Monday, November 30, 2009

Where Else But In The Eastern Hockey League?

Here's a fine job of stating why the EHL was more fun to watch than the NHL by the Baltimore Clippers beat writer Edward C. Atwater from "Sunlight on Sports" in the December 9, 1955 Baltimore Sun...
"Let them have their Rockets and their Pocket Rockets, their tie games, their low scores, their 20,000 screaming fans.

So they are big league -- the National Hockey League. We're the minors with the Clippers, and we like it. Where else but in the Eastern could you see results like 8-7, 7-6 and 3-2 and 4-3 in overtime all under the same smoky ceiling?

Where else could a team win, 11-1 on Sunday and lose 14-1 on Tuesday? Where else could three teams (Baltimore, Washington and Clinton) be tied for second -- two games off the pace -- with the season one-third gone?

So the league is populated with veterans on the way out and youngsters hoping to go up. Do you know a better combination? It's perfect for smoothness and calmness -- and for pure slam-bang flailing away, I-hope-I-hit-the-goal hockey.

We've got Bibber O'Hearn to glide down the ice, contemptuously faking foes to their knees, the fulfillment of his every man's desire to get rid of his enemies with a flick of the wrist.

And we've got youngsters -- Ken Murphy, Ralph DeLeo, Gerry Sullivan and the others -- with their great speed to buzz around the net and shoot, and shoot and finally to look and shoot and score.

And when that score comes, the roar will rock Carlin's rafters. Don't try to talk above it. The goal was made through a thousand shouted instructions and each coach shares in the exultation.

Don't sit next to Charley Rock, the owner. He'll split your ear drums as the battle flows and if it ebbs too far, he may sell you the franchise.

Fights? Yes, we've got them too, but nobody tries to wipe out the other side, plus the officials a la Richard. It's more like neighborhood boys grappling, punching the air, and pulling each other's sweaters off; or an exchange of calling cards to signify that one or both has reached the limit of sly nudges with the stick or skates or elbows or maybe just words.

The fights are minor, like the league is minor, but it's fun. Fun for the spectators at least.

Some of the players' fun may diminish at times. For instance, starting tomorrow, the Clippers will play seven games in nine days. They'll be in Clinton tomorrow night and home against Washington Sunday; at New Haven Tuesday and home against the same club Wednesday; at Philadelphia Friday, at Clinton again the following day, and then home against Clinton Sunday Dec. 18."
Three "youngsters hoping to go up" on that 1955-56 Baltimore Clippers team that Mr. Atwater didn't mention were John Muckler, John Brophy and the pictured Les Binkley. How fun must that have been? (btw, The Clippers jerseys were orange with black and white trim.)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The John J. Carlin Trophy

The January 9, 1956 edition of the Baltimore Sun speaks of how the Carlin family, owners of Carlin's Iceland Arena - where the Clippers played, donated the John J. Carlin Trophy to be presented to the EHL's leading scorer each season.

Two weeks later, in the wee hours of January 23, 1956, Carlin's Iceland Arena burned to the ground.

Given that the John J. Carlin Trophy was given each year for the rest of the EHL's existence, one can surmise that it was not in the arena when it burned.

Having no backup arena in Baltimore (2 had been proposed the previous year, 1 private, 1 public, but both fell by the wayside.) the Clippers were transferred to Charlotte, NC. But that's another blog.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

When the Long Island Ducks became the Massachusetts Ducks

Goalie Guy DeNoncourt is as out of place on this shot as his Long Island Ducks teammates were in the 1973 playoffs when they became the Massachusetts Ducks. The South Yarmouth, MA based Ducks played a total of 4 Eastern Hockey League games, all losses, in the 1973 playoffs against the Cape Cod Cubs.
03-06-73 Syracuse Post-Standard, p 14

