Coach Barry Trotz was becoming misty-eyed in the Skipjacks' locker room in Binghamton, N.Y., as he talked about the end of a grueling season.
He spoke about spending a little time now with his wife, Kim, and two children. He spoke about the near upset of the formidable Binghamton Rangers in the American Hockey League's Southern Division playoffs. And he spoke about the young players who played gamely during the playoffs.
"This bodes well for these guys," Trotz said after Friday night's 5-3 loss to Binghamton in the seventh game of the first-round series. "They couldn't buy the type of experience they got in this series."
Trotz said it was the Skipjacks' "survival instinct" that enabled them to weather adversity, from extreme youth to major injuries to losing key players to the parent Washington Capitals to the distractions of the team's move to Portland, Maine.
"I looked at the schedule, saw the Binghamtons and Hersheys and thought we might start the season 0-6," Trotz said. "We had the young guns, the kids, but I still didn't think we had the talent to beat them."
Instead of 0-6, the Skipjacks started 3-1-2. The offensive-minded rookies, were producing.
But with 30 games left, injuries and Capitals' call-ups had taken their toll. During one stretch, the Skipjacks were employing a half dozen players from the East Coast Hockey League in the low minors.
"We were left for dead," Trotz said. "Still, we kept our heads above water."
The Skipjacks slipped into the playoffs in their next-to-last game by beating the archrival Hershey Bears on the road. Then they took Binghamton, which had won an AHL-record 57 games, to the seventh game before bowing.
Despite their lame-duck status, the Skipjacks had what was for Trotz a gratifying season in one respect. "Seeing these young guys develop and mature against bigger, tougher and more experienced opponents -- that was rewarding," Trotz said. "You could almost see their character evolve."
Low attendance, especially during the Baltimore phase of the Binghamton series when the three games drew a total of 4,285, disappointed the team. Slim playoff crowds may have resulted from the team's lame-duck status, but for the season the Skipjacks were 10th in the 16-team league with an average of 3,066.
"Some fans cheered the other team and booed us, using all the four-letter words," Trotz said. "With the team leaving, fans took it out on the players rather than ownership."
L Owner Tom Ebright praised the handful of Skipjack loyalists.
"There were 1,500 or so," Ebright said. "They deserve a better fate than to lose their team. About 200 fans came up to me late in the season and said they were sorry it didn't work out."
Ebright estimates he will lose "closer" to $500,000 than the expected $400,000, in part because of dwindling attendance near the end.
"We tried to generate fan interest, but nothing worked," Ebright said. "All that could go wrong, did go wrong. We were continually reminded of all the reasons for leaving -- no corporate support, not much community interest."
Ebright, like Trotz, developed a deep appreciation for the players. He liked their resilience and tenacity and the excitement they provided.
"Trotz was a highlight himself," Ebright said. "He got the kids playing above their heads. The mere fact they made the playoffs is a tribute to Barry."
Ebright's staff in Portland has sold 500 season tickets the past two weeks, only 200 fewer than the Skipjacks sold this season.
Trotz and his assistant, Paul Gardner, both employed by the Capitals, expect to coach Portland next season. The players don't have roots in Maryland.
Trotz owns a house in Gambrills, but won't sell it. After six months in Portland, who knows what will be next? "That's part of hockey life, adjusting," Trotz said.