(San Antonio) -- Zach Sanford's second goal of the season was the one highlight as the Rampage stumbled in a 2-1 loss to the AHL's newest team, the Colorado Eagles (COL) before 6,435 at the AT&T Center Friday night.
The backstory for this one, however, was the first meeting of teammates as a result of the split squad experiment last season, when the Blues were suddenly aced out of their AHL home in Chicago by the rookie Vegas Knights. The Colorado Avalanche allowed the Blues to assign players to San Antonio, and Friday night marked the return of some crowd favorites, but in the visitors locker room.
Rampage fans could be excused if they showed some degree of loyalty to the Eagles during the pre-game warmup. There was #2, defenseman Mason Geertsen, a crowd favorite as the team's protector the past three seasons. And the Rampage's leading scorer last year, #26 Andrew Agozzino, a former Blues farmhand with the Chicago Wolves two years ago, who had an assist on one of the Eagles goals later that night. There was #30, goaltender Spencer Martin, who began his pro career in the Silver and Black, and will most likely start Saturday night's contest against their club. Not to mention AJ Greer, San Antonio's Man of the Year for his work in the community, Ryan Graves, picked up from the NY Rangers last season for Chris Bigras, and Anton Lindholm, Dominic Toninato and Julian Nantel. All familiar names spoken by public address announcer, Roland Ruiz. But with a ton more zip in his pipes when these guys sat on the home bench.
Writers documenting the game would overuse the adjective, "former" before each players contributions during the contest. However, both Eagles goals were scored by non-former-Rampage players, Igor Shvyrev and Logan O'Connor, but David Warsofsky assisted on both goals, while Agozzino did what Agozzino does best -- pick up a ton of AHL points on his resume, along with Ryan Graves, a former (there's that word again) Rangers first rounder trying to find his game on the blueline.
So what's the big deal, you might ask?
For NHL fans, the Blues may lose a couple of guys to free agency, or trade them off, making that Tage Thomson jersey suddenly more unique and possibly more valuable. But in the AHL, entire teams exchange cities like Wall Street brokers share index funds, and the fans are left to pick up the loyalty pieces.
For instance, tonight, starting Eagles players received a smattering amount of applause from veteran fans there for the tape-to-tapes and not to just listen to little Timmy sing off key in the middle school choir's rendition of God Bless America. And the booster club's table was a buzz as the Rampage jersey auction featured JC Beaudin, who would tickle the ice that evening for the other guys. And there was the old Rampage power play still inept as the past two seasons, but more the accustomed chaotic charm of a PP was much more appreciated this time around as the Eagles went 0-2 with rarely a dent on goaltender Brandon Binnington's pads.
Some big differences between playing in the NHL and AHL? Ok, the payday. And leaving those commercial airline, or hours long bus trips behind when a guy makes the big club surely has its moments. Prestige and loving looks through the glass would rank high up there. But overall, when players toil in AHL rinks, they are still playing the game they love, even if they are constantly looking ahead to that big call coming through for them. So playing in San Antonio or Loveland, Colorado, from a players perspective, besides having to buy a shovel this year, doesn't really matter for most players where they play as long as they play. It's hockey.
Sanford played 20 games last season with many of the Eagles players last season here. "It's obviously a little different with the situation we had here last year. We all know each other's game so we can match up, and get back at them tomorrow."
But from the fans perspective, the moving vans tug at their loyalties every 2 or 3 years. Most fans here get it. They take great pride in watching "them when they were young and prepping" for their big moments on the grand scale of a 80 inch smart TV. Many times at this level, players are more interactive with the fans at season ticket holder bowling events, Christmas parties and barbeques. I'm sure Tarasenko would love to share a bite of brisket with Big Bill from Section 12 of the Enterprise Center. But for the most part, NHL players aren't as accessible as their AHL playing days.
But like most fans still donning the odd Sergei Boikov sweaters in the seats, as the game progressed, the good old days were just that...Good and old. The new days were ushered in when Geertsen pushed and shoved with #71 in Silver and Black -- two-time Stanley Cup champ, Jordan Nolan playing in his 505th pro game. Now that would have been a good show if push came to shove, sans gloves. But cooler heads prevailed, and when they did, the fans cheered loudly...not for #2, but for #71.
He's the good guy now. That big galoot with the long curls wearing the Eagles garb...he's the interloper. He's the villain. Connections have been severed as memories of days of yore fade with the first period clock winding down. New loyalties have erupted. Sanford's third period dribbler through a prospect named Pavel Francouz's pads would be the lone Red Light Special on this night. But it's ok as the crowd looks forward to tomorrow night's puck drop from the rafters, and t-shirt time with T-Bone during the second intermission.
But it's officially "out with the old and in with new" time at the AT&T Center. Good to see old friends, but this is hockey and here's hoping the new guys will light up Spencer Martin like the holidays on the Riverwalk Saturday night. All the cheers will be for the local boys now, because, in the minor leagues, fans adjust, they exorcise previous purveyors of puck magic, buy more game worn Jack Combs jerseys, and watch their new favorites on the big Sony in the living room, nod and smile.
"I knew them when..."