For Baltimore hockey fans, the Skipjacks came first

As Washington Capitals fans celebrated Thursday night, you couldn’t help but wonder if the roots of the Stanley Cup victory might have been planted in Baltimore.

Coach Barry Trotz, who is in the last year of a four-year contract, started his head-coaching career in the professional ranks with the Skipjacks in 1992.

At 30 years old, he was the youngest coach in the American Hockey League when he led the Skipjacks for their final season in the city (1992-93). He won the 1994 Calder Cup with the team rechristened the Portland Pirates.

Though Trotz was just a fleeting name by the Chesapeake Bay then, the Skipjacks, who ended their life as a Capitals affiliate, were beloved symbols of the city, the gritty underdogs who could down winning teams every once in a while.

The Skipjacks followed several incarnations of the Baltimore Clippers, and joined the AHL in 1982. They were affiliated with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins before becoming attached to the Caps. Throughout their 10-year tenure in Baltimore, the Skipjacks pulled together only four winning seasons and often struggled to pull a crowd at the Civic Center, which they shared with the Major Indoor Soccer League’s Baltimore Blast, who did often pack the house.

“Our best franchises are where we are the big fish in the pond,” AHL president Jack A. Butterfield told the Washington Post in 1983.

The Skipjacks moved up the coast to Portland, Maine, in 1993 after a losing season — Trotz’s first full season — that forced owner Tom Ebright to reconcile his $2.5 million lost in the investment. They were later replaced by the Baltimore Bandits, who survived only two seasons before moving to Cincinnati.

Still, in that time the Skipjacks adopted its city’s blue-collar persona that has longtime fans keeping its spirit alive today — even in its former coaches.

During the 2011 preseason exhibition dubbed the “Baltimore Hockey Classic” that pit the Capitals against the Nashville Predators at Royal Farms Arena, Trotz, who had been coaching the Predators since their 1998 inception, reminisced on his time in Baltimore.

“Coaching in Baltimore was great," he said. "When I started, Camden Yards had just come about. It was a neat time in Baltimore with the way the Inner Harbor grew. I'm really looking forward to getting back there … to see some good friends and the city, how it's grown."

But for longtime fans hoping for a Skipjacks revival with Trotz at the helm, they’ll just have to wait.

After Thursday’s victory, Trotz, whose contract expired as celebrations commenced on the ice, affirmed that he would “absolutely” be open to returning to the Capitals next season.

“If he wants to be back, he’ll be back,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan told the Post.

kfominykh@baltsun.com

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