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Friday, March 30, 2012
Talk about an admirable streak

By Scott Burnside

With the nightly drama that is the stretch run in the NHL unfolding like an Agatha Christie whodunit, it’s easy to overlook other hockey stories. But we were taken by the story of the Norfolk Admirals of the AHL for a number of reasons.

First, there is the no small matter of their current 21-game win streak, a streak that is put on the line Friday night when they play host to the St. John’s IceCaps in Norfolk. The streak, the longest in North American pro hockey history according to AHL officials, deserves recognition for the obstacles that are inherent in putting together a run like that anywhere, but especially at the AHL level.

As the top feeder league for the NHL, the mandate for GM Julien BriseBois and head coach Jon Cooper are different than for their counterparts in the NHL. They are tasked with developing hockey players who could, on a moment’s notice, be summoned to the parent club in Tampa Bay. Given the injuries the Lightning have sustained and the disappointing season they have endured, those calls come with regular frequency. That’s life in the AHL.

Beyond that, BriseBois and Cooper are also charged with putting together an entertaining and winning product for the good fans in Norfolk. No problem there, as it turns out.

In a phone conversation Thursday, Cooper struggled to define what has happened to his team, likening it to a small snowball that begins rolling down a steep hill. At the beginning it hits some bumps “but by the time it gets to the bottom, it’s out of control," Cooper said. "That’s about the only way I can put it.”

The sum total of wins is impressive enough, but how this squad of minor-pro players has managed to assemble a 21-game stretch without a loss in many ways defies logic.

The Admirals won their first six games in a nine-night span.

“I was exhausted,” Cooper recalled with a laugh.

They won their next six in a 10-day span.

“I couldn’t believe we were at 12,” he said.

The next six came in another 10-day stretch.

Because of injuries and call-ups, only eight players have played in all 21 games.

They’ve done without their top goalie, without their second- and fifth-leading scorers, and without their captain, among others, during the run.

Six players in their current lineup started the season in the ECHL and another was playing college hockey; 29 players have appeared in at least one game during the streak.

The Admirals have a plus-51 goal differential during the carnival of wins, with rookies chipping in 44 of the 84 goals scored. They have allowed just 33 goals in those 21 games, and 15 different players have produced game-winning goals.

There have been plenty of jokes as the winning streak mounted. When it got to 16, folks remarked that the streak was old enough to drive. By the time it got to 21, the streak was old enough to vote.

Is old-age pension next? Cooper laughs.

A stretch like this takes on a life of its own. Opposing teams want to be the ones to bring it to an end, but the Admirals have a swagger, an imperviousness that is daunting to opposing teams.

“The thought of losing a game isn’t even in anyone’s head,” Cooper said. “It’s been a huge advantage to us. There’s no Knute Rockne speech from me. I barely have to walk in the room.”

The streak has generated attention far beyond the normal AHL experience, and Cooper hopes his squad is enjoying the attention. They’ve earned it, after all.

“To me, this is all fun and I want the guys to have fun doing it," he said.

The attention has spread beyond the players.

If the AHL is about molding players for a potential NHL career, the same is true for coaches and general managers.

The moment Montreal Canadiens GM Pierre Gauthier was fired Thursday morning, BriseBois’ name came up as a possible replacement. BriseBois spent nine years in the Canadiens organization, then joined Steve Yzerman’s management team in Tampa before the 2010-11 season. The success of the minor league team for which he is responsible will do little to quell the notion that he is a top candidate for the Montreal job.

Cooper is a less-known quantity, but he understands the streak will vault his name into the conversation as a potential up-and-comer with NHL potential. The same kind of dynamic led to Tampa Bay’s current head coach, Guy Boucher, moving quickly from major junior to the AHL to the NHL, where he led the Lightning to the Eastern Conference finals last spring in his first season as an NHL coach.

Cooper, in his second season as the Admirals’ bench boss, said he never thought about making such a jump until he started fielding questions about it during the streak.

“I’m always in the now with my team,” said Cooper, who gave up a career as a criminal defense lawyer to pursue a coaching career in 2003.

Since he put the law career behind him, Cooper jokes that he hasn’t once looked at a clock. If he keeps winning, though, he’ll have to keep a closer eye on his phone because it won’t be a surprise if the NHL comes calling sooner rather than later. That’s what happens when you string together 21 straight wins, no matter where the games are being played.