Plenty of today’s New York Islanders got their start playing in Bridgeport.
For many of the longest tenured Islanders – like Anders Lee, Matt Martin, Brock Nelson and Casey Cizikas – Bridgeport was their first taste of pro hockey and introduction to the organization.
“It was extremely important for my development, as you try to make that jump from college to the NHL,” Lee said. “Without admitting it at the time I think it was really good for me to spend time in Bridgeport and work on my game and get the ins and outs of pro hockey down a bit. The time I spent there definitely got me ready for the NHL.”
Lee graduated from Bridgeport in 2014, after racking up 46 points (25G, 21A) in 59 games – largely in the 2013-14 season, as he only played five games in 2014-15. Like many of the Bridgeport alums on the roster, he’ll have a chance to skate at his pro alma mater when the Islanders play three preseason contests at Webster Bank Arena.
After hosting the New Jersey Devils on Saturday, the Islanders host the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday at 7 p.m. and take on the New York Rangers the following Saturday (Oct. 9) at 7 p.m. The Islanders’ captain is looking forward to it.
Video: Islanders Look Back on Bridgeport Roots
“I had a lot of great memories at Webster Bank and the time I spent in the minors,” Lee said. “A lot of fun games and ones that got out of hand that were great stories. What’s great about the American League is it’s a tough league and one of the hardest leagues to play in and to come out of there, you have to really earn it.”
Oliver Wahlstrom made his pro debut in Bridgeport at the end of the 2018-19 season, becoming the then-youngest player in team history to score a goal in the team’s history on April 6, 2019. [Simon Holmstrom has since broken that record.] Wahlstrom had 22 points (10G, 12A) in 45 games the next season before sticking with the Islanders for the entirety of the 2020-21 campaign. He credited the AHL with helping him become a pro off the ice, as well as on, learning to live without a billet family, or in a college setting.
“[Bridgeport Head Coach] Brent Thompson was good with me on working with my details away from the puck and being a complete player,” Wahlstrom said. “Also getting used to the pro lifestyle, living on my own, trying to figure out my cooking and everything like that, it was really healthy for me. We had a bunch of great guys down there, had a lot of fun and it was really good development for me.”
While Bridgeport provided introductions to pro hockey and adult living, it also provided the Islanders with introductions to each other. Adam Pelech and Scott Mayfield played together as a d pairing during Pelech’s rookie year and overlapped with Ryan Pulock. Those bonds are still strong to this day.
“It’s special to be able to make those strides with your buddies,” Pelech said.
If there’s one person less familiar with Bridgeport, it’s Islanders Head Coach Barry Trotz, but the Isles bench boss knows the importance of a strong AHL affiliate in terms of teaching organizational values, structure and establishing a culture.
“It’s very important and the way we play systematically, the way we teach, the way we treat our players,” Trotz said. “You come into the Islanders organization and know this is what is expected, this is how we practice, this is how we do things, this is how we act. When players make the jump to the NHL, they already have gone through all of those learning traits and everything from terminology to style and all that will be seamless.”
“I’m looking forward to getting to it, it’s a very nice facility,” Trotz added. “I’m looking forward to seeing what they’ve done with the player’s facilities, the dressing rooms, I know they’ve put a lot of work and a lot of money and time into it, I think it’ll be a really big upgrade for our organization for everyone.”
The Bridgeport Islanders have since rebranded their team name and logo and renovated the facilities at Webster Bank Arena since many of the New York Islanders were there last, so while it may look a little different, it’s still exciting to go back to where it began for many of them.
“It definitely brings back memories,” Martin said.