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Grizzlies make their debut in red-black-sand uniforms

WEST VALLEY CITY — Nobody is sure what the new red-clad Utah Grizzlies will be like tonight at 7:30 when they make their E Center debut as the AHL affiliate of the Phoenix Coyotes, hosting the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks.

But Pat Conacher thinks he knows what he will be like when he runs a team for the first time in the regular season as a head coach.

Conacher plans to be himself tonight as he stands behind the Grizzlies' bench.

He has borrowed tactics from coaches for whom he's played (17 pro seasons, 13 in the NHL) or assisted (four seasons in Phoenix, one in juniors, one with Team Canada), and the Grizzlies will have to resemble basics of their NHL parent team's style to keep continuity.

But in tonight's debut, and beyond, "I try to be me. Everyone knows I've got to handle it my way; I have to do it myself," said Conacher, 45, who also spent a season as color analyst for Cincinnati's parent team, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks.

He says he knows little about Cincinnati, though, leaving that to assistant coach Gord Dineen, an assistant in the AHL last season with Phoenix's former affiliate, Springfield.

"I'm anxious to get it going and see how the team competes against a division rival," said Conacher, smiling in anticipation. "I want to get at it, see what we're all about."

Conacher ran the Phoenix entry in the four-team rookie tournament at Anaheim last month, but few of those players are with his roster now. He guided the Grizzlies to two exhibition victories last weekend in Boise training camp over the new Edmonton Road Runners of the AHL, who are affiliated with the NHL Oilers.

But tonight, it's for real.

Players kind of wonder how they'll do and how Conacher will be now that the regular season is finally here.

"So far, so good," beamed forward Jon Sim, back for his second tour with the Grizzlies after spending much of the last two years in the NHL. He played for Utah during parts of the 2001-02 and 2002-03 seasons.

Sim said, at least in the preseason, Conacher has not been "like my other coaches — they yell at me." Conacher hasn't done that yet, and Sim finds that pleasant.

Sim, a Nova Scotian who holds the Grizzly team record of three hat tricks in one season, said he signed with the Phoenix/Utah organizations because he and his wife "loved it here" during his first tour and because, "I wanted to play."

With the NHL in a labor-dispute lockout, its players have been scrambling to find somewhere to skate competitively, and Sim said Europe isn't really a good option for him right now. "I like it in North America; I like the North American game," he said.

For Sim and a lot of others, the AHL is the ticket for now. Sim's contract reverts to the Coyotes if the lockout ends during the season, he said.

As the AHL begins its 69th season tonight with two games — Cincy at Utah and Manitoba at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton — it does so with some of the best talent the league has seen because, like the Coyotes, most NHL parent teams are keeping some of their promising youngsters busy skating for AHL affiliates.

For Utah, forwards Erik Westrum, Jason Jaspers, Mike Stutzel, Fredrik Sjostrom and Jeff Taffe, defender Matthew Spiller and tonight's starting goalie, Jean-Marc Pelletier, split their time last season between Phoenix and Springfield, so the Coyotes want them playing under their close auspices in Utah while older NHL players head off to Europe or elsewhere.

Sim said he's pretty sure most of those in the AHL right now are extra happy to be able to play, and that should translate into some high-level games. "It's probably the best league in North America now. It helps the AHL, and it helps guys like me," he said.

Sim sees his teammates on the forward line as quick and varied in talents. "We have lots of speed and a variety of sizes, a couple of really big guys. Everyone can shoot the puck really well, and everyone has good instincts," he said.

The defense is much the same, with even bigger players, three at 6-foot-4 or 6-5. "We have some big 'D.' Hopefully, they can do some damage back there," said the 5-10 Sim.

He anticipates "a hard-working team with a lot of chemistry. It might take three or four games, but we have the potential to be a really good team," Sim said. "It's a matter of getting it all together and putting it on the ice."

Conacher said he expects versatility. He won't pigeonhole players as checkers or scorers. The forwards are to back-check as well as play offensively, and often a defender will dive into offensive plays, the trend in hockey anyway. But Conacher also hopes to let players develop their own identities.

Grizzlies' executive vice president Jerry McBurney said advance sales for tonight do not indicate a sellout — a couple thousand shy of that, actually, though the 5,000 "Red Sea" T-shirts to be handed out at the door could improve that. Friday night's 7 p.m. rematch between Cincinnati and the Grizzlies in the E Center was selling better than opening night, McBurney said.

The Grizzlies spent their first 10 years wearing green-based uniforms, but signing with Phoenix means they pick up the brick red, desert sand and black color scheme of the Coyotes.

Utah plays at San Antonio on Saturday night but has 10 of its first 15 games at home. Eleven — in a way. Utah hosts Manchester Oct. 20 in the E Center and again on Oct. 23 in Los Angeles at the Staples Center. Manchester is the L.A. Kings' affiliate, but Utah is designated home team for that game.