Exactly twenty years ago today, seven of the players on the current Norfolk Admirals roster were under two years of age. Little did they know on October 27, 1989, that their current team – then the ECHL’s Hampton Roads Admirals – were being born.
On that date, 5,602 fans were in attendance at Norfolk Scope Arena to see one of the ECHL’s first expansion teams hit the ice for its first regular season game. The Admirals were taking on their cross-state rivals, the Virginia Lancers.
“I was curious to see what kind of crowd we would get,” said Admirals founder and Hall of Fame member Blake Cullen. “We had 6,200 for an exhibition game that previous February and I hoped to match that. I knew we would have a good team.”
After Mike Chigasola (who would later become an Admiral) gave the visiting Lancers a 1-0 lead with a goal late in the first period, the Admirals scored the first goal in team history just seven seconds into the second period.
Center Mike Black won the center ice faceoff to begin the period and dished the puck to left wing Wayne Stripp. Stripp entered the attacking zone just ahead of Virginia defenseman Jeff Weaver and was able to slide a backhand shot under the glove of Lancers goaltender Steve Averille.
“The place was bedlam when he scored, and we pulled away from there,” recalled Cullen.
The youngest player on the ice, 18-year-old Steve Greenberg, gave the Admirals their first ever lead under two minutes later. The rookie led the way the rest of the game.
Greenberg, who was making his professional debut that night, found the rebound of a Chris Weseen shot and scored his first pro goal at 1:59. He then netted a shorthanded goal at 4:50 after picking off a Virginia pass and sending a shot top-shelf past Averille.
The Lancers answered with 57 seconds remaining in the period, as Steve Chelios (brother of veteran NHL defenseman and current Chicago Wolves blueliner Chris Chelios) scored to cut Hampton Roads’ lead in half.
However, the Admirals notched two power play goals in the first six minutes of the final frame to solidify their lead. Jody Praznik scored his first pro goal at 4:02 and Greenberg finished his hat trick at 5:29.
Chigasola scored his second goal of the evening at 6:44, but the Lancers did not find the back of the net behind Admirals goaltender Alain Raymond again. Chris Lukey recorded his third point of the night with an empty-net goal with 11 seconds left to cement the 6-3 victory.
The two stars of the game appreciated what the Hampton Roads crowd brought to the table as they explained to the Daily Press’ Warner Hessler following the game.
“They were doing the wave and everything,” said Raymond, who stopped 34 of 37 shots. “The people are great here. I’ve never seen fans like this.”
Greenberg was equally excited about the fan response.
“We really wanted to win the game for this town because we appreciate all they have done for us,” said Greenberg. “They haven’t had hockey here in quite a while but they really seemed to get into it.”
Dennis McEwen, dubbed “The Original Admiral” for being one of the first players to skate on the Scope ice in 1989, recalls the excitement generated at Scope by having hockey back for the first time in ten years.
“There was a buzz in the arena all night long,” said McEwen, who played the first of 262 career games with the Admirals that night. “With nine goals, a few fights and huge saves by Alain Raymond, there was a lot to cheer about. Plus, some fans hadn’t seen hockey in a while – if ever – and they didn’t know when to cheer. So they cheered for everything because it was all new and exciting to them.”
Twenty years and more than four million fans later, Hampton Roads certainly knows when to cheer as hockey continues to grow in the area. After last Saturday’s 6-5 game against the Portland Pirates, perhaps the words of the team’s founder continue to resonate as they did after that first game in 1989.
“It helped that we had a wide-open game and everybody seemed to have a good time,” Cullen said to the Virginian-Pilot’s Dave Lewis. “Hopefully everybody will spread the word.”
Today, a cast of fellow top prospects and seasoned veterans join the seven players who were under two years old when that first game took place in 1989. Now, they are working hard for Admirals fans as they attempt to bring Admirals hockey back to the forefront in Hampton Roads. Like Mr. Cullen wished twenty years ago, today’s Admirals also hope their fans spread the word and help them get Scope filled to the rafters once again.