The Houston Aeros won the Calder Cup, the title of the American Hockey League, way back in 2003. And the team finished the 2005-06 season with a stellar record, only to disappoint in the playoffs. Last season, the Aeros never had to worry about disappointing in the playoffs as the team finished with a 27-43-4-6 record.
The Houston Press tabbed the Aeros as the Best Cheap Seats in the city. But losing organizations can only coast on Houston Press Best Of designations for so long. No matter how cheap the seat, no matter how superior the game presentation, if the team doesn’t win, the fans will stop showing up. Especially to a watch a minor league team in a sport fast sinking to minor league status.
So the Aeros made some changes in the off-season, starting with the firing of head coach Rob Daum. Minnesota Sports and Entertainment, owner of the NHL Minnesota Wild as well as the Aeros, replaced Daum with Kevin Constantine, a veteran of more than 1,000 games as a professional hockey coach.
Constantine is the only NHL coach to lead two number 8 seeds to major playoff upsets over overwhelmingly superior number 1 seeds, having done this in 1994 when his San Jose Sharks defeated the Detroit Red Wings, and repeating the process in 1999 when his Pittsburgh Penguins upset the New Jersey Devils.
Before I go further, I know that there may be many of you out there not up on the whole Houston hockey scene. So I’ll try and give you a bit of a primer.
The Aeros are the primary developmental affiliate of the Minnesota Wild. For you baseball fans, think of the Aeros as a AAA-minor league team. This is where the guys ready to make the leap to the majors prove that they are, indeed, ready to make that leap. Former Aeros Matt Foy and Josh Harding are set to play important roles for the Wild this season, and former Aero goalie Manny Fernandez is now the primary netminder of the Boston Bruins.
Head Coach Constantine sees his role thusly: “The mandate from [the Wild] is to help players move on. Part of moving on is winning. And knowing what to do to win.” While he admits to having to handle some things differently while coaching in different levels of hockey, Constantine stresses on each level (lower minor league, the AHL, the NHL) that there is a “right way to do things [and a] wrong way to do things.” And that success means doing the right things. There are always different maturity levels for the players, and the Aeros players won’t have the maturity level of those in the NHL, but if they don’t learn to think on the level of those in the NHL, and to apply themselves at that level, they won’t succeed.
There are some news rules being applied to the AHL this season, the most important being a new agreement that has been reached by the Players Association and the League. The AHL is primarily a developmental league, existing to develop players for the NHL. So, while each team dresses 17 players per game, 12 of those players must be qualified as developmental players. As of game time, 11 of those players must have 260 or less games of professional experience, and one player must have 320 or less games of professional experience.
Aeros fans will see some familiar faces as Paul Albers, Shawn Belle, Erik Reitz, Clayton Stoner, Ryan Hamilton, Peter Olvecky, Roman Voloshenko, Danny Irman, Joel Ward, Benoit Pouliot and Aaron Voros return for another season.
Some of the new faces to watch will include Petr Kalus, who the Wild obtained as part of the trade that sent Fernandez to Boston, and Serge Payer. And Benoit Pouliot made a good impression on the big club, but because of issues literally beyond his control, he had to be sent down to Houston, though he may be recalled soon.
One of the difficulties faced by Constantine is preparing his team for Saturday’s opener with the Chicago Wolves. The Aeros only play two preseason games, which makes evaluating over 50 players difficult. Then there’s the fact that Minnesota was still sending players down to Houston as of Tuesday, when Reitz was assigned to the Aeros. Constantine says the only way to get through this is to just “get done everyday what we can.”
Payer claims that the team will come together as the season progresses by building on chemistry. The Aeros are a new team for a lot of the guys, he says, but “love what I see from the personnel and the guys so far.” Most importantly, Payer claims the “guys are buying into the system.”
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Assistant Coach Luke Strand says that for Chicago, he and the coaches won’t be so much focusing on the Wolves as they will “focus on [our] team and our personnel,” claiming that the Chicago game will serve as “a building block session.”
And along with the new faces, the Aeros will be welcoming a new voice as Jason Shaver will be taking over as the voice of the Aeros and serving in the dual role of play-by-play and color commentator.
The Aeros open the season Saturday night at Toyota Center. The puck is set to drop at 7:35, and the first 3,000 fans will get a puck. Doors open at 6:30 and Miss Aero, Marylynn, will be on the concourse and signing autographs.
There’s a reason the Press named the Aeros as the Best Cheap Seats. It’s a blast. Non-stop action. Moments of incredible grace and beauty intermixed with periods of bone-shattering violence. To see hockey in person is to love hockey. Don’t miss out on the experience. – John Royal