The Year in Aeros Hockey: To the Top and Back

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Bikini One.JPG
John Royal
The Aeros like to hold Miss Aeros Bikini Contests.
To wrap up my year in review of the teams I cover, here's a look back at the 25 most significant moments with the Houston Aeros for the year 2011.

1. The Aeros added veterans Jed Ortmeyer and Patrick O'Sullivan to the team just as the New Year hit. From that point on, a team which had been struggling to pick up new coach Mike Yeo's system kicked it into high gear and went on a tear through the AHL. A tear which found the team making the finals of the AHL's Calder Cup playoffs.

2. The Aeros swept the Peoria Rivermen in four games, then took out the Milwaukee Admirals and Hamilton Bulldogs in thrilling seven-game series, before ultimately losing to the Binghamton Senators in a six-game championship series.

3. As a reward for taking the Aeros to the finals in his first year as head coach, Yeo was promoted to the Aeros' parent club, the Minnesota Wild, where he became head coach, and where he now has that club surprising the NHL as it sits around the top of the league standings.

4. For team captain Jon DiSalvatore, this current 2011-12 season is about unfinished business as he yearns to win that title that eluded the team last year.

5. DiSalvatore is now captain of a club that looks a bit different than last year's club. There's a new coach, high-scoring forwards Patrick O'Sullivan and Robbie Earl have departed for greener pastures, and all-star defensemen Max Noreau was traded during the off-season.

6. To replace Yeo, the Aeros hired veteran coach John Torchetti. Torchetti's been a head coach in the CHL, IHL, AHL, and he's been an assistant and interim head coach in the NHL.

7. One thing that will always linger about that game six to Binghamton is DiSalvatore, after the game, and before the assembled press, apologizing to the fans for not winning.

8. Another lingering image will be of the Senators celebrating their championship on Toyota Center ice. The good thing, if there was any to that, was watching former Aeros and really good guys Barry Brust and Corey Locke, then with the Senators, celebrating.

9. Every team has an inspirational story, even if the player involved doesn't really want to be inspirational. For the Aeros, that story is the one of forward Jed Ortmeyer (currently playing with the Wild). Ortmeyer's story became the emotional heart of the team, primarily because he goes out on the ice each night knowing that this game could, literally, be his last ever.

10. The most enjoyable night, each season, is the Teddy Bear Toss game. This is the game, played each season around Christmas, where fans are encouraged to bring Teddy Bears to the game. At the first Aeros goal, the fans are then asked to throw the bears onto the ice, where they are collected by the team and donated to charity.

11. The second most enjoyable night is the Miss Aeros Bikini Contest Night. The Aeros actually held two such nights in 2011, one right after New Year's Day, and the other last week.

12. The Aeros this season are somehow lingering around first place of the AHL's West Division despite a steady stream of injuries to both the Aeros and the Wild. The injuries with the Wild have meant that the Aeros have played a large part of the season with many of their best players missing because they're up playing in the NHL. Yet those guys are still here, and the guys who have come up from the lower levels have bought into John Torchetti's style of play and coaching and are continuing to find ways to win.

13. If the Aeros keep this up, then Torchetti deserves to be named the AHL Coach of the Year for his accomplishments.

Yeo Practice 2.JPG
John Royal
Mike Yeo rode last year's playoff run to the head coaching job with the NHL's Minnesota Wild.
14. One reason for the Aeros' position near the top of the standings is the play of the team's goaltenders. Darcy Kuemper was recently named the AHL's Goalie of the Week as he went 2-0-0-2 in his first full week with the team. His teammate Matt Hackett was the NHL's number-two star of the week for that same week when he stepped in as the goalie of the Wild and won multiple games while the Wild's goaltenders recovered from injuries.

15. The Aeros season was marred by one incident, the death of former Aeros/Wild enforcer Derek Boogaard from an accidental drug overdose. Perhaps the most heartbreaking moment came when Colton Gillies, who had played with Boogaard for a season with the Wild, tried to address the situation while attempting to not emotionally break down.

16. The spontaneous moment of the season came after the Aeros defeated Hamilton in game seven to advance to the Calder Cup Finals. With the Toyota Center crowd on their feet applauding, DiSalvatore got his teammates to follow him out onto the ice where the entire team proceeded to raise their sticks high to the sky in a salute to the crowd.

17. Though it's only an alternate jersey, the Aeros have righted many wrongs by finally adopting a jersey that doesn't contain that awful looking cartoonish bomber logo. These new sweaters, which they wear about once a week, are clean and elegant and everything that a classic jersey should be. Now if they would just wear them for every home game.

18. Despite the Aeros being near the top of the AHL standings this year, they're fast approaching a record that no team wants. They're currently 0-7 in the shootout this year. The AHL record for consecutive shootout losses to start a season is 0-8, and the worst-ever season record for the shootout is 1-10.

John Royal
New coach John Torchetti has the team competing despite massive injuries and call-ups.
19. As much fun as it was watching the Aeros in the playoff last spring, the quality of the AHL officiating was sheer agony. Mike Yeo, who was generally a pretty even-tempered guy who tried not to make waves, called out the officiating after game five against Binghamton, and then Milwaukee coach Lane Lambert was seen after a game-five loss in Houston banging on the Toyota Center door of the officials locker room and screaming obscenities.

20. The AHL changed things up a bit this season, reducing the season from 80 to 76 games, and making the first round of the playoffs a best-of-five series. While we don't yet know how the change will affect the playoffs, DiSalvatore has expressed his displeasure with the scheduling and the number of three-games-in-three-nights weekends the team has to play.

21. And while DiSalvatore's unhappy with the three-in-threes, the idiot who decided that the Aeros should play at home on almost every Sunday of the football season needs to be looking for new employment as it's hard to get a crowd to Toyota Center when the Texans are playing.

22. Patrick O'Sullivan was supposedly a soft player who cared only for getting his points. This wasn't the Patrick O'Sullivan who played for the Aeros. He got a harsh beating every night as opposing teams constantly sought to knock him out of games so as to harm the Aeros' chances on offense. And yet he came out for virtually every shift.

23. The thing about young teams in the minors is that it sometimes takes awhile for everything to click. Last year, Mike Yeo said it would take 25-30 games for everything to click into place with the team, and as that time approached, just as 2010 became 2011, it was obvious to all watching that the Aeros were finally getting what Yeo was teaching. And once they got it, the team became a joy to watch.

24. John Torchetti has given that same warning, and as game 30 approaches with the team hovering around first place (they're in third place going into tonight's game), one can't help but wonder what 2012 will be like once the entire team buys in. It will, of course, help greatly if the Wild can get healthy and then return the Aeros' best players to Houston.

25. And if you're ever bored, log onto Twitter and check out the feed of Aeros forward/enforcer Matt Kassian. You won't be disappointed as Kassian doles out twitter punishment to wrongdoers while musing on life and hockey.

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