A True Cinderella Story: The 1997-98 Admirals (Part 1)
The Hampton Roads Admirals were the last team to qualify for the 1998 Kelly Cup Playoffs. They were also the last team standing. This week and next week, we’ll take a look back at the magical 1998 Kelly Cup Playoffs as the 11-year anniversary of the Admirals’ third ECHL championship approaches.
Entering the final weekend of the 1997-98 regular season, the Admirals found themselves on the outside looking in. In order to make the playoffs for the ninth straight season, Hampton Roads needed to win their final two games, both being played on the road against teams who had already clinched playoff berths. Even if they pulled off those two victories, the Blue and Gold would still need a loss by the Columbus Chill to leap past them in the Northern Conference standings and make the 1998 Kelly Cup Playoffs.
On March 28, defenseman Chad Ackerman scored twice – including the game-winning goal in the third period – as Hampton Roads pulled off a 5-4 victory against the Wheeling Nailers. That same night, the Chill fell to the Peoria Rivermen to give the Admirals control of their destiny in the regular season’s final game.
The following day, Ackerman came through with another game-winning marker in a one-goal game, as Hampton Roads topped the Chesapeake Icebreakers 4-3 in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. With the victory, Hampton Roads improved their season record to 32-28-10 for 74 points – just one more point than Columbus – and became the 16th and final team to qualify for the ECHL post-season, earning the eighth seed in the Northern Conference.
To say that the Admirals were an underdog in their first round series would be an understatement. They were set to open the playoffs in Peoria on March 31 against the same Rivermen who helped the Admirals get into the playoffs just three days earlier. Peoria led the ECHL with wins in 44 of their 70 games in ‘97-98. Their 95 points and 296 goals scored were tops in the Northern Conference. By contrast, Hampton Roads scored just 222 goals in the regular season – more than a full goal less than Peoria per game. Peoria had also tied a then-ECHL record with 27 victories in 35 home games.
But it was the Admirals who seized control of the series in the first game, sinking the Rivermen 7-3 at the Peoria Civic Center despite being out-shot 37-16. Admirals Hall of Famer Rod Taylor scored twice. Dan Ceman, who did not score a goal in the last 16 games of the regular season, also netted a pair of tallies. Alex Alexeev battled through a broken finger to contribute two goals and two assists while Alexander Kharlamov registered four assists.
The series shifted to Scope for game two on April 3, where Sebastien Charpentier stole the show with a 25-save shutout. Charpentier’s father was in attendance watching him play as a professional for the first time. Rob Bonneau and Ceman had the goals in the 2-0 victory and Rod Taylor notched his 48th career Admirals playoff point with an assist, matching Harry Mews’ team record.
Taylor would stand alone – literally – as the leading playoff point producer in Hampton Roads Admirals history in dramatic fashion the next night, as the Admirals swept the best-of-five series with a 4-3 overtime victory on April 4. Bonneau scored twice and Ceman notched his fourth goal of the series. However, it was Taylor’s goal 2:48 into the extra session that shocked the Rivermen with an early playoff exit. Following his game-winner, Taylor stood atop the Peoria goal and waved his stick in celebration with the nearly 5,800 fans at Scope that night. It would be the first of three game-winning goals for “Rocket” Rod in the playoffs and the first of a pair of series-clinching goals.
After dispatching top-seeded Peoria, the Admirals faced the second-seeded Roanoke Express in the Northern Conference Semifinals. Roanoke had upended the Huntington Blizzard in four games in their first round series. Once again, the Admirals were decidedly the underdog.
The Express finished the 1997-98 campaign with 42 wins and 91 points. Roanoke also had the stingiest defense in the ECHL, giving up only 208 goals in 70 games. Former Admirals goaltender Dave Gagnon, who was co-MVP of the 1991 playoffs as he led Hampton Roads to its first ECHL title, was a large part of that defense with 25 of Roanoke’s wins.
After a four-day break following the Peoria series, the Admirals headed west to Roanoke for Game One on April 9. It was Gagnon who was the story, stopping all 29 shots against his former team as the Express took a 3-0 win. The loss was Hampton Roads’ first of the 1998 playoffs.
The Admirals then were put on the brink of elimination two days later on the road, losing in double overtime 3-2 despite out-shooting the Express 41-31. Dominic Maltais and Admirals Hall of Famer Victor Gervais netted Hampton Roads’ goals. Wayne Strachan scored the game-winning goal, his second of the night, at 4:46 of the second extra period after Charpentier was whistled for a delay of game penalty.
With their backs against the wall, the Admirals returned home to host the Express in Game Three on April 15. Things did not look promising, as Hampton Roads trailed 3-1 midway through the third period. However, the Admirals tied the game late and Gervais scored the game-winning goal with just 1:32 left in regulation to stave off elimination with a 4-3 win. Marty Clapton, who missed most of the final two months of the season with mononucleosis, added two lamplighters and defenseman Kayle Short scored once. Joel Poirier chipped in three assists while Chad Ackerman had two helpers for the Blue and Gold.
But the fireworks did not end at the final horn. The respective head coaches, Admirals Hall of Fame Coach John Brophy and Roanoke’s Frank Anzalone, were involved in a post-game altercation in which Brophy appeared to head-butt the Roanoke bench boss. Express goaltender Daniel Berthiaume then became involved, grabbing Brophy by the tie. Brophy later pushed referee Ian Walsh. With other confrontations breaking out, nearly 15 minutes was needed to clear the ice. Brophy and Jeff Corbett from the Admirals and Roanoke’s Berthiaume and J.F. Tremblay received three game suspensions.
Two days later, nearly 7,300 fans witnessed a comparatively tame contest at Scope, as the Admirals topped the Express 2-1 to force a decisive Game Five in Roanoke. Charpentier made 27 saves to outduel Gagnon in net. Ackerman and Bonneau scored for the Admirals. Brophy listened to the game on the radio from his office while Assistant Coach and Admirals Hall of Famer Al MacIsaac manned the bench.
Game Five went down to the wire, requiring overtime to decide who would advance to the Northern Conference Finals. Just 1:09 into overtime, Boris Zelenko – who had joined the Admirals midway through the season from Moscow – scored the series-clinching goal to complete Hampton Roads’ comeback from a 2-0 series deficit. Bonneau and Gervais scored in regulation as the Admirals out-shot the express 40-28. Coach Brophy watched his team win the series from the tunnel leading to the team’s dressing room.
Next week, we will re-visit the Admirals’ Northern Conference Finals series against the Wheeling Nailers and the Kelly Cup Finals against the Pensacola Ice Pilots.
Special thanks to "The Voice of the Admirals" Pete Michaud for maintaining an archive of every game in Admirals history. That archive was utilized extensively in the composition of this story.