An apparent player-owner feud which resulted in Long Island Ducks owner Al Baron yanking his team out of the upcoming Walker Cup Playoffs has been settled at EHL headquarters and the Ducks will begin opening round play Friday in Cape Cod. Baron, reportedly having difficulty meeting certain bonus provisions in the contracts of several of the Long Island players, had earlier Monday announced that his team was going out of business and that it would not be able to meet its 1973 playoff obligations.
At a hastily-called meeting of EHL executives in New York City, a stop-gap arrangement was made in which the Ducks will be home-based in the same arena as their Cape Cod foes. Should they win. the opening series, the Ducks will continue to use the South Yarmouth rink as their home ice in any ensuing series. For the remainder of the playoffs they will be known as the Massachusetts Ducks.
Unstated here is the fact that the Long Island Ducks failed to win any of their last 14 games in the last 4 weeks of the season (and their existence). They still made the playoffs by one point over the Jersey Devils (Jersey would have won the tiebreaker for taking on the tougher schedule after the New England Blades dropped out of the league in November). On the final day of the regular season, the Devils beat the Ducks 9-3 at Long Island. Afterwards, Al Baron congratulated Devils coach Jim Hay and told him that the Ducks were dropping out of the playoffs and that Devils were in since they were a much more deserving team. (The fact that the Devils were only 4 points behind Long Island and Rhode Island as of January 31, and still couldn't catch them might dispute this point.)

The Massachusetts Ducks entire game history:
MAR 9, 1973 - Friday - Massachusetts Ducks 2 at Cape Cod 6 (Cape Cod leads series 1-0)
MAR 10, 1973 - Saturday - Massachusetts Ducks 1 at Cape Cod 3 (Cape Cod leads series 2-0)
MAR 13, 1973 - Tuesday - Cape Cod 2 at Massachusetts Ducks 1 (0:43 of OT) (Cape Cod leads series 3-0)
MAR 16, 1973 - Friday - Cape Cod 8 at Massachusetts Ducks 5 (Cape Cod wins series 4-0)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Rookie of the Year Larry Pleau was a Veteran

With Veterans Day upcoming this week, I am reminded of American hockey pioneer Larry Pleau who won EHL Rookie of the Year honors in 1968-69 with the Jersey Devils while serving as an Army Private at Fort Dix. The original article by John McGourty which I had bookmarked seems to have disappeared. Fortunately it was saved by Spider-man (really) at this link.

Image: Army Pvt. Larry Pleau (4) of Fort Dix and the Jersey Devils scores against Syracuse. From l to r: Syracuse goalie Anton Gale; Syr d - Bob Graham; Jersey F - Dennis Plant; Syr d - Doug Hillman; Jersey F - Larry Pleau.

..."After my third season, I got drafted into the U.S. Army and took basic training at Fort Campbell, Ky. I got my orders for advanced basic training and then on Labor Day weekend, I got a call from Murray Williamson, who was coaching the U.S. Olympic team. In those days, the military was big on its association with amateur athletics. I had a tryout in Minnesota, made the team and was assigned there by the Army. I was lucky I was able to continue my career. I'm not sure it's fair but it happens.

"After the Olympics, I was assigned to Fort Dix (in New Jersey). My commanding officer said, "What am I going to do with you, you've only got 10 months left?" I told him I had worked at a golf course and I got assigned to the base golf course. While I was there, I played for the Jersey Devils in the old Eastern League, out of Cherry Hill, N.J. My sergeant loved hockey and let me go. I never practiced, just played, and won rookie of the year. We had Forbes Kennedy's brother Jamie, a good little player from Windsor, Bobby Brown, and goalie Bobby Taylor, who played for the Flyers. Longtime Flyers scout Marcel Pelletier was our coach. We had one goalie in those days and Taylor got tossed one game. Pelletier filled in for him. Only problem, Bobby was a left-hand glove and Marcel was right-handed so Marcel wore hockey gloves the whole game."
"The funniest part was Marcel asked the players who would play goal and they all ran for the bathroom," said Taylor, now a color analyst for the Tampa Bay Lightning. "The trainer was supposed to be the backup but he didn't even come into the room and we never saw him again until we were on the bus. They never scored on Marcel and we won, 2-1.

Larry was by far the best player in the League. He'd have never been there but for his military commitment."
"We had a southern division and I remember a road trip where we left Cherry Hill on a Monday morning and drove to Jacksonville, Fla., and played the next night," Pleau said. "We got on the bus after the game and drove to Charlotte and played the next night and got on a bus and drove to Knoxville, Tenn. Got in at 7 a.m., woke up at 2 p.m., played in Nashville that night and drove back to New Jersey. Got in at 6 a.m. and played that night, then drove to Syracuse and played the following night. All that for $40 a game and $6 a day meal money?"

