Having grown up in first the suburbs of New Haven, Conn., then Western Massachusetts, the AHL circuit is no mystery to me. I remember watching the old New Haven Nighthawks as a young boy — I even had a player tap the glass after warmups and give me a stick once — then moving to Springfield area and watching the Springfield Indians, who eventually became the Falcons.
I wasn't a season ticket holder, but I wasn't an infrequent attendee either. There were stretches where I'd attend a game a week or more, and I'd say my love of hockey truly blossomed in the Springfield Civic Center, watching the Falcons — then a shared farm team for the Whalers and Winnipeg Jets — including a young, fiery goalie: Manny Legace.
In 2004, Legace was voted the starting goalie for the Falcons' 10th Anniversary Team, having compiled a 53-45-15 record over parts of four seasons in Springfield. For a franchise that has struggled since becoming the Falcons — the Indians franchise relocated to Worcester and became the IceCats, with Springfield immediately awarded an expansion franchise named the Falcons — Legace is one of very few bright spots.
But for better or for worse, my memory of Legace comes from one unfortunate sequence of events in the 1997 AHL playoffs.
The Falcons held a 2-0 lead in the AHL's Southern Conference Finals, having stunned the favored Bears twice in Hershey, and were returning to Springfield for Game 3, with yours truly in attendance. The Falcons led 3-1 late, but the Bears pulled within one midway through the third and then scored a controversial goal in the final minute when Legace was interfered with outside the crease. Dennis LaRue — now an NHL referee — allowed the goal to stand.
But LaRue wasn't done. The Falcons netted the apparent game-winner with seconds remaining in the third, only to have it overturned by Larue on an in-the-crease violation (Sabres fans remember this now-defunct rule). When the Bears scored less than three minutes into overtime, Legace — plainly put — lost it. If my memory serves me right — and the only documented online account is from the Bears’ Web site, and comes across to me as revisionist history — the Bears were also in the crease on the game-winner, but LaRue allowed the goal to stand.
Legace burst from his crease toward Larue, irate that the same call that had been made on the Falcons no-goal was not made on the overtime tally. Again, the Bears’ site isn't as I remember things. Their account:
He charged after LaRue and hit him with his stick resulting in a ten game suspension for the Springfield goalie.
Legace did indeed make a beeline for LaRue, but the way I remember it was Legace, in a fury, lost his edge and took the official’s legs out from under him. Who knows if, in my own deliriousness at the blown calls at the end of regulation, that I remember things incorrectly.
One thing is for certain: Legace was indeed suspended 10 games, and the Falcons faltered without him. Springfield won Game 4 with backup Sylvain Daigle in net, taking a 3-1 series lead. But the Bears stunned the Falcons with three straight victories, ending Springfield’s season.
For all practical purposes, that was the end of Legace's time in Springfield. He spent the majority of the 1997-98 season with the Las Vegas Thunder of the IHL, with Jets’ second-round pick Scott Langkow getting the starting gig in Springfield. Legace was then dealt to the Kings July 31, 1998, just a month after the Whalers relocated to Raleigh and became the Hurricanes. He got in 17 games with the Kings that season, but didn't make his mark until joining the Red Wings as their full-time backup in 2000-01, eventually taking over the No. 1 job.
But despite Legace’s success in Detroit, and later in St. Louis, his name still takes me back to 1997, back to a time when hockey ensnared me and LaRue infuriated me.
Welcome to Raleigh, Manny. I’m looking forward to more memories — hopefully happy ones.