Former World Hockey Association executive and Edmonton Oilers General Manager Larry Gordon founded the Wichita Wind of the Central Hockey League in June of 1980. Gordon was quite familiar with the Central League. During the 1979-80 NHL season, Gordon managed the Oilers’ contentious relationship with the Houston Apollos, their first-year farm club in the Central League, and represented the Apollos on the CHL’s executive committee. In March 1980, Gordon orchestrated the removal of Apollos Head Coach Al Rollins and replaced him with Garnet “Ace” Bailey, a 31-year old former Oilers player who had been languishing on the bench under Rollins.
Meanwhile, Gordon’s influence on Edmonton’s NHL hockey operations was on the wane, as Head Coach Glen Sather consolidated his authority over player personnel decisions for the Gretzky-era Oilers. In the spring of 1980, Gordon left the Edmonton organization with a couple of years left to run on his contract in order to purchase a new Wichita, Kansas franchise in the Central League. He brought a few things with him from Houston, including the affiliation deal with the Oilers and his hand-picked Head Coach, Ace Bailey.
The city of Wichita caught Gordon’s eye after a crowd of 8,000 turned out at the city’s Kansas Coliseum to watch a U.S. Olympic team tune-up game prior to the 1980 Olympics at Lake Placid. That event turned out to be something of a siren song for Gordon – his own experience in Wichita proved much different. The Wind averaged 971 fans per game in November 1980, 1,537 in December and 1,600 in January 1981.
“I cry a lot,” Gordon joked to long-time Edmonton Oilers beat writer Jim Matheson in February 1981, “At worst I thought I might lose $150,000…but it’ll be closer to $350,000.”
The Matheson interview also indicates that Gordon, the hockey traditionalist, underestimated the competition for the entertainment dollar that he faced from the Wichita Wings of the upstart Major Indoor Soccer League, another winter time tenant at the Kansas Coliseum. In their second season of operation in 1980-81, the Wings were the city’s hot ticket drawing close to 6,000 fans per game.
Of the seven CHL clubs that finished the 1980-81 season (two folded midway), the Wind finished in 6th place with a 32-45-3 record. But Bailey’s club made an inspired run through the playoffs, when a fallen NHL phenom named Don Murdoch put the club on his back and carried it all the way to the Adams Cup final. Murdoch was the first round draft choice of the New York Rangers in 1976. The 20-year old made the club out of training camp and scored five goals in his fourth NHL game. As a rookie, he scored 32 goals in 59 games before an ankle injury ended his season. Drug and alcohol problems, particularly a 1977 cocaine bust that resulted in a 40-game suspension for the 1978-79 season, ensured that Murdoch never achieved the stardom he seemed destined for. But in the 1981 CHL playoffs, the 24-year old dominated, scoring a remarkable 17 goals and and 7 assists in 18 games to fuel Wichita’s unlikely run.
In the Adams Cup final, the Wind took the Salt Lake Golden Eagles to the limit before dropping the seventh and deciding game 5-2 on May 18, 1981.
For the 1981-82 season, long-time minor league coach John Muckler joined the Oilers organization and took over the coaching reigns in Wichita from Ace Bailey, who moved into the Oilers scouting department. Under Muckler, the Wind finished first in the CHL’s five-team Southern Division with 44-33-3 record. Along the way Muckler and eight of his players grabbed some Slap Shot-style national press coverage, spending the night in a Dallas jail following a scuffle at a country & western disco while on a Texas road trip.
As the Wind headed into the their third season in the fall of 1982, the complexion of the club changed dramatically. The Edmonton Oilers, emerging as a dynasty in the NHL, departed as the parent club, replaced by the sad sack New Jersey Devils, one of the NHL’s worst teams. After winning the CHL’s Southern Division in 1981-82 and advancing to the 1982 Adams Cup semi-final, the 1982-83 Wind dropped to a last place in the league with a 29-48-3 record. Attendance dropped nearly 40% from approximately 3,000 per game in 1981-82 to 1,800 for the 1982-83 season. At the end of the season, Gordon announced he would move his club out of Wichita due to lack of a practice facility and a disagreement over new lease terms at the Kansas Coliseum.
In April 1983, Gordon signed a letter of intent to move the Wind to the 8,700-seat Yellowstone METRA in Billings, Montana. The Central League approved the transfer during annual meetings two months later in June 1983. In line with the move, Gordon sought additional investors, selling a 40% stake in the club – now renamed the Montana Magic – to the Ermineskin Indian Band of Alberta, Canada for $400,000.
The New Jersey Devils shifted their affiliate to Portland, Maine of the American Hockey League during the summer of 1983, so Gordon struck a new working agreement with the NHL’s St. Louis Blues to help stock the Magic for the 1983-84 CHL season. While the Blues would pay their prospects’ salaries, the Magic also signed a half dozen or so independent players – free agents that would be paid by Gordon’s local management. Among the independents was Reggie Leach, the Canadian aboriginal sniper and Philadelphia Flyers cult hero who set an all-time NHL record with 80 goals during the 1975-76 regular season and playoffs. In the fall of 1983, the 33-year old ”Riverton Rifle” was only three years removed from his last 50-goal campaign in the NHL. Midway throught the season, the Magic got Don Murdoch back, the can’t miss superstar turned minor league journeyman who had followed Larry Gordon from Edmonton to Wichita to Montana.
The 20-year old Central Hockey League staggered into the 1983-84 season with only five active franchises. The league incorporated twenty Olympic warm-up matches against the U.S. and Canadian Olympic teams into the regular season standings to help round out the schedule. NHL President John Ziegler cited the CHL’s sprawling geography – Billings was 1,200 miles from Indianapolis and 1,000 miles from Tulsa – as one of the league’s Achilles heels in a 1984 interview with Dave Molinari of The Pittsburgh Press:
“One of the problems in the Central League is the tremendous distance involved in moving teams from one place to another. That imposes a cost burden which, in these days, has become very disproportionate to the kind of attendance dollars generated. Now you hear of a team that may lose $750,000, $800,000 or a million dollars a year and produce from that operation – if they’re lucky – one player a year. That player becomes a very expensive commodity.”
In mid-February 1984, the Tulsa Oilers ownership ran out of money and abandoned the club. The Oilers were forced to finish the season as a travel team, playing on the road as wards of the league. The Magic were next. By early March, Gordon’s group could no longer fund the club’s payroll. The Magic were forced to postpone a March 6th game against the Colorado Flames when the St. Louis Blues recalled five of their players and six unpaid independents refused to play, including Leach. The Ermineskin Indian Band stepped up again, buying out Gordon and increasing their ownership stake in the Magic from 40% to 77.5%. This infusion allowed the Magic to complete their 76-game season, finishing in last place with a 20-52-4 record.
On May 21st, 1984 the Central Hockey League voted to dissolve after 21 seasons, bringing the brief tenure of the CHL in Montana to an end.
Wind goaltender Andy Moog (1980-1982) went on to play a major role in three Stanley Cup victories for the Edmonton Oilers in 1984, 1985 and 1987.
John Muckler left the Wind after the 1981-82 season, when Edmonton dropped its affiliation with Wichita. He served as an assistant and co-Head Coach to Glen Sather on the 1984, 1985 and 1987 Oilers Stanley Cup championship teams. He took over head coaching reigns for the 1989-90 season and directed the Oilers to the club’s only Stanley Cup victory without Wayne Gretzky.
Original Wind Head Coach Garnet ”Ace” Bailey went on to become a highly respected scout in the Oilers and Los Angeles Kings organizations. He was killed on September 11th, 2001 as a passenger aboard United Airlines Flight 175 that crashed into the World Trade Center.
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