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Clippers, Skipjacks made Baltimore's first AHL voyages


Baltimore allowed the American Hockey League to roll on for 26 years (1936-1962), perhaps looking for it to smooth out the rough edges before deciding to get involved. Voila, The Baltimore Clippers.

Jumping in at the start of the 1962-63 campaign, when the league was a nine-team, two-division operation, the Clippers made it to the playoffs the first year. Over the next 14 years -- the team passed into the AHL archives in 1976 -- Baltimore made the playoffs eight times, a reasonable .571 success rate.

The league "struggled" on for the next six seasons without benefit of a Baltimore team before the Skipjacks came into existence in 1982. The Jacks were part of the AHL mix for 11 years and made the playoffs five times.

During the Skipjack years, the AHL constantly built its membership until, after the 1990-91 season, it split its 15 teams into three divisions.

With the Baltimore Bandits and Carolina Monarchs swelling the league to 18 teams, and Lowell, Mass., and Lexington, Ky., due to join up in a year or two, the AHL now has four divisions. This season, the 18 existing teams are maintaining developmental relationships with 20 of the 26 National Hockey League clubs.

The Skipjacks transferred to Portland, Maine, after the 1992-93 season. And now the Baltimore Bandits have materialized, the result of a desire by the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim to have a team in a league that has always been the best proving ground for the NHL.

Those are the facts; now here's the people part of Baltimore's first and second affiliations with the AHL:

During their first nine seasons, the Clippers averaged 4,900 fans, with a low just under 4,000 in 1965-66 and a high exceeding 6,000 in 1969-70. The reasons were simple: Sports -- baseball and the Orioles, football and the Colts, basketball and the Bullets -- were flying high. Success was a given around here.

Men named Gilles Villemure, Jim Morrison, Wayne Hicks, Jean Cossette, Mike McMahon, Pete Laframboise, Fred Speck, Mark Dufour, Kent Douglas and Wayne Rivers were named to all-star squads. Those players and others -- like Willie Marshall, Aldo Guidolin, Gord Labossiere, Gil Boisvert, Andy Brown, Howie Menard, Jimmy Bartlett, the Plager brothers and Kenny Schinkel -- will be remembered by local hockey fans.

The AHL stood on its own for more than 30 years before it began moving toward being a developmental league for the NHL. Before 1967, there were six NHL clubs, and, usually, only a half-dozen or so AHL teams. Talent abounded. Willie Marshall, for instance, played 20 seasons in the AHL and scored a whopping 1,375 points (in 1,205 games) on 523 goals and 852 assists. He rarely got a chance to play in the NHL.

The Clippers faded away after drawing about 3,000 fans a game through the early 1970s. Baltimore was without hockey for six years, before the Skipjacks arrived. In just their second year of operation (1983-84), the Skipjacks had a banner season, going 46-24-10 and leading the league in points (102). Sawed-off goalie Roberto Romano had a 23-6-1 record. But the club lost in the semifinals of the Calder Cup playoffs.

The Jacks followed with a 45-27-8 season, during which Jon Casey proved the AHL's best goalie with his 30-11-4 mark, but the team lost the playoff final to Sherbrooke in six games. Two years later, the team was in the cellar, winning just 13 of 80 games.

The Skipjacks became affiliated with the Washington Capitals, and over the next few years they got strong performances from the likes of Mike Richard (44 goals and 63 assists for 107 points in 1988-89) and goalies Don Beaupre, Jim Hrivnak and Olie Kolzig.

It was after attendance tumbled to about 120,000 two years ago after averaging more than 150,000 the preceding four years that the Skipjacks franchise was moved to Portland, Maine.

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