Pleau spent the 1969-70 season between the Canadiens and their AHL affiliate in Montreal, then made the big club the next season, only to be hurt and limited to 19 regular-season games. That was enough to get his name engraved on the Stanley Cup, though...

As a side note, the goaltender on that 1968 US Olympic Team with Pleau was Pat Rupp who had been the Devils original netminder starting the 1964-65 season.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Those Exotic EHL Cities...

I just got back from a 2-week vacation in western Canada. It was fun passing through towns like Abbotsford (with their new AHL franchise), Chilliwack, New Westminster, Kamloops and their various hockey histories, wondering if I would spy the arena where the teams played.

It was all very reminiscent of what I remember and some of you EHL fans have told me you remember, which was the allure of those exotic EHL cities. Many of us were kids when the EHL was around (I was barely 15 when the league folded). Places like Greensboro, Charlotte, Knoxville, Nashville, Jacksonville, Salem/Roanoke, Johnstown, New Haven seemed a million miles away, yet somehow approachable, attainable. Where were these places? What were they like? Unlike NHL cities that we all knew about, we knew nothing about these towns, except maybe Nashville. I remember my first trip to any of these areas, eyes all a-bug looking for the arenas as we drove through, thrilling at seeing the town names on road signs.

I'm possibly the first person who when they went to Nashville the first time was 100 percent focused on seeing the hockey arena, or even a sign for it. With every sign that said Nashville, my heart said Dixie Flyers (I'm not sure if they were still in existence at that time). Of course, it was a family vacation, and I was a young teenager, so I couldn't exactly say "lets go see the hockey arena". Besides I didn't know what it was called, or where it was. We just passed through the north end of Nashville long enough to have lunch at a barbecue place and head west. The last time I was in Nashville as an adult, the arena for the Predators was being built, but it never dawned on me (in the 90s) to go look up the Dixie Flyers arena, which apparently is still right there in downtown.

The one that I still kick myself about is Charlotte. I had a chance to go to a Checkers ECHL game a few years back. My wife and I were exhausted from work (we were in town to do a trade show) and I was confused about where the Checkers were playing (some places said Independence Arena, some said Cricket Arena). Not being able to get a straight answer, I passed. I had no idea at the time that that was the old Charlotte Coliseum where the EHL Checkers had played, or that that was their last year there, before they tore out the iceplant.

I went to college in NC, in no small part to my fascination with the EHL cities that had been there. Having passed through the state a few times on family vacations, I always thrilled to signs that read "Greensboro" or "Charlotte", or especially both. I thought North Carolina was one of the most beautiful places I had been. On my first trip back to college after break, my mom and I stopped in Roanoke for the night. It was just off the interstate, just barely in the city limits at the Best Western, but it was very exciting just to be there. The signs to Salem and Roanoke taunted me each trip home, with no chance of talking anyone into stopping. I stayed in Roanoke once after college, but I was so car sick from driving the Skyline Drive that I didn't get out at all.

After college, I hoped to stay in NC, and even subscribed to the Greensboro, Charlotte and Winston Salem Sunday papers for awhile, looking for the right opportunity that never came. This was well past the end of the EHL, so the charm and allure of the places transcended mere hockey.

So here is my reality. I have not only never seen an EHL game outside of Cherry Hill Arena. I have also never knowingly even seen another EHL arena. (For instance, I have probably passed the warehouse that used to be Cape Cod Coliseum, but didn't know what it was. I think I also passed within a block of the Knoxville Coliseum, or even saw it, but didn't know what it was.) There's still time. Knoxville, Johnstown and Syracuse still have teams in the old arenas. Johnstown and Syracuse are the reasonable possibilities for this year, weather permitting. Still, it's Knoxville that is the one that calls to me. The one with the EHL team that was defunct by the time I saw my first EHL game; the city less likely to have a team on any given year; the one that takes the extra day's drive to get to and home from; the road less traveled; the adventure more exotic. Maybe if I factor in a Virginia Tech hockey game at Roanoke Civic Center, hmm...