May 16, 2010

25 years later: No wins, no regrets

By Chris Carlson

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Blackhawks assistant coach John Torchetti (photo: Getty)

Blackhawks assistant coach John Torchetti (photo: Getty)

It was arguably the worst team in the history of hockey at that level.

Players from the Plattsburgh Pioneers still remember it as one of the best times of their lives.

The parties and camaraderie outweighed the uncertainty and the team’s bankruptcy. The ability to play and earn pay mattered more than the paltry checks. The chance to play high-level hockey was well worth 17 winless games.

As far as 25th anniversaries go, the one for the Plattsburgh Pioneers hasn’t gotten much fanfare. But that doesn’t matter to the guys who lived it.

The Pioneers played 17 games in 1984, losing every single one. They finished with one point — for a 7-6 overtime defeat to Hull in their season opener — at least before their records were expunged from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s record books.

“I always say that I never regret doing it,” said goaltender Joel Kiers, who grew up in Cranston, R.I. “At that point in my life, it was the best thing that I’ve ever done. That was my dream, to play professional hockey. To get that close, to play against the guys that were there, you can dream and … well, they can almost come true.”

Some of the top high school players in America — at least those that weren’t locks for Division 1 schools and never made the NHL — spent their time battling against the best youngsters in Canada, facing teams that suited up Patrick Roy, Claude Lemieux and Vincent Damphousse. About half the Plattsburgh team was made from kids who grew up in New England.

They’d never played in games so fast and so fierce, and their introduction was challenging, to say the least. The team was outscored 185-56. In one game it was outshot 71-9 and newspapers called for the group to be disbanded.

“I had no idea (what we were getting into),” said Kiers, whose 9.65 goals-against average was referred to as a bright spot by the Montreal Gazette in an Oct. 27, 1984 article. “I had no idea it would become a shooting gallery.”

The Pioneers were granted access to all new American players, but the top skaters still preferred to attend college rather than commit to the juniors. The top American players currently in the league had already made their commitments. That left a team bereft of potential star power against players that already owned NHL contracts.

“We were supposed to be the best American players, but college was always bigger,” said John Petitti, who grew up in North Weymouth, Mass., and led the team with 42 penalty minutes in 17 games. “They thought they could get Craig Janney, but he went to BC. I’m sure if they got the guys they thought, it would have been different.

“Then again, some of the guys like me would never have been there.”

Petitti said some of the players desperate for NHL attention, like himself, went out of their way to hit players with NHL contracts – like Stephane Richer – while Canadian teams would start fights to get the limited number of bigger Plattsburgh players off the ice.

He recalled John O’Donnell (South Weymouth, Mass.) crossing the center line twice during warm-ups and getting belted like the scene from “Slap Shot.”

“They knocked out his two front teeth,” Petitti said.

Plattsburgh’s management didn’t help matters. Denis Methot, whose lifelong goal was to own a team and whose brainstorm was an organization where America could test its best, was the owner, organizer, coach and do-everything man. A doctor with a master’s degree in exercise physiology from Michigan State University, his previous coaching experience was with a bantam team in Quebec.

While the players spoke positively about Methot for giving them a chance, along with introducing some of them to weight training and nutrition programs, his coaching skills were clearly behind some of the others. He also split time travelling from Montreal to Plattsburgh, performing the duties of an owner/operator on an organization that was in constant financial trouble and running the bench. According to The Gazette, Methot lost $400,000.

The lack of focus left practices lacking. According to the Gazette, the team had as least four different coaches run practices by the time the team was 0-15. It was deep into the season before the staff even implemented a system.

“Until (Georges Lariviere, the league’s technical director) came, we hadn’t had one decent practice all season,” leading scorer Louis Finocchiaro (Saugus, Mass.) told the Gazette. “Also, it’s hard to play your best game when there are rumors the team is going to fold.”

They spent time in two homes before they were eventually locked out of the arenas, barred from practicing as the team went bankrupt.

But along with losses, the Pioneers collected memories.

A group of mostly 17- and 18-year-old boys out on their own for the first time, they partied and played hockey. According to Jeff Salzbrunn, the roster included a male stripper, Dino Vulpitta, and a player famed for his Mohawk haircut, Taras Diakiwski.

The team snuck onto an Air Force base to visit girls and hazed each other by dancing on check-out counters in supermarkets. When the local scene got dull, the team drove 63 miles from Plattsburgh to Montreal.

“We lived in efficiency units, so we were room by room, with a kitchen,” said Salzbrunn, who went on to play for Quebec’s team and made a number of stops in the East Coast Hockey League. “There was no privacy, so I think that’s why we were so close. We spent time in hot tubs, dancing everywhere; it was a free-for-all trying to get girls.”

“It was like being freshmen in college,” Petitti said. “We had guys dancing in the grocery store one night and I drove. The police found my car and asked where we’d been. I told them we’d been in our rooms all night. There was a man and a woman cop. She was laughing and he shot her a look like, ‘This isn’t funny.’”

Chicago Blackhawks assistant coach John Torchetti (Boston, Mass.) played on that Pioneers team (with Chicago in a first-round playoff series against Nashville, he could not be reached by press time), and Petitti spent time coaching a youth program on the South Shore of Boston.

Salzbrunn is the head coach of a high school team the Waubonsie Valley Warriors that recently advanced to the Illinois state championship game. Larry Suarez played and still coaches in Germany.

After the team called off its season suddenly, most of the players splintered, finding their next roster spot somewhere else. But their friendships endured.

Salzbrunn sent his son to play hockey for teammate Mark Catron with the Indiana Junior Ice, looking to replicate some of his experiences of independence and friendship.

“The experiences I got to have at 18, he’s getting at 16,” Salzbrunn said. “The most important thing I got out of it was that maturity, learning about myself.”

While their records may have been erased, the Plattsburg Pioneers’ love of the game never has been.

“I was living on my own at 18 and getting paid to play hockey. It was the greatest time of my life,” Salzbrunn said. “I always say, when one door closes, another opens, and it opened up a lot of doors.”

Chris Carlson can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com.