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Wait finally over for Lock Monsters

By MIKE ZHE
Telegraph Sports Correspondent
 
BILLERICA, Mass. – The Monster is starting to take shape.
After two years of waiting, the Lowell Lock Monsters hockey team finally obtained some bodies to wear the uniforms they’ve been showing off since February of 1997 – before construction delays bumped their inaugural season back a year.

Now, that inaugural season is just 14 days away from starting, and with the parent New York Islanders club whittling their own team down to size, Lowell is finally getting an idea who the players are that will be wearing their uniforms.

General manager Tom Rowe, head coach Frank Anzalone and his assistant coaches – Steve Stirling and Paul Jerrard – spent last week at Islanders training camp in Lake Placid, N.Y., getting a feel for the players who will make up their American Hockey League entry this year.

"I think the comfort level is the biggest thing," said Anzalone, fresh off the ice at Tully Forum Thursday. "You want to become comfortable with yourself and with the guys and they with you. Because there’s no more dictatorship, really – players have to respect you, but they also have to like you. We’re building upon those two things this week and next week."

Several players on the team have NHL experience. Defensemen Ray Schultz (13 games) and Jeff Libby and forwards Steve Webb (20 games), Dane Jackson (eight games) and Warren Luhning (eight games) all had stints with the Islanders last year.

Mike Kennedy had a cup of coffee with the Dallas Stars a year ago – likewise Mike Watt with Edmonton. Forward Mark Lawrence played parts of three seasons in Dallas.

Bruins fans will recognize Dean Malkoc, the hard-nosed defenseman who played parts of the last two seasons with Boston. Malkoc was expected to arrive in town Thursday night.

Many of the players arrived here Sunday, and a dozen free agents – most of whom won’t make the team – first took the ice Monday. The team has practiced in two groups every day this week, and will play an intra-squad scrimmage open to the public from 4:30-6 p.m. today at Tsongas Arena in Lowell.

"There’s really no time for anybody to sit and wallow in the fact that they’re in the minor leagues," Anzalone said.

Of the three goalies in camp, 21-year-old Steve Valiquette stands out (mainly because he’s 6-foot-5). Marcel Cousineau, who backstopped St. John’s into the AHL quarterfinals last year, is expected to join the team soon.

The 43-year-old Anzalone – who played at the University of New Hampshire for two years in the early 1970s – was tabbed by the organization this summer, after a successful five-year stint guiding the Roanoke Express in the East Coast Hockey League.

Ironically, one of Anzalone’s projects at Roanoke was creating an affiliation with the Lock Monsters, to supply them with fresh players when the Islanders depleted their ranks.

"I thought I was going to be in Roanoke again," he said. "And then as we completed the affiliation and became friendly, that’s when the Lowell people recommended the Islanders interview me."

Now, the pipeline’s in place – only Anzalone has moved. Many of the players who don’t make the Lowell squad will start the season at Roanoke.

Local ties

After eight years of bouncing around the maze-like world of minor league hockey, forward Craig Charron has to be feeling right at home.

Particularly on Thursday, when the Greater Lowell Chamber of Commerce Business Expo shifted practice from Tsongas Arena to venerable old Tully Forum – now called the Chelmsford Forum – where Charron pumped in 64 goals as a member of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell Chiefs between 1986 and 1990.

Charron is one of two former UMass-Lowell skaters on the roster. At 30, he’s easily the most experienced member of the team, and will be looked to for his leadership as well as his production. Last year, he was the leading scorer for the AHL’s Rochester Americans (25 goals, 53 assists for 78 points) and won the league’s Fred Hunt Memorial Award for sportsmanship.

"He’s a very good player, and he’s also a very good man," Anzalone said. "He’s going to add a lot here, and if Craig Charron can play his butt off and produce we’re going to win. And then Craig Charron maybe gets a shot to play for the Islanders."

Shannon Basaraba is at the other end of the boat. Last year he captained a River Hawks team to a 16-16-3 record, but making the jump from college to the best minor league there is may be a bit much to ask.

"They may have played a little different system in Lowell than we’re used to, but he’s been acclimating better each day," Anzalone said. "He’s a guy that works hard, and when you work hard and play (Division I) you’ve got half the battle. Whether you can step right into the (AHL) or not, that remains to be seen. But I haven’t been displeased with him at all."

On tap

Fans will have a couple of chances to see the team before it’s AHL season starts. Today’s 4:30 intra-squad scrimmage at Tsongas Arena is free and open to the public. An exhibition game with the Providence Bruins is slated for Monday night at Tsongas. Tickets are $5 and are available at the Tsongas Arena box office or by calling Ticketmaster at (617) 931-2222.