates of North Stars center Patrick Nagorsen last year at Orchard Lake St. Mary’s Prep. Additionally, Kaleniecki and Stars defenseman Steven Oleksy have been playing with or against Diggers goalie Johnny Morrow, Ross Enmark and Justin Stadler since their days as youths in the metropolitan Detroit area.

“That definitely adds to it,” Kaleniecki said. “We’ve known a lot of them for a long time from downstate, and we play them so many times during the season.”

Gardiner agreed.

“There’s a familiarity there that really helps the rivalry grow,” he said. “We play two different styles and there are two different kinds of coaching.”

Traverse City defenseman Jarrett Rush says the clash of styles can make for an entertaining evening at the rink.

“They’re always in your face, and can play real chippy,” said Rush, who hails from Pennington, N.J. and is a newcomer to the TC-Alpena rivalry. “They don’t break the rules or anything, but they try to frustrate you to the point where you want to clock ’em, and it can take you off your game. They work as hard as any team out there.”

Kaleniecki made a similar assessment.

“They’re definitely not a finesse team, but they can flat-out outwork teams. They showed that against Springfield (Feb. 10-11). Coach Miller does a great job getting them to stick to their game plan and work hard the way they do.”

While the Diggers will miss the playoff this year, Miller also sees good things down the road for his club.

“Unfortunately, we’ve sort of put ourselves in a hole by not being as consistent as we’d like,” Miller explained. “We had to start winning just about all of our hockey games, or we weren’t going to make the playoffs. We still have a bright future, and a lot to play for.”

Gardiner says this weekend’s trio of contests are important momentum-building outings for his Stars.

“We want to go into the playoffs on a high note,” he explained. “We want to be able to have some solid play that will carry over. We’ll work on some things, but you always want to go into the postseason playing your best hockey, and that has to start this weekend.”

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