Cincinnati Cyclones continue winning ways

Cincinnati's ECHL team is three wins away from a third Kelly Cup finals appearance in seven seasons. Despite the personnel and coaching turnover that's inherent in minor league sports, the Cyclones have been built a consistent winner.

Cincinnati Cyclones forward Josh Shalla flips the puck past Greenville goalie Jason Missiaen for one of his three goals in Monday's 4-1 win in Game 1 of the ECHL Eastern Conference finals at U.S. Bank Arena.

Tony Bailey

CINCINNATI -- Matt MacDonald is a unique person in Cincinnati. He knows what it is like to win a professional sports championship.

MacDonald was a defenseman for the Cincinnati Cyclones in 2008 when the minor league hockey franchise won the ECHL's Kelly Cup. A crowd of 12,722 people showed up at U.S. Bank Arena that night to celebrate. Championships are special no matter what the level they are achieved.

If there is one sports franchise in Cincinnati that is used to playing for championships, it's the Cyclones. Monday night they opened up the ECHL's Eastern Conference finals with a 4-1 home ice win against Greenville. Game 2 is set for tonight in the best-of-seven series before they travel to South Carolina for Games 3 and 4 and, if necessary, Game 5. If the series needs a Game 6 and/or 7, they would be back at U.S. Bank next Tuesday and Wednesday, May 27-28.

This is the fifth time the Cyclones have reached the conference finals in the last seven seasons. Twice they've won the Kelly Cup.

Playing for championships never gets old.

Cincinnati Cyclone players surround goalie Rob Madore to celebrate Monday's 4-1 win in Game 1 of the ECHL Eastern Conference finals at U.S. Bank Arena.

Tony Bailey

"It's one thing that I'll never forget," said MacDonald, now an assistant coach for the Cyclones. "Coming in and playing that last game when we won it against Las Vegas here and we had 13,000 people in the building. I think we had eight (thousand), 9,000 for warm-ups and it was unbelievable. It felt like people were cheering the entire game.

"To be able to go through that for an entire season which is eight months, play 72 regular seasons and then play 20-something playoff games and then be able to hoist a cup at the end, that's something nobody can ever take away from you."

In a town that supports a Major League Baseball team and a National Football League franchise on the same riverfront as well as two Division I universities within a 10-minute drive it's tough to carve out a sports niche. The Cyclones have been able do that in the Queen City.

The Cyclones brand has been around since 1990. It has changed ownership hands over the years, changed leagues, been involved in a two-team battle for the city's hockey fans, folded and been reborn. Never has it been as successful as it has become since the Nederlander Group, which owns U.S. Bank Arena, purchased a team and revived the Cyclones.

"At a point we got a call from our owners and they said congratulations, you've got yourself a hockey team," said Cyclones general manager Kristen Ropp.

That was in 2006. In the average attendance that first season was less than 1,900, according to the ECHL's web site. It has steadily grown since, with a high of nearly 4,500 last season. The ECHL is the equivalent of Double-A baseball, two steps away from the NHL. It's not the ultimate goal of any player or coach but while they're here they've gotten the best experience possible.

That's part of the reason why despite the constant turnover of personnel and coaches the Cyclones have been consistent winners.

The Cyclones have affiliations with the NHL Nashville Predators and Florida Panthers as well as Milwaukee and San Antonio of the AHL.

"This is one of the best cities to be in if you're going to be in this league," said forward Josh Shalla. "We travel around and some teams are a little less fortunate than we are. We've got a great city, a great rink, great ownership. This is a great place to be."

Goalie Rob Madore got beat on the first shot Greenville took in Monday's game, just 2:30 into the contest, but then stopped the next 31 shots the Road Warriors put on net. Shalla, who was a fourth-round pick of Nashville in the 2011 NHL draft, scored a natural hat trick to erase that deficit and then he assisted on Cincinnati's final goal by forward Byron Froese. Shalla has spent time with both the Cyclones and Milwaukee the past two seasons.

"They do it the right way here. They want to win. They don't do it just to play hockey," said Shalla. "We've got guys that want to win. We've got two affiliates, which helps us out a lot. We've got a lot of guys that come down from either Milwaukee or San Antonio. Sometimes that causes problems but here everyone meshes so well it's a good spot to be."

Ben Simon is in his first season as the head coach. The 35-year-old is a native of Shaker Heights who coached in the United Kingdom and then the AHL before joining the Cyclones. He played professionally for 11 seasons, including spending parts of four seasons in the NHL with the Atlanta Thrashers and the Blue Jackets.

Simon played under former Cyclones coach Chuck Weber in Orlando of the old IHL and played with immediate predecessor Jarrod Skalde for three seasons. Weber is now the director of hockey operations/associate head coach with San Antonio, while Skalde is an assistant coach with the AHL Norfolk Admirals.

"To be able to follow in their footsteps and put our own tweak on it was great but to be a part of a winning organization was absolutely an appealing aspect of taking this job," said Simon. "Nashville and Florida have done a great job of developing prospects and getting us players that are quality players. On top of it with the organization here and the staff, we've got resources galore."

While the Cyclones and Blue Jackets don't have a working affiliation agreement, the success that Columbus had this season in reaching the playoffs for just the second time in franchise history and winning its first two postseason games has a trickle down affect for a team like the Cyclones. Simon was teammate of Blue Jackets head coach Todd Richards in Orlando.

"It doesn't surprise me what they've done. Todd is a very detailed guy, a very organized guy and a very personable communicator," said Simon. "The fact that he's there and he's created that environment that creates success in Columbus is great for the sport. We try to do our part at this level but to have an NHL team that close up the road create that kind of excitement for the game is great for us. That success breeds interest and if we can piggyback on that, that's great."