Sunday, March 24, 2013

Port Huron Hockey: Border Cats (1996-2002)

     After the Flags folded in 1981, Port Huron went without pro hockey for 15 years (except for the 1987-88 Clippers). The city was rumored to be one of the first teams in the new Colonial League in 1991, but nothing ever came of it. Hockey would not return until the summer of 1996, when the Detroit Falcons arrived in town.
     The Falcons were one of the original five members of the Colonial League, and played at the Fraser Ice Arenas in Fraser, Michigan. Despite icing a competitive team each year, the Falcons never drew big enough crowds to show a profit. After losing in Round Two to Flint in the 1996 playoffs, the Falcons packed up their bags and flew north to Port Huron for the 1996-97 season. The newly-named Border Cats were a smash hit in their new town, easily breaking franchise records for attendance. They stayed in Port Huron for six years before suspending operations after the 2001-02 season. The Cats were affiliated with the Florida Panthers throughout their existence, along with the IHL's Las Vegas Thunder.
     I was a big Detroit Falcons fan, and followed the team to Port Huron. Here are the programs I have for this team.

1996-97 Regular Season--Border Cats vs. Brantford
     Pro hockey returned to the Blue Water Area for the 1996-97 in the form of the Colonial Hockey League's Port Huron Border Cats. GM Costa Papista led an aggressive marketing campaign to build up interest in the area, and the results were evident during the first year. The Cats were a smash hit in Port Huron, averaging 2526 per game, easily breaking the franchise's attendance records. The team was a tough one, piling up 2148 penalty minutes, third most in the league, led by fan favorite Chris Scourletis (333 PIM). Due to the type of hockey the Cats played and the relatively small ice surface at McMorran, the Border Cats ripped off a 12-game unbeaten streak at their new home.
     Led by Coach Dave Cameron, the Border Cats finished the season 38-31-5, third place in the East, 30 points behind league-leading Flint. They were led on offense by Bob McKillop, a Falcons holdover who pumped in 45 goals and 88 points. Jon Nelson (30) and Jean Blouin (32) joined McKillop in the 30-goal club. As a group, the Cats scored 280 goals.
     The Border Cats went through seven goaltenders in Year One, with Kevin Butt and Igor Karpenko playing the majority of them. Butt led the way with 46 games, with a 25-15-3 record and a 3.72 mark. Karpenko played 22 games, with a 9-9-1 record and 3.50 GAA. Overall, the Cats surrendered 288 goals.
     In the playoffs, the Border Cats faced the Brantford Smoke. Despite being 20 points behind the Smoke during the season, the Cats took them to the limit in the best-of-five first round tilt. Brantford advanced, however, taking Game Five, 7-1, to end the Border Cats first season.
     This is a 70-page program, full of articles and ads from around the Port Huron area. The pictures on the cover are from a preseason game against Flint (note the Generals players wearing jerseys from the 1994-95 season). The mascot's name, btw, is Bridges. This is from a regular season game against Brantford, which the Border Cats won, 7-1, in front of 2852. I also attended Game 4 of the playoff series against the Smoke (which the Cats won, 3-2 in overtime).

1997-98 Regular Season--Border Cats vs. Muskegon
     After their successful first season, the Cats took a step back on the ice. Dave Cameron left after 1996-97 and was replaced by Doug Crossman. Crossman's bunch stumbled to a 31-33-10 mark, still in third place in the East and 26 points behind first place Flint. This was the first losing season in franchise history, but it didn't affect the crowds, as attendance increased to 2629 per game, fifth overall in the league.
     Offensively, the Cats were led by newcomer Brian Dobbin, who scored 38 goals and 84 points. McKillop was next with 35 goals and 60 points, but only two other players (Ryan Black and Doug Martin) cracked the 20-goal mark that year. As a team, scoring dropped to 256 goals.
     Igor Karpenko became the starting goaltender in 1997-98. He played 56 games and had a record of 27-23-6 with a 3.77 GAA. Four other netminders filled in as backup, led by Johnny Lorenzo's 17 games. Last year's starter, Kevin Butt, was dealt to Saginaw early in the year. As a team, the defense struggled, allowing their opponents to light the lamp 303 times, sixth-worst in the UHL.
     A bright spot to the season was the first-ever UHL All-Star Game. The game was held in Port Huron, and a sellout crowd watched the UHL All-Stars take on a team of Canadian juniors.
     Due to the sluggish season, Crossman was fired and replaced by ex-Saginaw coach John Blum, who was recently let go by the Lumber Kings.
     This program is from a regular season game against the Muskegon Fury. The Cats won, 6-5, in a shootout in front of 2409 fans. Again, the program is loaded with advertisements and news about the team and the UHL.

1997-98 Colonial Cup Playoffs--Border Cats vs. Brantford
     John Blum's squad made the playoffs in 1997-98, and again faced the Brantford Smoke in Round One. This time, the Smoke made quick work of the Cats, sweeping them away in four straight and outscoring them 21-11. This program is from Game 1, which Brantford won, 3-1, in front of 3056 fans.
     Blum would not be retained after the season, as the Cats hired Greg "Chief" Puhalski as head coach. Costa Papista would also step down, taking the GM job with the AHL's Louisville Panthers.
     This program is pretty much the same as the previous one, just with a different cover.

