SYRACUSE, NY – It’s challenging to look back at 2021 and find the bright spots, whether in sports or otherwise. Currently, much of the AHL is on pause due to an outbreak of COVID-19 among its teams. The Syracuse Crunch hasn’t played a game since Wednesday, December 15th, and won’t be playing again until January 5th, 2022. Unfortunately, their pause has been connected to COVID-19 protocols affecting the teams they play and their own players. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Lightning, Syracuse’s NHL parent club, is experiencing its own struggles with COVID, and with the return of Taxi Squads, the result has been the recalls of Syracuse’s entire goalie corps (Max Lagace and Hugo Alnefelt) and half of its defensive core (Sean Day, Darren Raddysh, and Andrej Sustr).
As Syracuse isn’t playing currently, the recalls aren’t too much of a concern in the present moment, although the Crunch has recently signed a couple of Professional Tryout Contracts, which could make one wonder how long the recalls are expected to last. Former Lightning defenseman Jason Garrison has signed on with the team, as has goalie Jimmy Poreda, last with the Worcester Railers of the ECHL.
“Throughout my last semester in Duluth, I really had the itch to play, but I had committed to school.”
Jason Garrison talks about what brought him back to pro hockey and signing a PTO with the Crunch. pic.twitter.com/X0MciGna6s
— Syracuse Crunch (@SyracuseCrunch) December 28, 2021
Needless to say, it has not been a normal year or a normal season (or two), and it doesn’t look like things are going to smooth out in the immediate future. However, despite the challenges, the interruptions, the worry, and the heartache, there was some level of comfort, familiarity, and even fun to be had in the lives of Crunch fans in 2021. Those Moments to Remember have been collected here (with a little bit of help from our readers over on Twitter).
As it’s challenging to order events that are different from each other – how does one rank a player signing against an Opening Night, for instance – these are in chronological order, not ranked order.
Joint Affiliation Agreement Influences Syracuse’s 2020-21 Season
Joint affiliations between AHL clubs and two NHL clubs don’t normally work out very well. Conflicting ideas regarding playing styles, prospect and player ice time, and other organizational philosophy concerns often ruin any chances dual affiliations have of producing much of a favorable result. However, during the 2020-21 AHL season, the Crunch’s duel affiliation between the Lightning and the Florida Panthers influenced much of the team’s success on the ice.
From the start of the 2020-21 season, AHL fans knew that the Taxi Squad concept was going to greatly affect rosters. There was no exception to this in Syracuse. From the start of the season, the Crunch was immediate without goalie Chris Gibson, defenseman Luke Schenn, and forward Gemel Smith. Throughout the season, the Crunch also lost forwards Ross Colton and Alex Barre-Boulet to recalls.
Without the dual affiliation, Syracuse would have had a difficult time putting anything near a consistently competitive team on the ice. Thanks to Florida, the Crunch benefited from the presence of goalie Samuel Montembeault, forwards Aleksi Heponiemi, Henry Bowlby, and Grigori Denisenko, and defensemen Riley Stillman and Chase Priskie. With two pools of talent to draw from, Syracuse was buffeted from many of the waves created by the constant up-and-down player movement of last season. Syracuse’s final record of 19-10-3-0 in 2020-21 resulted in a season percentage of 0.641, which was Syracuse’s third-best in recent history, and the Crunch ended the shortened season in third place in the North. The team came together when it counted, built cohesion out of potential chaos, and gave those fans who were able to tune in from home something to look forward to every game night.
Ross Colton Makes the Jump
This was the first moment on this list that the good people of Twitter were asked their opinion about. When asked which Crunch player made the biggest impact on the Lightning in 2021, the voices of the people were clear: Colton, by a landslide.
Which Crunch player had the biggest splash with the @TBLightning in 2021? If you have another suggestion, feel free to tweet me!
— Alexandra Ackerman (@FPHCrunch) December 26, 2021
Colton was one of the first rostered players Syracuse lost to a recall during the 2020-21 season. Recalled to the Lightning on February 15th, just one week into the AHL’s return to play, Colton made his NHL debut on February 24th. He scored his first NHL goal that night, and by the time Syracuse’s own season ended in the middle of May, had nine goals, three assists, and 30 NHL games with the Lightning to his name.
That isn’t what most in the organization celebrate him for, though.
The Lightning won the Stanley Cup in 2021, on July 7. That night, Colton scored the first goal of Game 5, a tally that ended up being the winning goal of the 2021 Stanley Cup Finals.
