Not every sports team is a success story.
Even in a town like Auburn, one that supports its teams at any level with pride, history is well-stocked with clubs that failed for one reason or another.
In the late 1990s, Auburn was home to junior hockey, but unlike successful high school teams from Auburn High School or a contending minor league baseball team, the Auburn Junior Crunch are merely a forgotten footnote in a place rich in sports tradition.
Why? Was it a lack of die hard fans or an inadequate home? An absence of success or temperatures too frigid for even the stubbornest of spectators?
In all likelihood, the correct explanation is all of the above.
The Syracuse Junior Crunch was an unhappy organization.
Only two years into their existence, the Crunch — not to be mistaken with the American Hockey League's Syracuse Crunch — were struggling. Their home games were played at Lysander Arena in Baldwinsville, a rink that was in no state to support a junior hockey team. Low attendance and difficulty securing ice time forced management's hand.
In July 1998, the Crunch began negotiating with the city of Auburn to relocate the team. Auburn made sense as a destination for junior hockey — the city carried the reputation of a stellar sports town and had a usable rink in Casey Park. While Auburn was home to youth hockey programs and a high school team, dividing ice time would not be an issue.
The city and the Crunch announced their agreement in August. The team was renamed the Auburn Junior Crunch and the schedule would include 25 home games at Casey Park. The team would play in the newly formed Ontario Provincial Junior A Hockey League as one of only two teams based in the United States, with the other based out of Buffalo, the Niagara Scenics.
For use of the ice, the city of Auburn charged the Junior Crunch $6,000, or about $60 per hour.
There were contingencies. The Junior Crunch requested certain improvements to Casey Park to make the rink more fan-friendly, including improved boards around the ice, new glass in spectating areas, and more heat.
Even with those requests, representatives from the city of Auburn and the Junior Crunch were in lock step. "I hope this is the beginning of a very long relationship," said then-Auburn mayor Chris DeAngelis, while Junior Crunch owner, team president and eventual coach Don Kirnan commended the city for its "tremendous commitment to our organization."
Initial tryouts, held in April and June before the commitment to Auburn, featured nearly 200 players. That group was eventually cut down to 50, with half remaining in Syracuse with the Junior "B" team while the rest went to Auburn to play with the Junior "A" club.
Most of the final roster included players from the Syracuse area, all between 16 and 20 years old, but none from Auburn. The team included one future NHL draft pick (Matthew Maglione, taken in the eighth round of the 2001 entry draft by the Washington Capitals), three future AHLers and a handful of other skaters that would eventually move on to play at various colleges like Clarkson, Princeton and Cornell.
Auburn's first home game, ninth overall, was played Oct. 22, 1998, and an estimated crowd of nearly 200 fans watched the Junior Crunch drop a 4-2 contest to the Ajax Axemen. General admission was $5.
That count of 200 was well short of the 500 fans management had hoped for when the relocation to Auburn was made official. There were spikes in that figure — in January 1999, the Junior Crunch welcomed the Hanson brothers, hockey cult figures famous for their roles in the 1977 film "Slap Shot" — which helped momentarily boost attendance. Their appearance was largely due to familial ties; Jeff Carlson, one of the Hanson brothers, had a son, Kris, that played for the Junior Crunch.
With a crowd of about 400 on hand, the Hanson brothers performed on the ice between periods, posed for pictures and signed autographs.
That night was one of the few success stories. Despite the Junior Crunch finishing 27-22-2 and qualifying for the postseason, attendance dwindled for most of the year. Most games featured an average of 200 people in attendance, though some games dropped to as low as 90.
Some of the blame for the lack of interest fell on the conditions at Casey Park.
"Yeah, it was cold. At the end of the day, that probably made it too unfriendly for fans," said Kirnan in an October interview with The Citizen. "When you talk about the old days, 30 or 40 years ago people didn't mind going to a hockey game and freezing their tail off. That doesn't work anymore. That was probably the death knell at that particular time.
"It just wasn't fan-friendly. If a movie theater was only 10 degrees, nobody would want to go to a movie either."
From the team's perspective, promises for warmer temperatures were fulfilled either belatedly or not at all. Among the conditions agreed upon by the Junior Crunch and the city of Auburn was a new heating system that was expected to be in place before hockey season started. Instead, the equipment was installed two months late and didn't function properly for the duration of the season.
Player conditions weren't ideal either. Casey Park's locker room situation drew criticism from OPJHL, with the dressing rooms being considered among the worst in the league.
"There really wasn't adequate dressing rooms," Kirnan said. "If you look at some of the venues in Canada, they were like show palaces. Just gorgeous places. Unfortunately Auburn was probably the worst venue when it came to locker rooms. The league put a lot of pressure on us to find something that was more user-friendly."
Auburn's season came to a close in the beginning of March. The Junior Crunch held a 2-0 series lead on the Lindsay Muskies, but dropped three straight games to lose the series 3-2. Auburn's final home game, Game 4 of the series, drew 250 spectators.
It wasn't long until speculation began that the Junior Crunch's tenure in Auburn would potentially come to a close. While a war of words is too strong a phrase, officials from the city of Auburn and the Junior Crunch disagreed on how well the city delivered on its preseason agreement.
"We had people who told us they thought the conditions were very poor to watch a hockey game," said Junior Crunch general manager Jon Ames. "Some of the improvements weren't up to what they were supposed to be."
The city of Auburn disputed that, with then-Auburn Director of Public Works Frank DeOrio stating that Auburn "has lived up to all its contractual obligations."
The Junior Crunch's relationship with Auburn officially ended on the first day of April 1999. While the team would remain in the OPJHL, it would revert its name back to the Syracuse Junior Crunch and home games would be played at the Coliseum at the New York State Fairgrounds.
"We have no bad feelings toward the people in Auburn," Ames said. "There are a lot of nice people there, and they treated us well, right down to the mayor and City Council. It was nobody's fault. But it was very difficult for us to draw a fan base, and (Casey Park) can't support the kind of program we had."
Kirnan meanwhile was approached by friends in Rochester to jump start a Junior "A" program there, namely Steve Donner, owner of the AHL's Rochester Americans.
Under Kirnan's leadership, the Rochester Junior Americans was formed, with a number of former Auburn Junior Crunch players following Kirnan to the Flower City. During that inaugural season, Kirnan also had the brief opportunity to coach future Buffalo Sabres first-round pick and longtime center Thomas Vanek.
Following the re-relocation to Syracuse, the Junior Crunch remained members of the OPJHL for six seasons from 1999-00 to 2004-05; in that time, the organization changed its nickname to the Stars, mimicking Syracuse's primary youth hockey program.
The Stars then flipped to a more United States-based league, the Eastern Junior Hockey League, in 2005-06. From 2010 to 2015, the Syracuse Stars ceased being a junior hockey program.
In Auburn, the hockey world moved on. The area's youth program, the Auburn Ice Hawks, continues to grow, while Auburn's high school team has won multiple section championships in the last decade. Casey Park, still a colder rink, remains home to both programs and has undergone a handful of improvements since the 1990s.
Junior hockey, though, remains nothing but a memory. While the shear volume of programs in both the United States and Canada has grown, there has not been a hint that it will ever return to Auburn.
If the one-year stay for the Auburn Junior Crunch remains a forgotten chapter of local sports history, Don Kirnan has no regrets.
"Things are so much better now than years ago when we decided to do it. We raised the bar in central New York and we raised the bar even in western New York. I'm happy we brought something that they didn't have before."