THE RETIRED NUMBERS AND CHAMPIONSHIP BANNERS OF THE MILWAUKEE ADMIRALS
THE MILWAUKEE ADMIRALS: An Abbreviated History
The outlook wasn't brilliant for this group of guys playing hockey.
The Milwaukee Admirals, a semi-pro team that had been based out of the Wilson Park Arena on the South side of Milwaukee, were experiencing financial troubles after just three years in the Midwest-based United States Hockey League. Original team owner Erwin Merar, who owned and operated an appliance dealership, had sold the club early in their tenure in the USHL to Bill Chimo. Merar had renamed the team (originally known as the Milwaukee Wings in 1971) after the Admiral appliance line he sold at his store when he bought the team that year.
The club, made up of French Canadians and led by a blonde-haired flash named Phil Wittliff, managed to sneak into the USHL playoffs with a 23-25-0 record. They surprised the Northern Division regular season champion Sioux City in the first round, winning both games of the best of three series to advance to the semifinals. There, they beat Traverse City – again, sweeping them aside in two games. Then, it was the USHL title series, best of five against Green Bay. The Miracle Admirals won all three games, becoming the first and only USHL team to sweep the playoffs in the league's history.
The best thing to come out of that championship run was the three people who would come to represent hockey in Milwaukee for the next three decades: Lloyd and Jane Pettit, and Phil Wittliff. Lloyd and Jane purchased the Admirals from Chimo after the 1976 championship run, and made the decision the following summer that they would move the team up from the USHL to the "higher" classification International Hockey League. The team nearly went out with a bang, losing to Grand Rapids in the finals by a 2 games to 1 margin, with three tie games. The USHL was planning on becoming a major junior league in 1978, and the Pettits wanted to remain owners of a professional team.
THE EARLY YEARS IN THE IHL
That first season in the IHL saw that leading scorer from their USHL days get his feet wet in the Admiral front offices: Phil Wittliff, rookie-of-the-year forward (and leading scorer) with the Admirals back in 1972-73. The history of the Admirals has centered on Wittliff on the ice, behind the bench and in the front office. With the exception of his time off after his near-fatal car accident in January of 1988, Phil has been the guiding force in on-ice hockey operations, acting as head coach and general manager numerous times during his tenure with the Admirals. The 1996-97 was his last as the head coach of the team, but he continues on as Executive VP and General Manager of the squad.
The Admirals got a new logo for the move to the IHL (the famous sailor on skates), and a new home at the Milwaukee Exposition and Convention Center and Arena, now known as the U.S. Cellular Arena. The Admirals made it into the Turner Cup Playoffs that season under head coach Gene Ubriaco (who is now part of the ownership group of longtime IHL and AHL rival Chicago), but lost to eventual champion Toledo.
Wittliff's finest moment in the IHL was in 1982-83, when he had Daniel Lecours scoring a team record 75 goals (which still stands as the IHL single-season record) and teammate Dale Yakiwchuk adding 100 assists (also a team record). Along with goalie Rich Sirois, they led the Western Division winning Admirals into the Turner Cup finals, only to lose to Toledo in six games. It was the closest the Admirals ever came in their 24 seasons in the IHL to winning the Turner Cup.
The fact that the Admirals never won the cup is one of the low points in Admiral history, but it isn't the lowest – in the Turner Cup playoffs of 1979-80, the Admirals forfeited the last two games of their quarterfinal series with Saginaw. The IHL made up an excuse that the Admirals refused to play because of ice conditions, and forfeited the series. However, Lloyd Pettit's complaint wasn't with the ice as much as it was with the players on the ice. The Admirals were getting roughed up badly. Six of the Gears' players had over 100 PIM in the regular season, including Mel Hewitt with 504. Pettit demanded that Saginaw forfeit the remaining two games in the series because of the rough play. The IHL declined, and Lloyd chose to refuse to play the final two games. Some long-time Admiral fans contend that this is the reason why the Admirals never won the Turner Cup – the officials never forgot Pettit's actions, and didn't let him forget it.
Lecours still holds the team record for most points as a member of the Admirals, with remarkable regular season totals of 445 goals and 814 points combined between his time in the USHL and the IHL for Milwaukee. The next closest player, the indomitable Fred Berry, has 225 goals and 605 points – but is the team's all-time leader in playoff goal scoring (19).
THE PETTITS AND THE BRADLEY CENTER
Lloyd Pettit wasn't exactly an out-of-sight, stay-in-the-office owner. A sequence of events (threats of the Bucks leaving Milwaukee, and some disappointing seasons by the Admirals) all led to the building of "Lloyd's Palace of Hockey," the Bradley Center. The Bradley Center is named after Jane Bradley-Pettit's father, Harry L. Bradley, who was co-founder of Allen-Bradley Corporation in Milwaukee. The octagonal shape of the building, along with the octagonal shapes of windows and architectural styles, are all a homage to the logo of the Allen-Bradley company (now owned by Rockwell International).
On March 4, 1989, the Admirals drew the largest crowd (at the time) to see an IHL hockey game (17, 845) against the Saginaw Hawks. In fact, up until the fall of 1994, the Admirals had 11 of the top 12 single game IHL attendances all-time at the Bradley Center. The Detroit Vipers smashed that record with 11 sellouts of the Palace at Auburn Hills in 1994-95. The 54 wins by the Admirals in 1989 is still a franchise record, as is the 113 points in the standings from that season. It took the defending Turner Cup champion Salt Lake Golden Eagles to knock the Admirals out in the IHL semifinals that season.
Many have said there isn't a bad seat in the house at the Bradley Center. They're wrong: If you get tickets in the upper deck (sections 409, 413, 431 or 435), and you have row U tickets, don't go if you're afraid of heights. The Bradley Center's top row is so high that the Admirals used its roof to get a panoramic background for the cover of the team's 1993-94 program. You may need a sherpa guide to get up to those seats. The Admirals now have a policy of not selling the upper deck seats unless all tickets in the lower bowl are filled – which has not happened much in recent years.
THE INDEPENDENT ADMIRALS
In 1992-93, the Admirals decided to buck the trend of relying on NHL affiliation to fill their roster and went independent, finding players from around the world to play in the IHL for their first exposure to North American play. One of them, goaltender Mikhail Shtalenkov, won rookie-of-the-year honors and set a franchise record with a 3.03 goals against average and an .897 save percentage that was second overall in team history. He was signed by the NHL's Mighty Ducks of Anaheim to back up Guy Hebert the next season.
1993 also saw the beginning of the funniest ad campaign ever to hit the airwaves of Milwaukee. Bob Uecker walked into Lloyd Pettit's "office" at the Bradley Center and told him he was going to help out an old broadcasting buddy in publicizing the Admirals. (Lloyd's response was, "Do I know you?"). The whole Uecker ad campaign, including Uecker "helping" to sharpen skates, driving the Zamboni, going with the team on a road trip (via the team's luggage), and dreaming of playing with the Admirals, was probably one of the most amusing (if not most successful) ad campaigns in the IHL.
The ads played out a little like the Lite beer commercials, but no, Ueck hasn't been forced to sit in the "front rooow" nosebleed seats of the Bradley Center in these ads. Actually, it went one worse – a few of the ads had him in the catwalks high above the Admirals' goal (dropping papers on an unsuspecting Admirals goalie). In another ad, he takes control of the Jumbotron scoreboard and the Milwaukee Admirals Victory, the team "blimp" that drops prizes on fans as it flies around the BC during intermissions. The sight of the blimp chasing around a referee makes the whole commercial. Ten years after the commercials began airing, the Admirals auctioned off the "plaid" uniforms that were featured in one of the commercials (playing on Ueck's trademark plaid sportcoats – which even he no longer wears).
In 1995-96, the Admirals won their third division title in four seasons despite losing three straight at season's end. The road to the Turner Cup turned out to be tougher than the Admirals thought. The Peoria Rivermen, the team that left the IHL for the ECHL, won their Conference Quarterfinal series with a fluky goal in the third period of the final game to send the Admirals home for the summer.
The biggest news during the off-season of 1996-97 was the departure of team captain Gino Cavallini to play in Europe. Former Hobey Baker award winner (and team captain) Tony Hrkac, Peter Douris, IHL All-Star Chris Luongo took up the slack in his absence. Veteran IHL goalie Danny Lorenz set new Admiral records for games played in goal (67, obliterating Sirois' record in 1981-82), shots faced and most shootout wins. He also was the first Admiral goalie in years to win 30 games (33-27-6). The Admirals set a team record in 1996-97 with 15 shootout wins, an area that was a perennial sore spot for the team since the IHL began using the shootout as a method of resolving tie games. Despite all of this, the Long Beach Ice Dogs swept the Ads in the first round – the clincher coming in a scoreless game in regulation.
During the Summer of 1997, Phil Wittliff stepped down as the head coach of the Admirals. By August, a new head coach had been found – Al Sims, the former head coach of the Turner Cup champion Fort Wayne Komets (and former member of the "Big Bad Bruins" of the early 1970's). One of the first things Sims stated he would emphasize for the 1997-98 season was defense – and after the first month of play, the Ads were tied for fewest goals against in the league.
It looked for a while like the Admirals would be a decent team – then the leading scorer, Joe Frederick, refused to sign a full- season contract with the team when his 25-game contract expired. The Admirals traded for Martin Gendron, who came from the Chicago Blackhawks and immediately made an impact with the team. The problem was that, despite a lot of quality players, there was no focal point to the team. There did seem to be a curse – if you were the team's leading scorer, you'd be gone within a few days. The Admirals did manage to win their first-round series with Houston, but got knocked out in six games by eventual Turner Cup champion Chicago in the Conference Semis.
THE PREDATORS AND THE END OF THE IHL
The Admirals signed an affiliation deal with the expansion Nashville Predators during the 1998 off-season. The move was motivated by Predators owner Craig Leipold, who is from Wisconsin and has a home just south of Milwaukee. The Predators gave the Admirals some quality players, including European stars like Vitali Yachmenev, Kimmo Timonen, Tomas Vokoun and Karlis Skrastins, along with veteran minor leaguers like Craig Darby, Eric Fichaud and Jason Cipolla. The Predators also placed some good young talent on the Ads, like Matt Henderson, Petr Sykora, David Gosselin, Marian Cisar (the first player signed by the Predators) and Mark Mowers, who was awarded the IHL's Ken McKenzie Trophy as the American-born Rookie of the Year. "The Mouse" is one of players in the Predators era to tally 150 or more regular season points; his 151 trail only Darren Haydar (276) and Greg Classen and Simon Gamache (167).
The affiliation also saw the end of the "original" Admirals logo and jersey, replaced by the "Sailor Head" logo. The logo, by most opinions, looks a bit too much like the "Patriot Head" logo of New England of the NFL. The logo, along with the sabers on the shoulders and the "waves" on the bottom of the uniforms, are at the best unique and at the worst eyesores. At the very least, the Admiral, though he is no longer "skating", is still at the heart of the team's identity.
Though injury problems plagued the Predators during part of their inaugural season, causing Vokoun, Doug Friedman, Fichaud, Skrastins, Henderson and Mowers to be called up at times during the season, the Admirals posted a very respectable record. However, the revamped (for the umpteenth time) Turner Cup playoffs found the Admirals out before they even knew it, losing a best-of-three series to Manitoba.
The 1999-2000 season was, unfortunately, more of the same for the Admirals. It was also the beginning of the whispers about the IHL itself. The league had dropped to two divisions of 13 teams, and long-time rival Fort Wayne had left the league in favor of a lower-classification league, the UHL. Then came the news that Lloyd and Jane Pettit had filed for divorce. The settlement of the divorce led to Lloyd divesting himself of the team, and Jane taking over the team's ownership. It also led to a new play-by-play announcer – Brian Manthey, who also took on the job as team PR director.
The first round of the 2000 playoffs was surreal, as each of the "best-of-three" games in the series vs. Cleveland went into overtime. The crushing blow was when the Admirals lost several key players in the vicious overtime contest in game 2 at the BC, which let to the Admirals loss in game three. The off-season saw Sims fired as Head Coach, replaced by former UHL coach Davey Allison. What was ironic was that both had led the Fort Wayne Komets to playoff championships – in different leagues.
The 2001 season was the season of the goalie for the Admirals, as the combination of Chris Mason (2.35 GAA, .920 save percentage) and Jan Lasak (2.61, .913) gave the Admirals their lowest goals-against total since joining the IHL. Mason set the career shutout mark for Admiral goalies with 10 in his four years in net.
The Milwaukee Admirals played their final International Hockey League game on April 27, 2001, at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Illinois. The Chicago Wolves defeated the Admirals 5-2 in front of 4,502 fans. Mike Watt scored the Admirals' final IHL goal, on assists from Ville Peltonen and Bubba Berenzweig, with 3:43 gone in the 3rd period. The story of the night was Steve Larouche's hat trick, which sealed the game and the series for the Wolves, who eventually lost the Turner Cup finals to Orlando.
The Admirals posted their last-ever IHL win three days before, on April 24, 2001, at the Bradley Center. Peltonen, Jason Goulet and fan-favorite (and future Predator) Jeremy Stevenson scored three unanswered goals in the last ten minutes of the third period to give the Admirals the 3-1 win. The Admirals were, at that point, only one game down to the Wolves in the best-of-seven series. However, the Admirals lost two nights later at the Bradley Center, 3-2, to essentially give the series to the Wolves. Alexander Boikov scored the final Admirals goal and final IHL goal at the Bradley Center with 11:16 to go in the 3rd of game five, but it wasn't enough.
A NEW LEAGUE AND UNCERTAIN TIMES
Three major events happened to the Admirals during that uncertain summer of 2001. On June 4, three days after a conference call ended the International Hockey League, the Admirals became the newest members of the American Hockey League, along with five of their IHL rivals (Chicago, Grand Rapids, Manitoba, Houston and Utah). Then, on September 8, 2001, their long-time owner, Jane Pettit-Bradley, died at her home in River Hills at the age of 82. Three days later, of course, the entire country was upended by the attacks on New York City and Washington.
The last two events had a major effect on the financial situation of the team. Jane set up the Pettit-Bradley trust before her death. The trust was intended to be able to run the team for 10 years, as this was a requirement the AHL placed on the franchise for joining the league. Unfortunately, the bad economy that followed 9/11, along with the nose-dive in the bond markets the following year, drained the trust of much of its funds. The team was been forced to cut way back in its hockey operations department, to the point where in 2005 they were forced to lay off long-time Admirals secretary and ticket sales manager Fran Eddy. The front office consisted of only a handful of permanent staff, with several non-paid interns.
On the ice, the 2002 season was the first time since 1988 that the Admirals did not make the post-season. The AHL set its playoff format for 2002 that only the top 10 teams in each conference would make the playoffs, and the Ads struggled to get within shouting distance of that. The Admirals were eliminated from the post-season on April 3, 2002 with a loss to Houston. The Admirals did make the playoffs the following year in 2003, winning their first ever AHL post-season series against the Rochester Americans, two games to one. They were promptly swept in the quarterfinals by eventual Calder Cup champion Houston. AHL Rookie of the Year winner Darren Haydar led the club with 29 goals and 75 points.
The team honored its past in late 2003 when the decision was made to retire the numbers of Admiral greats Gino Cavallini, Fred Berry, Kevin Willison and Mike McNeill. On two special retirement ceremonies – one in December, one in February – the four had their names lifted to the rafters besides that of Lecours and Wittliff. In another nod to the past, veteran Tony Hrkac came out of a semi-retirement to play for the Admirals once again. Hrkac is the team's all-time leading playoff scorer with 40 points in 51 playoff games.
The Admirals, led by newcomers Mathieu Darche, Curtis Murphy and Timofei Shishkanov and veteran goalie Wade Flaherty, won the American Hockey League's MacKenzie Trophy for the best overall regular season record in the league in 2003-04. Flaherty had the best season of any Admirals goalie in history, posting 21 wins in 36 games, a 2.18 GAA and a save percentage of .922.
