First came a handshake, then a hug.
Kevin Kaminski, Kerry Clark, Olaf Kolzig, Kent Hulst. Ken Klee, Chris Longo, Darren McAusland, Jeff Sirkka. Jim Mathieson, Michel Picard, Jeff Nelson, Todd Nelson.
They were the members of the Portland Pirates’ 1993-94 Calder Cup championship team – the franchise’s only title winner – who reunited Friday night, introduced to an appreciative group of about 100 fans at the Cross Insurance Arena by Tom Caron, the radio voice that season. They signed autographs, posed for photos and regaled each other with tales of glory. They talked about careers and families, life and hockey.
Mostly, they talked about a championship team and the bond it formed with its city.
“I think this is awesome,” said Sirkka, a defenseman on that team who is now 46 and a police office in Westminster, Colorado. “Just to be able to reminisce, and the jokes don’t stop. Even after 20 years everyone is getting back their unique personalities and joking around with everybody. It’s really cool. You don’t get that camaraderie in the normal business world. It’s fun to see the guys.”
The Pirates played home games in Lewiston and had the second-worst record in team history last season. Events like this, said many, will go a long way toward creating positive feelings about next season.
“This is exactly what we need,” said Bill Diamond, a longtime season ticket holder. “It’s a great idea to bring these guys in and give us a chance to be reminded of all the good things that can happen.”
Longtime fan George Nanos wore an away jersey from the 1993-94 season and clutched a framed copy of the Press Herald’s story on the championship. He hopes the reunion is a sign of things to come.
“Well, to me this is very special because it demonstrates right off the get-go that the ownership is committed to building a championship team,” he said. “To have the men who provided that great 1994 team here means everything. It was a magical year. I think we have the focus to bring the Calder Cup back.”
Kolzig, the MVP of the Calder Cup playoffs who led the Washington Capitals to the Stanley Cup finals three years later, said the Pirates that year “were like a group of brothers” and “the best team I ever played on.”
Some players stayed in touch through the years. Jeff Nelson, the team’s leading scorer who just retired two years ago at age 39, actually played a season for Kaminski in Mississippi.
“You see the guys in different places once in a while,” said Longo. “You keep in contact through email or Facebook or whatever it is. But to see the guys, it’s awesome.”
Reunions like this at the minor-league level are rare.
Picard, the heavy-shooting sniper who scored 41 goals – still the franchise record – said he once attended a reunion in Springfield, Massachusetts, and only five players showed up. This was his first time back in Portland in many years, and entering the arena brought back memories of his goal in the last game of the Calder Cup finals.
“Oh yeah, I remember that play, top shelf, stick side,” he said. “That was fun.”
Rosina Vacchiano has followed the Pirates since the beginning. She was one of a select group of fans who drove nine hours to Moncton, New Brunswick, for Game 5 of the Calder Cup series, hoping the Pirates would win it there. “We had the champagne ready and everything,” she said.
Seeing the players, especially her favorite, Kolzig, brought back pleasant memories.
“They haven’t changed much,” she said. “Maybe a receding hairline and a little gray, but aren’t we all like that?”
Clark, who was up until 4 a.m. Friday talking with teammates about that season, wasn’t surprised at the reaction of the fans.
“The fans embraced us,” he said. “In my 10 years, I never saw better fans, and I played in a lot of places.”
Mike Lowe can be reached at 791-6422 or at: