LOWELL, Mass. -- It's a new city, a new team, even a new arena for Frank Anzalone.
It's the same Anzalone, however.
On the eve of Anzalone's regular-season return to the American Hockey League last weekend, the shussing sound of blades on ice cut through the shiny Paul Tsongas Arena. It was the Lowell Lock Monsters' final workout before their AHL expansion debut.
Anzalone stops practice. The ice surface, he says, "is like skating through snow." The zamboni appears, and the coach goes into his large office with mostly barren walls. A familiar face from Roanoke opens the door.
Anzalone is stunned to see someone from the Star City, where he guided the Express to five seasons of East Coast Hockey League success. Then, after an exchange of greetings, Anzalone is asked how he's doing.
"Fair," said the New Yorker. "Even on my best days, fair."
After the ice is smoothed, Anzalone runs another 50 minutes of practice. He angrily throws a stick into the stands. When the Lock Monsters begin working on 3-on-2 breaks, Anzalone yells: "Can we run one right, please? Make my day so I can go home happy."
Anzalone, 42, changed jobs and leagues, but the man who coached Lake Superior State to the 1988 NCAA title hasn't changed. He can be curt and curmudgeonly, but he recalls his five years in Roanoke with fondness. He misses his veteran players, and his wife, Teresa, and son, Francis, miss the bonding they had with Roanoke friends.
"We had a lot of good relationships there," Anzalone said. "We're adjusting, but we miss the atmosphere. We had it figured out in Roanoke, so I'm taking a chance as a coach, and we took a chance as a family coming here. Teresa always said as a place to live, you can't find any better than Roanoke."
That said, Anzalone thought it was time to go, and said as a decision, the percentages were "52 to 48." He had contacted the Lock Monsters and their NHL parent club, the New York Islanders, about a potential affiliation for Roanoke. He ended up with a new job and will send players to his former team.
Anzalone said the changes in the Express' front office and board of directors' leadership signaled it was time for a turn of the page. Still, as he and his old club begin new seasons, he's playing his last Express games over.
"There was more innocence is Roanoke than on this level," Anzalone said. "We brought in players like Gags and Bert [goalies Dave Gagnon and Daniel Berthiaume] and Timmy [Christian] and Stewie [Dave Stewart] and Smitty [Michael Smith]. We won. We worked hard.
"We accomplished something, but it always seemed like we were two players away from going all the way," the coach said. "Last year left a real bad taste in my mouth. I'm sure that contributed to my decision to make a change."
Anzalone was referring to the Express' playoff loss to eventual champion Hampton Roads, a series blotched by controversy and one that turned toward defeat for the Northeast Division champion Express when Admirals coach John Brophy tried to embroil Anzalone in a postgame scuffle. Roanoke ended up losing players and the series.
"I allowed my integrity to rule the game, and I did my team an injustice," Anzalone said. "I probably should have belted John Brophy in the mouth. I blew the series because I stood up for character, and because of it, I did my team an injustice. I said that to Tim Christian, and he says what I did, down the road will mean more. He's right, but it doesn't make it taste any better."
Anzalone said the grind of recruiting players all summer and trying to negotiate players under the ECHL salary cap was beginning to tire him, too. He didn't have an assistant coach in Roanoke and for a time, he didn't want one. Now, he has three of them.
"Too much help," he said.
In Lowell, however, Anzalone has found a fresh situation in a blue-collar city rebuilding on its historical roots.
A half-hour drive northwest of Boston, Lowell was built on its textile mills, fueled by an intricate canal system. Hence, the Lock Monsters' nickname and that of the town's minor-league baseball team, the Spinners..
Lowell's revitalization includes a ballpark and the 6,500-seat Tsongas Arena, named for the late U.S. senator, who -- like famed author Jack Kerouac -- is one of the city's hometown heroes. The Beantown media doesn't pay much attention to Lowell, and the Lock Monsters' are an Islanders' farm team in the Bruins' backyard. Anzalone is too busy coaching to notice who's asking the questions, anyway.
"A lot of people might not like the fact that Frank is so upfront," said Lowell vice president and general manager Tom Rowe. "I don't have a problem with that. You always know where Frank is coming from. There's no [nonsense] with him.
"We've butted heads already on a couple of issues, and I'm sure it will happen again. There's nothing wrong with that. You say what you have to say and go on. He's here for one reason: his track record. He's probably one of the most sound fundamental hockey coaches around. If there's a problem, I know he's taking care of it.
"I know some people are wondering whether he can get his message across up here, when you're dealing with players who have significant signing bonuses," Rowe said. "But they're smart if they pay attention to Frank. He'll help them get to the NHL. He's a dedicated hockey coach, always has been, and you've got to respect that."
Anzalone understands the notion about whether higher-priced players will play the game acccording to a system that's produced a 1-1 start for the Lock Monsters. He was in the AHL before, at Newmarket in 1990-91, where his Toronto farm team was a last-place 26-45-9.
"This was an opportunity for me to be part of an NHL organization," said Anzalone, who has a two-year contract at about $80,000 annually. "It was another piece of the puzzle for me, but I'm not on an ego trip. I didn't come here because I wanted to get to the NHL.
"See, the higher level you go, the more complicated it becomes, and for me, less complications are better. There have been a lot of years I worked by myself, but I do think I got here a little bit burned out. When this came along, nothing against Roanoke, there was every reason to take it.
"We started out kind of innocently in Roanoke on a strict budget," he said. "I was this coach with sort of a sordid past who historically had been able to take expansion teams and get a lot out of them. Well, we're trying to do that here, but we're part of the Islanders' system and it's going to take time."
Different type of players
Anzalone said his Lowell players "are paying attention, it's just not always obvious. I can tell they're paying attention because of what they do. Still, they look at me, and when I talk about integrity and honesty, that I'm not here to screw them, you know they wonder.
"At this level, so many guys go up, go down, are traded, shipped out, contracts end. There's a little colder edge to everybody up here. I don't know if I can ever have it like I had it in Roanoke again, but I'm not going to change. Then I'd be a pretender, and that's exactly the thing I hate in some players."
Anzalone learned to bend a little in Roanoke, but only about as much as the blade of a hockey stick. He doesn't intend to be Lowell's monster.
"I'm going to be the guy I've always been," he said. "I'm not going to coach dishonestly. If I'm not good enough, then so be it. If it doesn't work, so be it. I can't allow the game to change me. I won't do that."