A year of change for the Moose

KEN WIEBE

, Last Updated: 6:27 AM ET

A new coach, a new barn and a second chance to make a first impression. These three things were at the forefront for the Manitoba Moose during the past 12 months.

It was a disastrous finish to the 2003-04 edition of the Moose, who finished with a record of 32-35-11-2 (77 points) to finish sixth in the AHL's North Division and miss the playoffs for only the second time since the franchise moved to Winnipeg from Minneapolis.

What made things worse was that expectations were relatively high for a group that was within a goal of the Eastern Conference final in 2002-03.

The tough season brought an end to the Stan Smyl era as the Vancouver Canucks legend was removed as head coach and re-assigned within the organization.

Smyl wasn't the only recognizable figure to say so long.

Several players from the first three AHL seasons were either traded or decided to sign elsewhere.

That list included Ryan Ready, Tyler Moss, Pat Kavanagh, Dallas Eakins, Brandon Reid, Jaroslav Obsut, Sean Pronger, Goodlands product Chris Nielsen and Fedor Fedorov.

Fedorov would finish the campaign with his best season as a pro (23 goals, 39 points in 58 games) but it was tainted by an unofficial 10-game suspension (actually 10 consecutive healthy scratches) for a team violation.

Missing out on the post-season party for the first time since 1996-97 couldn't have happened at a worse time, with the sparkling downtown MTS Centre set to open in mid-November.

But the organization took their lumps, slipped on the work boots and began the reconstruction from the ground up.

The process of finding the next head coach of the Moose was quite a saga.

Former Moose captain and assistant coach Scott Arniel, who also played for the Winnipeg Jets and maintains a residence in River City, emerged as the leading candidate after spending the past two seasons as an assistant coach with the Buffalo Sabres.

Former Carolina Hurricanes head coach Paul Maurice entered the mix, as did another former Jack Adams Trophy winner as NHL coach of the year who remained anonymous.

INSTITUTION

But the search narrowed when the Canucks were given permission to speak with Randy Carlyle about the vacancy after being rebuffed initially.

Carlyle, who was under contract for one more season as an assistant with the Washington Capitals, is an institution in the community and never really wanted to leave Winnipeg in the first place.

When the opportunity to return became a reality, Carlyle jumped at it and signed a three-year deal with the Canucks.

The personnel overhaul was substantial and perhaps the most important signing was veteran winger Lee Goren.

Goren, a Winnipegger who has given the Moose fits as an opponent, has been a force in the first few months of the season and entered the Christmas break second in goals with 15 and third in points with 25.

Goren also supplies leadership and is a physical presence.

The signings weren't done there as the Canucks added veteran netminder Wade Flaherty, who backstopped the Milwaukee Admirals to the Calder Cup in 2004, to share the goal with fourth-year pro Alex Auld.

Twin towers Joe DiPenta and Johnathan Aitken and rookie Kevin Bieksa, who suited up for four games at the end of the 2003-04 season brought some extra grit to the defence corps, while forwards Jeff Heerema and Josh Green were added to help bridge the gap for all of the offence that had departed.

Defenceman Nolan Baumgartner was lured back after signing to play in Germany and was named captain, a sign of the team's commitment to winning.

So with a revamped roster and a more vocal head coach, the Moose opened the season and quickly emerged as road warriors, rattling off three victories to start the season, in what would be a sign of things to come.

The first four home games of the season were played at the Winnipeg Arena and close to 14,000 fans came to the finale, which ended with the home side losing in a shootout.

But that wouldn't be what most in attendance took away from the experience.

The list of hockey legends in the building for the historic night included Ulf Nilsson, Anders Hedberg, Teemu Selanne and Thomas Steen.

There was an unofficial passing of the torch as the boisterous crowd broke into a chant of "Go Moose Go" -- a signal the hockey fans may finally be embracing the team that came to be in the wake of the Jets.

On Nov. 17, the Moose played the first game at the MTS Centre and before a crowd of 15,015, came away with a 4-2 victory over the St. John's Maple Leafs in an entertaining tilt that was broadcast live on Rogers Sportsnet.

The Moose were locked in a battle for top spot in the North Division at the Christmas break and remained among the elite teams in both the Western Conference and the AHL.

And while there is plenty of season left, the Moose have shown they have the elements required to sustain success.

Whether that blue-print will lead to a championship banner at the end of the season remains to be seen.


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