Sean LeBrun remembers the talk in the dressing room before the Tri-City Americans’ first game at the then Tri-Cities Coliseum.
The building was brand new with the price tag still hanging from the roof when the Americans hosted the Seattle Thunderbirds for their first home game Nov. 20, 1988. The players were bantering about who would score the first goal.
That first goal was scored by Seattle’s Dean Ewen at 11:52 of the first period on the power play. LeBrun notched the first one for the Americans 48 seconds later off an assist by Greg Spenrath.
“I remember getting it,” said LeBrun, who lives in Prince George, British Columbia. “I remember it being a big deal before the game. Who would get it and break in the new building.”
Tonight and Saturday, the Americans (13-7-1-1) will celebrate their 25th anniversary when the Kelowna Rockets (12-6-1-1) visit the Toyota Center for back-to-back games.
“What a great benchmark for the franchise,” said Tri-City coach Jim Hiller. “And for the fans who have been here the whole time, with different players, different jerseys and logos, through the good times and the bad and have stuck with it.”
Americans captain Justin Feser will lead his team onto the ice tonight amid the fanfare.
“To be a captain of any team is an honor, but this year it’s a little more special,” Feser said. “You can really tell the team has come a long way since 1988. You see some clips on YouTube, and the rink was packed back then. We can’t complain with our fans — they are loyal and they are always loud whether it is packed or not.”
In the hallway outside the Americans dressing room, the walls are adorned with the names of the Americans’ NHL draft picks, team records, team captains and photos of the team’s accomplishments. It’s a reminder for the players of what their future could hold.
“It’s always cool to look back at the names and numbers on the wall — Stu Barnes, Daymond Langkow, Olie Kolzig, Brian Sakic,” Feser said. “Hopefully in 10 year’s time they can come back and see Shinny (Brendan Shinnimin) and Hughey (Adam Hughesman) — the put up some pretty good numbers last year. Guys like (Kruise) Reddick and Schmitty (Tyler Schmidt) did a lot for the team in their five years here.”
Shinnimin, Hughesman, Reddick and Schmidt’s accomplishments already are prominently displayed, and Feser soon will join them as a team captain and for games played.
LeBrun, the park supervisor for the City of Prince George, played just one season in Tri-City, but has fond memories.
“It’s a shame I only got to spend one year there,” said LeBrun, who was a 6-foot-2, 200-pound left wing for the Americans. “It was an absolute phenomenal season. I met some great people there. Playing with the guys and playing in front of the crowds is what I remember. Not so much of what we did on the ice. After Stu’s wedding I haven’t been back. I should make an effort to get back. It would be fun to experience that again.”
Barnes and LeBrun came to the Tri-Cities together when the late Ron Dixon relocated the New Westminster Bruins at the start of the 1988-89 season.
“Stu and I were linemates and pretty much inseparable for a couple of years,” LeBrun recalled. “I actually played the first season in Spokane when they moved from Kelowna (start of the 1985-86 season). I was 16 that year. I played on the first Spokane team and the first Tri-City team.”
LeBrun said he gave up playing years go when his son Jake, now 17, was old enough to play. Jake now plays for the Prince George Spruce Kings (Jr. A). He admits he doesn’t even keep up with his old team.
“I’d be lying if I said I paid attention,” LeBrun said. “I go to the odd game here in Prince George. I surely don’t keep up on them like I should. I think it’s great that Olie and Stu own the team. Talking to Stu, they wanted to establish pride in the organization and in the community.”
Barnes, who had a lengthy NHL career with Winnipeg, Florida, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Dallas, was on the ice Wednesday afternoon during the Americans’ practice, lending a hand.
“It’s fun. Jim (Hiller) and Dan (Price) do such a good job, as well as (general manager) Bob (Tory),” Barnes said. “It’s fun for me to come back and help on the ice when I can.”
The building hasn’t changed much since Barnes and LeBrun first walked in the doors. The building is showing it’s age after 25 years, but it’s the memories that are important.
“It has that character that older buildings have,” said Barnes, who had a goal and an assist in that first game against Seattle. “It has a great atmosphere for games and the Tri-City fans have always been tremendous with their support. We played our first 17 games on the road that first year, and to come here and the building was sold out and we won in overtime, that was exciting.”
Seventeen years after he played his first game in Tri-City, Barnes, along with Kolzig, Tory and Dennis Loman bought the Americans in April 2005, preventing the franchise from being relocated to Chilliwack, British Columbia.
“I think the biggest thing is the people involved in the organization are committed to making our organization something to be proud of,” Barnes said. “Credit the fans who keep coming back and supporting the team. Our goal is to create something the community and the fans can be proud of.”