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Fond memories: Looking back at the P.E.I. Senators 20 years later


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Nalda Wheeler remembers the day professional hockey left Prince Edward Island.

She was the Prince Edward Island Senators booster club president for all three of its seasons in Charlottetown.

Twenty years ago today the Ottawa Senators announced they were shutting down their American Hockey League affiliate.

“It was quite a shock to us,” said Wheeler. “Everybody was upset.”

The news came the morning after the Islanders were eliminated from the first round of the 1996 playoffs.

Oleg Petrov scored on a third period breakaway and had two assists to help the Fredericton Canadiens defeat the Senators 5-3 in the deciding game in the best-of-five series in front of a 3,224 people at the Charlottetown Civic Centre.

CLICK HERE FOR A VIDEO FROM THE 1995 PLAYOFFS.

Tom Nicholls was the team’s assistant director of operations that season. He handled everything from advertising and media relations to travel and player transfers.

He said his only indication the Sens might be leaving came the day the team played its final game.

“We were asked to prepare a press conference for the next morning after the loss,” he said.

The 22-word news release about the press conference was distributed after the game was over.

“They’re gone,” Kevin Barrett, The Guardian’s Senators beat reporter, remembered was some people’s reaction that night. “It was kind of stunning to even think that, but not surprising in others.”

Questions about the Senators’ long-term viability in P.E.I. had surfaced before. The final answer came on April 30, 1996, with the team citing excessive costs and low attendance figures for the move.

“We have very loyal fans, unfortunately not enough of them,” Ottawa assistant general manager Ray Shero said at the time.

“There are no fingers to be pointed and no blame to be attached for this decision,” added managing director John Bryden.

Darcy Simon played three seasons in Charlottetown and was the captain in the final year.

“We were just hockey players at the time, you don't realize why” these decisions are made, he said.

He was a rugged defenceman and fan favourite.

“I tell everyone I was a true goal scorer,” Simon said, “because every goal I scored, I can remember.”

Steve Larouche played with the Senators during their second season in Charlottetown.

“I remember taking the ferry the first time because there was no (Confederation) Bridge at that time,” he said. “I really liked the fans. I really liked the city. It was one of my best years on the ice and, personally, off the ice in my minor career.”

Many of the Senators, who played in Charlottetown, are still involved in the game.

A look through the rosters shows NHL general managers Jarmo Kekalainen (Columbus) and Brad Treliving (Calgary), while Mike Bales is the Pittsburgh Penguins goalie coach and Darren Rumble is coaching the Moncton Wildcats of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL).

Pavol Demitra is one of the most well-known players to wear the Senators jersey. He recorded 768 points in 847 NHL game. He died on Sept. 7, 2011, when a plane carrying the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl of the Kontinental Hockey League crashed.

Larouche is now an assistant coach with the QMJHL’s Shawinigan Cataractes. He said he always enjoys coming back to the Charlottetown and remembers his time on the home team’s bench.

“It’s amazing; people come to see me after the game or before the game, ask for an autograph and talk to me about the old times,” he said. “It’s charming, it’s fun (that) people remember you.”

People are a common thread for those connected with the Senators.

Wheeler remembered all the volunteers who helped make the booster club successful.

“We enjoyed it immensely,” said Wheeler, who fondly recalled winning booster club of the year in its first season. “Anything we could do to help them, we did.”

Simon remembered being introduced to a young four-year-old fan and attending his wedding years later, meeting business people and forming relationships that remain today with his involvement in the Charlottetown Boys & Girls ClubCelebrityGolf Classic.

“You meet some good people and it becomes friendships for a lifetime,” he said.

Nicholls recalled Gary Thompson, who served as the team’s director of operations. Thompson had a stroke in September heading into the team’s third season.

“He was the best boss I had in my life,” Nicholls said. “Gary had the biggest personality in the world. When Gary went down people felt it and they rallied.”

Simon and his wife Beth live in Fredericton, N.B., with their three daughters. The oldest, Madelane, was born in June 1996, just before the family left Prince Edward Island.

“The Island is always going to be a big part of my life,” said Simon, who now sells real estate. “It was a great hockey town.”

Barrett said the team’s three-year run has a special place in Island hockey history.

“To see the real world of pro hockey, it was a good chapter, I think, for P.E.I. hockey,” he said.

“I’m sure it will always have a place in people’s minds or hearts around here,” Nicholls added.

