BIRD’S-EYE VIEW: The Owner of 93
Blog #05 – April 7, 2020
by John Peterson
Nobody will ever take Number 93 from the current 93.
Mark my words. Justin Taylor will be the last Kalamazoo Wings player to wear that jersey.
Now, I’ve only been here one season. I’m not an expert, nor the decision maker. But I cannot imagine any scenario where that number gets handed out to another player when Taylor eventually decides to hang up the sweater one last time.
The Mindemoya, Ontario native is already one of the most decorated players in the K-Wings’ 46-year history. He has played the vast majority of ten seasons in Kalamazoo, overcoming serious injuries to climb the franchise leaderboards for games played, goals, assists, points and penalty minutes.
I vaguely knew about Taylor before taking this job in Kalamazoo last summer. Of the three meetings against the Tulsa Oilers in the 2018-19 season, he played in only one of them, a 3-2 Kalamazoo win in early December, where #93 scored the Teddy Bear Toss goal at Wings Event Center.
A season-ending knee injury halted what had the potential to be a special season.
The year prior, Tulsa and Kalamazoo met just once, a 9-6 win for the K-Wings in February at Wings Event Center. Taylor had a goal and an assist that night.
I knew he was good. I didn’t know he was one of the organization’s all-time greats until I got here and started researching the team I’d be covering.
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A HISTORIC NIGHT
One of the first things I noticed last August in preparing for the 2019-20 season was that Taylor needed just three games to set the K-Wings franchise record for games played.
I knew it was a big deal and thought we should do something to celebrate the achievement. I also realized the risk in “putting the cart before the horse”, so to speak.
Remember, Taylor would have set the record in 2018-19 had he not suffered that season-ending injury. At the time, he led the ECHL in scoring with 21 goals and was Kalamazoo’s All-Star representative before the unfortunate ending set everything back.
Justin’s wife, Kelsey, reached out to us in the months leading up to the season to help make the night special, providing old photos and videos from his storied career with the team. Kelsey also wanted to make sure she knew the plan since 50 of Justin’s family and friends were traveling to Kalamazoo to witness the moment and needed to make sure they had tickets.
What people may forget is Taylor actually set the record Wednesday, October 23 during a 6-4 win against Fort Wayne at Wings Event Center. Knowing that, we planned the celebration for the next game, Saturday, October 26. Orange Ice. There would be a huge crowd and a weekend would make it easier on everyone traveling to Kalamazoo.
The planning started during training camp. We ordered the custom jersey, prepared the script and pieced together the pregame ceremony. Team Owner Bill Johnston would be in attendance and he’d present the framed jersey along with Team Governor and Director of Business Operations, Toni Lentini-Daniels. The only thing left was for Justin to stay healthy and actually play the first three games.
After skating in the season opener October 12 at Fort Wayne, followed by the K-Wings’ home opener October 19, Taylor officially tied legendary forward Kevin Schamehorn with 495 games.
Schamehorn was honored exactly 365 days earlier at Kalamazoo’s 2018 home opener when his Number 26 became just the second jersey number retired by the K-Wings in team history.
Early in the first period October 23, Number 93 made history when the puck dropped for his first shift.
“And stepping foot onto the ice and now officially setting the record is Justin Taylor. He has played the most games in Kalamazoo Wings franchise history.”
Onward with the planning for Saturday night.
We almost forgot one unique piece to Saturday’s festivities. It was Orange Ice and the team would wear ghoulish specialty jerseys. If he wore that jersey out to the pregame ceremony, every picture of the memory for years to come would be of him in a white jersey with fake blood and bones showing through.
In the eleventh hour, we called down to Equipment Manager Mitch MacLeod’s office to make sure he had the team’s regular red jersey for Taylor to wear until the game started.
As the Kalamazoo and Tulsa players returned to the ice for the start of the game, Toni and Bill walked out to center ice with Taylor’s framed #496 jersey. He skated out to meet everyone for the presentation and was joined by his wife Kelsey and their son, Jonah. Regardless of the game’s outcome, this was a memory that family (and many of our longtime fans) would remember.
How fitting was it then, that it was Taylor who completed the K-Wings comeback with a late overtime snipe to win the game for his team?
By the end of the season, Taylor surpassed 600 professional games, including ECHL and AHL. 542 of those have been in a Kalamazoo Wings uniform. I don’t think that number will ever be topped. In today’s minor league hockey landscape, most careers don’t last ten years, much less ten-year tenures with a single team.
