NORFOLK, VA – The 2011-12 Norfolk Admirals were a team that rewrote North American hockey history, not only did they win 28 games straight, they also captured the Calder Cup in Toronto on June 9, 2012.
Following the parade and exit interviews, the coaching staff and players huddled one last time at a local restaurant in downtown Norfolk called Bodegas. One-by-one players got up to leave, touching the Cup for the final time that season and made a commitment to reunite in Norfolk five years later.
They made good on the promise they made at Bodegas and returned to the newly minted Waterside District in Norfolk for a formal celebration as the autograph line zigzagged throughout the building.
Former Admirals Head Coach and current Tampa Bay Lightning Head Coach Jon Cooper was all smiles.
“Everyone stuck to it and five years later we’re here. The only sad part of this is that Bodegas closed two weeks before we got here.”
Tyler Johnson embarked on his pro career in Norfolk during the 2011-12 season said, “It’s pretty surreal being back here in Norfolk, just the memories that we had and the group that we had. It’s pretty cool.” Johnson added, “For me personally it was my first-year pro, first-year moving away from home. Norfolk was basically my second home.”
One of the most memorable moments came in game three of the Finals against the Marlies in overtime when, defenseman Michael Kostka shot what seemed to be a routine dump off the glass, but to everyone’s surprise, including Kostka’s, the puck trickled into the net. Chris Kappele, a long time Admirals fan, looked back on the delayed-offsides goal saying it should not have counted, “It should have been disallowed of course, but sometimes things happen,” Kappele said. “It wasn’t the most tragic missed call in all of sports by a long shot.”
Even Kostka agreed about the goal being offsides, “At that point, they couldn’t have taken it back because they didn’t have video review. It was crazy how that all went down and it’s bizarre the following year I ended up signing with Toronto.” Kostka also went on to say, “It was one of those super flukey plays, but there is so much riding on it as well. That’s what intensified the moment and made it so outrageous on top of it.”
Over the course of the season the fans connected with the players on a personal level. Kappele summed it up, “I think mainly it was because they wholeheartedly embraced the community. With many of them living downtown they were able to experience the true dedication the fans wanted to show them.”
What made that bond so tight? It was the love the players showed the fans. The players often stayed back after games signing autographs and talking with people in the parking garage hours after the final horn blew. These guys never turned down an autograph or picture.
“The nights after the games in the parking garage, the days at practice when they would stop to talk to me briefly getting on or off the ice, and the nights on post game skates all created a bond I have never seen and don’t think I ever will again between fans and a sports team,” Kappelle said. “I think we all felt like we were part of the team.”
During the winning streak, the Admirals skated out onto the ice with a swagger knowing that they were going to win, as Cooper chuckled, “They almost invented swag.”
“The best teams you coach are the ones that coach themselves at the end of the year and this team coached themselves. By the time we got to the finals against Toronto I was barely saying a word on the bench. All the players knew what to do and when to do it,” Cooper added.
Johnson also touched on the team’s never say die attitude, “I think you have to give Cooper a lot of credit. I think it starts at the top and then you look at our leadership. We had (Mike) Angelidis and (Pierre-Cedric) Labrie. We used that a lot (swag) it’s knowing that you’re better than the other opponent. We’re good with that and we kept on going and we knew if we were not winning, we were not doing our jobs.”
According to defenseman Radko Gudas, the 2011-12 Admirals are already looking forward to another reunion, but where remains up in the air.
“Possibly, yes, there’s a pretty good chance we’re going to meet up somewhere. We haven’t decided yet where we’re meeting up,” he said.
For one weekend the 2012 AHL Calder Cup Champions came together and shared memories in a city that they all fell in love with as the fans turned out in droves to show their love and support for a team that rewrote hockey history.