Nalda Wheeler remembers the day professional hockey left Prince Edward Island.

She was the Prince Edward Island Senators booster club president for all three of its seasons in Charlottetown.

Twenty years ago today the Ottawa Senators announced they were shutting down their American Hockey League affiliate.

“It was quite a shock to us,” said Wheeler. “Everybody was upset.”

The news came the morning after the Islanders were eliminated from the first round of the 1996 playoffs.

Oleg Petrov scored on a third period breakaway and had two assists to help the Fredericton Canadiens defeat the Senators 5-3 in the deciding game in the best-of-five series in front of a 3,224 people at the Charlottetown Civic Centre.

CLICK HERE FOR A VIDEO FROM THE 1995 PLAYOFFS.

Tom Nicholls was the team’s assistant director of operations that season. He handled everything from advertising and media relations to travel and player transfers.

He said his only indication the Sens might be leaving came the day the team played its final game.

“We were asked to prepare a press conference for the next morning after the loss,” he said.

The 22-word news release about the press conference was distributed after the game was over.

“They’re gone,” Kevin Barrett, The Guardian’s Senators beat reporter, remembered was some people’s reaction that night. “It was kind of stunning to even think that, but not surprising in others.”

Questions about the Senators’ long-term viability in P.E.I. had surfaced before. The final answer came on April 30, 1996, with the team citing excessive costs and low attendance figures for the move.

“We have very loyal fans, unfortunately not enough of them,” Ottawa assistant general manager Ray Shero said at the time.

“There are no fingers to be pointed and no blame to be attached for this decision,” added managing director John Bryden.

Darcy Simon played three seasons in Charlottetown and was the captain in the final year.

“We were just hockey players at the time, you don't realize why” these decisions are made, he said.

He was a rugged defenceman and fan favourite.

“I tell everyone I was a true goal scorer,” Simon said, “because every goal I scored, I can remember.”

Steve Larouche played with the Senators during their second season in Charlottetown.

“I remember taking the ferry the first time because there was no (Confederation) Bridge at that time,” he said. “I really liked the fans. I really liked the city. It was one of my best years on the ice and, personally, off the ice in my minor career.”

Many of the Senators, who played in Charlottetown, are still involved in the game.

A look through the rosters shows NHL general managers Jarmo Kekalainen (Columbus) and Brad Treliving (Calgary), while Mike Bales is the Pittsburgh Penguins goalie coach and Darren Rumble is coaching the Moncton Wildcats of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL).

Pavol Demitra is one of the most well-known players to wear the Senators jersey. He recorded 768 points in 847 NHL game. He died on Sept. 7, 2011, when a plane carrying the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl of the Kontinental Hockey League crashed.

Larouche is now an assistant coach with the QMJHL’s Shawinigan Cataractes. He said he always enjoys coming back to the Charlottetown and remembers his time on the home team’s bench.

“It’s amazing; people come to see me after the game or before the game, ask for an autograph and talk to me about the old times,” he said. “It’s charming, it’s fun (that) people remember you.”

People are a common thread for those connected with the Senators.

Wheeler remembered all the volunteers who helped make the booster club successful.

“We enjoyed it immensely,” said Wheeler, who fondly recalled winning booster club of the year in its first season. “Anything we could do to help them, we did.”

Simon remembered being introduced to a young four-year-old fan and attending his wedding years later, meeting business people and forming relationships that remain today with his involvement in the Charlottetown Boys & Girls ClubCelebrityGolf Classic.

“You meet some good people and it becomes friendships for a lifetime,” he said.

Nicholls recalled Gary Thompson, who served as the team’s director of operations. Thompson had a stroke in September heading into the team’s third season.

“He was the best boss I had in my life,” Nicholls said. “Gary had the biggest personality in the world. When Gary went down people felt it and they rallied.”

Simon and his wife Beth live in Fredericton, N.B., with their three daughters. The oldest, Madelane, was born in June 1996, just before the family left Prince Edward Island.

“The Island is always going to be a big part of my life,” said Simon, who now sells real estate. “It was a great hockey town.”

Barrett said the team’s three-year run has a special place in Island hockey history.

“To see the real world of pro hockey, it was a good chapter, I think, for P.E.I. hockey,” he said.

“I’m sure it will always have a place in people’s minds or hearts around here,” Nicholls added.

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