He’s also 3rd on the K-Wings’ all-time goals list with 213, just 26 goals behind Schamehorn and Mike Wanchuk (239). Taylor is 5th on the franchise leaderboard for points (403), trailing Schamehorn (474), Wanchuk (467), Kory Karlander (452) and Brent Jarrett (421).
Known best perhaps for his “nose for the net”, Taylor is also 10th all-time in assists (190) and he’s 9th in penalty minutes (766).
Assuming he returns for his 11th season at age 31, we could see another record or two change hands in 2020-21.
(Keep reading after the photo)
That overtime goal against the Oilers in October was the start of another impressive display of Taylor’s “clutch factor” last season.
The veteran center led the K-Wings with five game-winning goals in 2019-20, including three in overtime. Trailing Fort Wayne entering the third period on Affiliate Night December 28, Taylor scored a goal and added an assist to help Kalamazoo force overtime, before he scored again to complete the dramatic 3-2 win. The OT goal came from the exact same spot on the ice where he scored October 26: high in the slot.
As I type this blog, we’re replaying one of the best games from the 2019-20 season on Facebook. It’s somewhat symbolic. Fan Appreciation Day was supposed to be Sunday to wrap up the regular season. We decided to give the fans a treat to temporarily fill the void of missing sports since the season was canceled three weeks ago. So we aired the Pink Ice Game from February 14, a thrilling 4-3 win against the juggernaut Toledo Walleye.
Who was the hero that night? You guessed it. Taylor.
As Aaron Thow set up behind Jake Kielly’s net during 3-on-3 overtime, Taylor circled through the middle of the ice and sprinted up the left wing. Thow hit Matt VanVoorhis on the tape at center ice, who then left a touch pass for Taylor in stride. He blazed past the Walleye defense, cut back towards the net, and tucked a backhander through the legs of Toledo goaltender Billy Christopoulos to win the game.
“Mr. Clutch does it again.”
(Keep reading after the photo)
RESERVE A SPOT IN THE RAFTERS
This is probably premature given the fact that Taylor can still play the game at a high level, but I’m confident in saying his Number 93 will one day hang up in the rafters at Wings Event Center next to Schamehorn’s Number 26, Wanchuk’s Number 22 and Georges Gagnon’s Number 1.
He’s called Kalamazoo home for years, met Kelsey here and they started their family. If he’s healthy and wants to play, he’ll do everything in his power to do play next season and beyond. He’s a fierce competitor.
For argument’s sake, there’s not much Taylor needs to prove to cement himself among the best. As a rookie 7th Round draft choice of the Washington Capitals, he got his first taste of Kalamazoo by posting 48 points in 48 games during the 2010-11 season.
Three times in ten seasons, the 5-11 forward appeared in 70 regular season games, including in 2011-12, 2014-15 and 2015-16.
He played just 11 games for the K-Wings in 2012-13 before a trade sent him to the Trenton Titans. He ultimately finished that season with the Idaho Steelheads, before re-signing in Kalamazoo in 2013-14. For good.
Taylor compiled a career-best 61 points during the 2016-17 campaign, but a scary eye injury during Game 6 of the first round playoff series against Toledo nearly ended his career.
He made a full recovery, returned the ice without missing a beat, and set a new career-high with 35 goals the next season. Incredible.
Aside from the 15 AHL games Taylor played for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers that rookie season ten years ago, he didn’t make a return to the AAA level until 2017-18. That season he signed a brief tryout with the Utica Comets and appeared in two games, and played one game for the San Antonio Rampage (at Grand Rapids) the next season.
As a 30-year-old last season, he spent a month in Utica from early November to early December During that stint, Taylor played in seven games, the most AHL games played in any season since he was just 20.
How many times has Number 93 registered a multi-point game in his career? 93 times.
He’s also tallied 31 multi-goal games, and last season notched his third career hat trick with three goals February 29 in an 8-2 win at Kansas City.
And remember that clutch factor we talked about? Taylor has 40 game-winning goals in his career. I’m not a math major, but that’s an average of four per season. He had five in 2019-20.
Justin Taylor can still play. If everything works out this summer, Number 93 will still be waiting for him.
If not, nobody else is taking it from him. Someday down the road, we’ll need to plan another jersey ceremony for one of the franchise’s best to ever do it.
When that day comes, you’ll want to get tickets to see Number 93 go up into the Wings Event Center rafters.
Bird’s-Eye View is a Kalamazoo Wings blog, written by the team’s Director of Public Relations/Broadcaster John Peterson twice weekly. The thoughts, opinions and behind-the-scenes stories are that of the writer alone and not a reflection of the organization as a whole. Fans are welcome to submit questions and ideas for future blog posts to firstname.lastname@example.org. Enjoy!