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Grizzlies begin new season in a new league

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The newlook Utah Grizzlies take the ice tonight at the E Center against the Phoenix Roadrunners.

The newlook Utah Grizzlies take the ice tonight at the E Center against the Phoenix Roadrunners.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News

WEST VALLEY CITY — It is finally time for Night 1 of Dave Elmore's downsizing venture.

The Utah Grizzlies play their first game in the Class AA ECHL tonight in the E Center at 7 when the new Phoenix Roadrunners visit.

When the ECHL puck drops, the Grizzlies' owner will begin to find out if Utah accepts not having a team at the highest minor-league level for the first time since the mid-1980s, when the old Salt Lake Golden Eagles had to beg the International Hockey League, which was then a bus league in the Midwest, to accept them because the Central Hockey League had folded.

The IHL soon expanded nationwide to AAA level.

This, however, is a voluntary move.

After two years of last-place finishes with two different NHL parent teams in the Class AAA American Hockey League, Elmore suspended his AHL franchise last spring, dropped his affiliation with the NHL Phoenix Coyotes with a year left on the contract and announced in June that the Grizzlies would move to the ECHL and become an independent.

Some season ticket holders have told the Deseret Morning News they will not attend this level of hockey.

But at the Grizzlies' fan forum on Tuesday night in the E Center, some 125 fans were clearly enthused. With the chance to vent, they instead cheered the change, especially when new coach Jason Christie promised his players would play hard every game because their contracts are day-to-day and can't rest on their guarantees.

Fan questions Tuesday night were about the new players and how they could support the youngsters who hope they're on the way up the hockey ladder. The ECHL allows a few veterans like ECHL career scoring leader Louis Dumont and defender Ian Forbes, but most players must be in their first few pro seasons.

The ECHL has put 264 of its players on NHL rosters in its 17 years — its 18th season opens tonight.

The fan favorite Tuesday night was rookie center Kris Kasper, whose blond haystack of hair outdoes the wild hairdos of Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko.

Earlier Tuesday, Christie told a group of sponsors and media, "Everyone wants to talk about the American Hockey League and the ECHL. I had a chance to play in all three, in the 'I,' the 'A' and obviously the East Coast League. You come to a game, you pay (for) a ticket, you want to watch a team play on the ice. When you come on Friday, and all year, you're going to see that. We're going to be going out every night working hard. We owe that to the community."

The coaches searched for that, said assistant Chuck Weber. What he noticed most over the last two weeks of training camp was "the energy the guys are bringing. The character and the work ethic. Jason and I can't teach that, but it was a big part of our recruiting process."

One exciting prospect is rookie center Matt Craig, who scored two goals and an assist in the Grizz's only preseason game a week ago, a loss in Idaho to Boise's Steelheads. "My linemates got me the puck a couple times," said Craig, who scored 133 points in four years at Quinnipiac University. "It's good to get it out of the way in preseason.

"This is all brand-new to me. The term 'professional' really comes into play," Craig said of his first pro camp. "I just try and work as hard as I can and learn as much as I can from guys like Dumont. He's a player kind of like me."

Another rookie is West Valley City native D.J. Jelitto, a left wing who came up through juniors. "Coming from juniors is a big step," cautions Christie. "It's going to take a while. (He has to) just to watch and get himself acclimated to the game."

Which is what Utahns in the stands this season will do, too, as the Grizz move to a new era. Will they embrace the ECHL, like baseball fans took to the short-season rookie-league Salt Lake Trappers in the late '80s?

If they do, word will spread. Utah is already a hockey destination. "It's a big-league town for the ECHL," said Weber. "Salt Lake City is a major market for this league, and guys are excited about that. After the season, if these guys are happy with the fan support and the way they're treated, other guys are going to want to come here."

And Elmore's downsizing will be on the upswing.

E-mail: lham@desnews.com