The team needed all seven games in the Division Semifinals to get past the hot goaltending of Ilya Bryzgalov and the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks. Though they were bruised and beaten by the Chicago Wolves in the Division Finals – the series featured two double-overtime games, a game with 197 penalty minutes, another with 132 and several suspensions on both sides – they managed to advance to the AHL Western Conference Finals against Rochester. After splitting the first two games of the series, the Admirals swept all three games in New York – the first two were played at the Amerks' NHL parent club's arena in Buffalo – to advance to their first Calder Cup finals and their first finals appearance since 1983.
It was in the finals that the Admirals finally erupted. After the game one overtime winner by Matthieu Darche to redirect Curtis Murphy's shot on Wilkes-Barre/Scranton goalie Andy Chiodo, the Ads took advantage of a disorganized Penguins team to win game two by an 8-4 margin.
The floodgates opened in that game after fan-favorite Vernon Fiddler scored a short-handed goal on Chiodo early in the second period. Penguins coach Michel Therrien – who played a grand total of two games with the Admirals in 1985-86 – pulled Chiodo and sent in Sebastien Caron. The Admirals then lit up Caron like it was Christmas time, taking a 6-1 lead into the final period.
Coach Claude Noel mentioned after the series was over that he felt that the goal was the turning point because Therrien essentially "lost" his team when he pulled Chiodo. He lost more than that in the third when, after several chippy penalties and two quick goals made it a 7-3 game, Noel called a time out to regroup his defense. Therrien went berserk, climbing over the partition between the benches and calling Noel several very nasty names, threatening to come over and attack him. The officials saw this and had Therrien thrown out of the game. Therrien had a few very unprintable words for the referees as well. The Admirals scored on the ensuing power play, and though the Penguins did get a late goal after another donnybrook had claimed a few players, Milwaukee hung on for the win.
Therrien had a very terse and profanity-laden post-game press conference, and promised revenge in game three at Wilkes-Barre. However, cooler heads (and the presence of Admirals enforcer Raitis Ivanans in the lineup) prevailed. Game three turned into a hard fought battle that was decided in overtime by Darren Haydar at 8:54 of the first overtime.
June 6, 2004, will be a date remembered by Admirals fans forever as the team came out and scored early and often. Goals by Greg Zanon, Classen, Wyatt Smith, Haydar (twice), Brandon Segal and Simon Gamache sealed the deal and gave Milwaukee its first ever high-level minor league championship. Wade Flaherty, who won each of the 16 games for the Admirals, was named the playoff MVP. The late radio announcer Kyle Schultz couldn't contain himself when the final seconds ticked away, and actually lost his voice as the horn sounded.
THE FUTURE OF HOCKEY IN MILWAUKEE
Some would say that the Admirals have been a star-crossed team, never winning the coveted IHL Turner Cup despite being the oldest team in the league at its demise. The attitude towards hockey in the Brew City has slowly grown tepid over the years, and crowds are not close to what they were in their heyday in the IHL, and the 17,800 seats are usually well under capacity. Attendance dropped every year from the last season in the IHL (an average of 7,039), to 6,329 in the first AHL season of 2002; 5,073 in 2003, and a all-time low at the BC of only 4,754 per game in 2004.
Talk about improvements to the Bradley Center have focused on the arena's primary tenants, the Milwaukee Bucks. The Admirals relationship with the Bucks is rather one-sided; the Bucks get all of the revenues from concession and merchandise sales during games, and the Admirals are only working on an oral agreement with the Bradley Center board to remain in the building. Though the building was built for the Bucks, the BC is undoubtedly the Admirals' home.
Numerous people believe the BC is outdated, and issues with the Bradley Center board have caused at least one of its tenants to leave; the Milwaukee Wave chose in 2004 to move across State Street to the U.S. Cellular Arena for its home games.
There was hope as the 2004-05 season started, even as the chaos of the NHL lockout swirled around the team. The championship banner was raised to the roof on opening night, and the team received their rings the next day in Nashville. The Admirals had a solid team in defense of their first championship since 1976. Simon Gamache tallied 86 points – the highest such total in team history since Hrkac scored 88 in 1997. Brian Finley came into his own as a goaltender, winning a franchise-record 36 games and breaking Mason's career shutout mark with his 11th blanking.