Colton’s progress within the organization didn’t stop there, of course. Currently, the forward has two goals and nine assists in 30 games for Tampa.
The Crunch’s Front Office gets to Celebrate the Cup
Colton’s game-winner wasn’t the only Lightning-related thing Crunch fans got to celebrate in 2021. In attendance at the game that evening was Syracuse’s owner Howard Dolgon, along with the team’s Chief Financial Officer Vance Lederman, and their Chief Operating Officer Jim Sarosy. Acknowledging the Crunch’s contributions to the Lightning’s Cup wins in 2020 and 2021, Tampa invited the trio to see the Lightning play (and hopefully win).
Not long after the victory celebrations commenced, pictures began going out of the three front office members hanging with Colton and other former Crunch players. It was very meaningful for the fans in Syracuse who cheered the Lightning on all playoffs to see the Crunch so well represented, both on the ice and in the stands. In discussing the events, Dolgon spoke on the importance of the positive relationship between the two teams:
“Our fans, our community understands the importance of having a good partner. We’re one organization. I can’t tell you how many people every time I’m in Tampa, and last night, come up and say how important the Syracuse Crunch is. They know it. They know where the players come from. The fact that we treat the players the way that we do, the fact that our fans respond to the players the way they do and make them feel important and make them feel loved, it means something. It gives the young players a base and comfort in their development.”
A Former Captain Returns to Syracuse
This past summer was a big one for Syracuse. Heading into the 2021-22 season, the Crunch looked stacked with the best on-paper roster of the affiliation. Charles Hudon, Sustr, Raddysh, and Legace were all among the notable names signed by the Lightning for Syracuse during the off-season (and are still among the notable in Syracuse’s unorthodox season – Hudon is currently second on the team in scoring with 16 points, while Sustr, with a fairly limiting 12 games played, is 9th with seven points).
One name, however, stood above all of these: Gabriel Dumont.
Who was the biggest off season “get” for the Crunch?
— Alexandra Ackerman (@FPHCrunch) December 21, 2021
At the time of the signing, Dumont had 554 career AHL games to his name, with over 100 of those games played in a Syracuse sweater. The forward had been the team’s captain during the 2018-19 season and had been a big part of the Crunch’s run to the Calder Cup Finals in 2017. Dumont’s return was certainly notable during the summer of 2021, and he’s been huge for Syracuse as they’ve struggled with organizational injuries and schedule pauses. Dumont is currently first on the team in points with 18 in the 21 games he’s suited up in for Syracuse so far in 2021-22.
Dumont was also named captain on November 26th. In the team’s official release, Crunch head coach Ben Groulx had high praise for the forward:
“Talking with our leadership group, everybody was unanimous that Gabriel Dumont was our captain It’s his second time as our captain. He’s been in this league for quite a bit and I think he represents the Crunch very well on and off the ice. Daniel Walcott and Fredrik Claesson will be our alternate captains. They are obvious choices as good people, good leaders and team guys. This team needed a direction within and these three are the right people to lead our team.”
Captain Gabriel Dumont 👊 pic.twitter.com/1qEvXJLiyG
— Syracuse Crunch (@SyracuseCrunch) November 26, 2021
The Crunch Faithful Return to the Barn
The 2020-21 season opener on February 6th, 2021 was, in many respects, a celebration, and rightfully so. Up until that point, a return to play for the AHL looked doubtful, so any kind of hockey being played – especially versus Utica, Syracuse’s arch-rival – was joyous. But it was a very weird celebration, one where the guests of honor all watched from home as a new-look, dually-affiliated Crunch team took on a new-look, dually-affiliated Comets team in an empty arena. The new normal for the league had taken hold, and although it was little more than a placeholder for what was to come, it was still valued for what it was – live hockey.
Eight and a half months later, Crunch fans returned to the War Memorial for live hockey for the first time in 603 days, and the true celebration was had.
So…What was the bigger moment?
— Alexandra Ackerman (@FPHCrunch) December 19, 2021
Although the contest itself resulted in a loss for Syracuse, the sold-out crowd was welcomed back with all the hubbub and hubabulu of a usual Crunch Home Opener. For a fanbase that had been limited to watching hockey through AHLTV the previous season, the night was cathartic, and one that won’t soon be forgotten.
— Kate Callaway (@KateCallawayTV) October 23, 2021
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