When the season started eight months ago, there were 31 teams with hopes of raising the Calder Cup. Bit by bit those teams had their hopes dashed until there was only one last team standing – the Charlotte Checkers.
So what was it that separated the Checkers from those 30 other teams that fell short of the ultimate goal?
You could point to any single facet of Charlotte’s game – from scoring to defending to special teams, the Checkers stood as one of the league’s best – but there were plenty of teams with similarly skill-stacked rosters. Above those things there was something special about this Checkers team, and everyone in the room knew it.
For some, it was evident right away.
“I knew from the very start,” said Julien Gauthier. “We had a great group of guys who all got along, there were no cliques or anything. We were so happy to play with each other and that made us really strong together.”
For others, it became apparent as the year went along and Charlotte remained unbothered at the top of the league standings.
“I think around the halfway mark,” said Andrew Poturalski. “We had a hot start and a lot of teams will fall off after that but we never did. We had guys battling adversity, guys getting called up, and we kept winning games. Then I knew what we had was special.”
Some even have a specific game to point to – on Dec. 8 after giving up an empty-net goal to fall behind Springfield 4-2 with two minutes to play, the Checkers rallied to tie the game and then finished the Thunderbirds off in overtime.
“That game we came back and won in Springfield,” said head coach Mike Vellucci. “I thought to myself, ‘Wow, this is a really special team.’”
While the Checkers took care of business on the ice, a vital part of what made them special was brewing in the locker room. A team filled with players of varying ages, experience and backgrounds was meshing together in a way that many hadn’t ever witnessed.
“The way we all got along, you hung out with everybody, no matter if you’re 31 or 19,” said Bobby Sanguinetti. “It’s what keeps everybody together. We all cared about each other and that showed with the way things went.”
“To be honest I didn’t expect to have such a good group of guys here,” said Martin Necas. “I had always heard that the AHL was guys who were only trying to battle and get into the NHL but we had a great group of guys.”
From that mutual adoration grew the communal belief that this team was bound for a championship. That belief was clearly illustrated in the way the Checkers refused to accept losing as an option.
“Every night we expected to win,” said Alex Nedeljkovic. “Guys took losing to heart a little more than most other teams do. That’s how many winners we have on this team. We’re a bunch of winners.”
“There wasn’t a single guy on this team that didn’t want to win the whole thing,” said Patrick Brown. “Not that there’s guys who don’t want to win, but it’s so easy to just say, ‘I want to win.’ To make the commitment from day one to be the best team you can be and have fun doing it, you don’t see that every day.”
That commitment paid off in the end. As the Checkers took turns hoisting the Cup that night in Chicago, that tight knight group who hated to lose became something bigger.
“We’re brothers forever now,” said Brown. “You’ve got your teammates, you’ve got your friends, you’ve got your close buddies and then you have your brothers that you won a championship with. I’ve got 30 more brothers I can add to my family now. That’s pretty special.”