Truth be told, the Utah Grizzlies didn't make a conscious decision to become an IHL independent - without affiliation with any NHL team - this season. The Grizz were affiliated with both the New York Rangers and, on a more limited scale, the Los Angeles Kings a year ago.
But both clubs decided to affiliate with minor league clubs closer to their headquarters for the 1998-99 campaign. The Grizz, as a result, suddenly became as independent as Ross Perot or Switzerland.The unaffiliated Grizzlies, who are still getting to know each other, played their first exhibition game of the season on the Wasatch Front Wednesday night. After a quick start, Utah was scoreless during the final 55 minutes of ice time in a 4-2 loss to the Long Beach Ice Dogs, a feeder team for the Kings, at the Ogden Ice Sheet.
Being an independent is not necessarily bad, however. To hear Utah's general manager and coach spin it, the Grizz should be in great shape.
"It will be a good situation for us because you won't see the player move-ment we've had in the past," said Butch Goring. "It will give our team a chance to get some continuity and some chemistry together. Over the last two years it's been an exercise of bringing people in and sending people out, and in most cases that has a very adverse effect on your hockey team."
The Grizzlies were hurt last season when players were called up at inopportune times. It was one reason that they didn't even make it out of the first round of the playoffs. Without an affiliation, the Grizz should be able to hang on to more players and have more of a veteran feel.
Then again, even Goring admits there is a downside to being independent. The Grizzlies won't have as many up-and-coming NHL prospects.
"Obviously, without having an NHL affiliation, we won't get some of the key players that we're used to getting," Goring said.
The Grizz will have at least one player whose rights are owned by an NHL club. Goaltender Petr Franek just arrived in Utah's camp this week on loan from the Colorado Avalanche. Franek, Colorado's third or fourth goalie, was a 19-game winner with a 2.71 goals against average last year for Hershey in the AHL. Utah is also expecting another NHL franchise to loan them a goaltender with IHL experience within the next few days.
While not being an affiliate will mean less player movement and more continuity in the long run, Goring knows it will take awhile. Only five players from last year's team return, and Goring held out two of those guys - Gord Dineen and Rod Miller - from Wednesday night's exhibition.
Utah's Brad Lauer scored with the game only 1:33 old and teammate John Purves made it 2-0 for the Grizz at the 4:41 mark of the first period. By the end of the first period the Ice Dogs had knotted the score, and they went ahead for good midway through the second period. A Long Beach open-net goal in the final 30 seconds sealed Utah's fate.
The Grizz will play three more exhibition games this week in three days. Utah will be in Las Vegas for games on Friday and Saturday before returning to play Vegas in West Valley at the Acord Center at 3 p.m. Sunday.
While the Grizzlies are out of town, there will be hockey at the E Center this weekend. The San Jose Sharks are playing the L.A. Kings in an NHL exhibition on Saturday night.