Their title defense ended on a very sour note: the Admirals lost their first round playoff series with Cincinnati on a last-second goal in game seven at the Bradley Center. The playoff series win by the Ducks was their first – and last, as the team disbanded over the off-season and Anaheim moved their affiliation to Portland. Even as their hopes at another Cup was dashed, the future of the franchise looked bright: a group of investors, led by Harris J. Turer, purchased the Admirals from the Bradley-Pettit Trust. The group, which includes new Brewers owner Mark Attanasio and Brewer ace pitcher Ben Sheets, is committed to keeping hockey in Milwaukee for the long term.
Turer and new club president Jon Greenberg paid tribute to the original owners of the team by renaming the rink the Jane Bradley Pettit Rink at the Bradley Center, beginning with the 2005-06 season.
Not bad for a team that was once just a bunch of guys getting together to play some hockey at a local rink.
UPDATE: LAST HURRAHS AND NEW LOGOS
The 2005-06 season was an end to an era of sorts, as the core players from the Admirals' 2004 title team made one more run at the Calder Cup under head coach Claude Noel. The squad got off to a horrendous start, which was intensified by the sudden death of their play-by-play announcer, Kyle Schultz. As poorly as the team player in October, after Kyle's funeral the team took off and won several in a row to take first place in the Western Division.
Though the team dominated its division, they barely managed to get out of the first round against Iowa. The stellar substitute goaltending of Jake Moreland, who spent most of the year with Fresno of the ECHL, helped the Admirals advance after Brian Finley was hurt in game five.
When the Admirals' other goalie, rookie sensation Pekka Rinne, came back from a stint as the backup in Nashville, he backstopped the team to consecutive sweeps in the Division and Conference Finals, sending the team to the Calder Cup Finals for only the second time in franchise history.
Alas, a second hoisting on the Cup was not to be, as the Hershey Bears took advantage of a tired Rinne and a rusty Admirals team to take the championship in five games. The Bears skated off the Bradley Center ice as fans watched their heroes skate off – some for the last time. The three leading scorers for the Admirals in the Nashville era – Darren Haydar, Greg Classen and Simon Gamache – all left for greener pastures. Classen and Gamache headed to Europe, while Haydar signed with the Atlanta Thrashers, who placed theim with their AHL affiliate – Milwaukee's arch-rivals, the Chicago Wolves.
That those same Wolves swept the Admirals out of the first round of the playoffs in 2007 wasn't the main story of the new season, though. The Admirals set a record they would most likely prefer to forget: they lost an AHL-record 10 times in the shootout, and posted a combined total of 14 overtime and shootout losses on the season. The Admirals took a total of 29 games into the extra period (nine overtime and six shootout wins), also an AHL record.
The other new development on the 2007 season was the most obvious: the logo. The concept was simple: the cartoonish kid-like logo from the franchise's first season in the IHL, a round-faced kid in an admiral uniform, was found all these years later surfacing from the bottom of Lake Michigan – or so the "story" went. The look, however, fooled no one – it was a skeleton-like head with a black hat more symbolic of a pirate than an admiral.
There was a backlash against the logo, though many saw the color changes as necessary (and even welcome in some areas). An even bigger complaint about the new uniforms wasn't obvious until opening night, when the team revealed its shoulder uniform numbers were black on black on with a blue outline. It didn't help that there were so many new faces, fans couldn't tell players apart with or without a scorecard. The uniform numbers were changed for the 2008-09 season, along with an Admirals first - a "third jersey" featuring the full skating skeleton on a light-blue background.
Again, there was some uncertainty over the summer of 2008, as the financial meltdown has affected the bottom line of many sports franchises. What this would mean for the Admirals and the Bradley Center is unknown. For the immediate future, though, the Admirals and their ownership are committed to hockey in the Brew City.
|Rest In Peace – Kyle Schultz – 1964-2005
"The Voice of The Admirals" – Now and Forever
|THE LOGOS OF THE MILWAUKEE ADMIRALS|
|Original Admirals Logo
|The Skatin' Sailor
Admiral Logo, 1979-1998
|The Admiral Head Logo
Admiral Logo, 1998-Present
|Courtesy of The Internet Hockey Database Webpage by Ralph Slate|
Updated April 12, 2009