1998-99 Regular Season--Border Cats vs. Saginaw
     After the disappointing 1998-99 season, changes were made to the Border Cats. New Coach Greg Puhalski and GM Paul Maxwell put together a much stronger squad. The biggest move they made was landing UHL all-time scorer Paul Polillo from the Smoke in a huge seven-player deal. Polillo became available when the Smoke relocated to Asheville after the previous year. The Border Cats acquired Polillo, Bernie John and Darryl Paquette in the deal, while giving up JD Eaton, Dale Greenwood, Gairin Smith and Chris Scourletis.
     Polillo led the Border Cats to a 41-26-7 record, second place in the East and 17 points behind first-place Muskegon. He scored 28 goals and 107 points to lead the team. Chris Bergeron (26), Bob McKillop (34),  and Kevin Brown (23) joined Polillo in the 20-goal club. As a unit, the Cats lit the lamp 261 times.
     Defensively, the Border Cats were vastly improved from last year. Goals-against dropped to 239, third best in the league. Longtime minor leaguer Ollie Sundstrom played in 33 games, most on the team, going 17-10-3 with a 2.98 GAA. Sundstrom was traded to Binghamton for Jon Hildebrandt, who went 10-5-1 with an excellent 2.32 GAA and 3 shutouts.
     In the playoffs, the Cats continued to struggle for postseason success. They faced the Thunder Bay Thunder Cats in Round One. Despite two games going to overtime (including Game 7), the Border Cats fell in seven to Thunder Bay, another early exit in the playoffs. Polillo would retire after the season, but occasionally return in the final two years of the franchise.
     This is from a game against the Saginaw Gears, which the Cats won easily. My program was autographed on the Thomas Edison Inn ad, which meant I got to participate in the Score-O game during intermission. They put me a few feet in front of the wide-open net for the game, instead of the usual "shoot from the blue line with a puck-sized target to shoot at". Obviously, I scored (I really just pushed the puck in as much as I shot it), and won a gift certificate to the Edison Inn.
     Coach Puhalski stayed on through the 1999-2000 season, then was hired by the Fort Wayne Komets. JF Laforest took over in the 2000-01 season.

2000-01 Regular Season--Border Cats vs. Muskegon
     During the 1999-2000 season, owner Mostafa Afr attempted to purchase McMorran Arena, was declined in negotiations that, at times, were ugly. Afr tried to do the next-best thing, build his own arena. The Kimball Sports and Entertainment Center was supposed to be next to the outlet mall just outside Port Huron. The Border Cats planned on starting the season at McMorran, then moving into their new home during the 2000-01 season.
     However, funding for the building ran out about 20% (if that) into construction, forcing the Cats to play in four stadiums that year (both Sarnia arenas, McMorran Arena, even Fraser Ice Arenas!). The amount of chaos in the organization, along with a last-place Cats team (30-34-10), led to attendance plummeting to 1443 per game, the lowest since the team's days in Fraser.
     Despite the turmoil, the Cats did have some bright spots. David Alexandre Beauregard, a San Jose draft pick in 1994, arrived after two years in the ECHL. Beauregard led the team in scoring (33 goals, 63 points), and was joined by Ryan Pawluk and Jason Glover (21 each) as the only 20+ goal scorers on the team. Overall, the Cats scored 234 goals, third worst in the league (not counting Mohawk Valley, which folded during the season).
     The Border Cats used two netminders that season, as Kevin St. Pierre and Hugo Hamelin shared goaltending duties that year. St. Pierre had a decent season, going 16-13-5 with a 3.02 GAA and 3 shutouts. Hamelin record was worse, 14-21-5 with a 3.59 GAA and 1 shutout. The Cats surrendered 260 goals that year, fourth best in the league.
     After that disastrous season, Afr signed a one-year lease for McMorran Arena for the 2001-02 season. The arena in Kimball would never be completed and earned the nickname "Stonehenge". This season likely finished off the Border Cats in the area, as they never reached the attendance levels of earlier seasons again.
     This program is from a game against Muskegon, which the Cats won, 5-1. As you can see, the team changed logos for this season, with a more fierce cat now. Even the mascot changed, as Bridges was replaced by "Clawed" for the final two years. Pretty sharp logo, but I like the old one better.

2001-02 Regular Season--Border Cats vs. Binghamton
     After the mess of 2000-01, Dr. Afr signed a one-year lease for McMorran Arena for the 2001-02 season. He apologized for last season and admitted he made a mistake in not picking one arena for the year. Laforest returned behind the bench, but would be fired midway through the season in favor of longtime Border Cat Bob McKillop. The Cats continued to struggle, going 27-35-12, sixth place in the East and 32 points behind first place Elmira (also owned by the Afrs). Attendance improved slightly, but was still below 2000 per game (1718).
     David Alexandre Beauregard returned and had an excellent season, scoring 50 goal and 85 points, tops on the team. After him, there was quite a dropoff. Rick Judson was the only other player to score 20 goals, and as a team, the offense scored an anemic 207, worst in the league.
     Defensively, the Cats allowed 261 goals, sixth-worst in the league. Kevin St. Pierre returned and did the best he could with a weak roster, going 14-16-2 with a 3.12 GAA. He was joined by newcomer Matt Mullin, who went 7-13-7 with a 3.67 GAA and 1 shutout. Stu Dunn started the season in Port Huron, but was traded to Flint for Mullin.
     This program is from a game against the BC (Binghamton) Icemen. The Cats lost, 5-3, in front of 2920 fans. This was the last Border Cats game I went to. I remember getting two pucks tossed to me by the Icemen's backup goaltender (Bryan Shoen, perhaps?) during the game. Still have those pucks, btw, though they just have advertisements on them.

     After the 2001-02 season, Afr attempted to find a buyer for the Border Cats franchise. Finding little interest in a damaged brand, he decided to suspend operations for the upcoming season. Port Huron would not go long without UHL hockey, as the Dixon family would bring a new team to town.


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