The American Hockey League had a fitful history with All-Star Games. After a one-off exhibition in 1942, the league didn’t stage another such exhibition until 1954. For the net six years, the game jumped around the calendar from October to as late as January, but always with the same format: the host club would face off against a squad of stars from the rest of the league.
In the winter of 1959-60, Eddie Shore’sSpringfield Indians – mediocre at best for nearly a decade – were about to embark on a three-year dynasty as the finest team in the American League thanks to a farm club agreement with powerful New York Rangers. They would finish first in the regular season and then claim the Calder Cup in 1960, 1961 and 1962. This All-Star exhibition at the Big E Coliseum early in the 1959-60 campaign provided a taste of things to come for local hockey fans in the Western Massachusetts city.
Gump Worsley – slumming it in the AHL during a 15-game demotion from Springfield’s parent club, the New York Rangers – minded the nets for the Indians. Worsley allowed a goal to Fred Glover of the Cleveland Barons at the 0:56 mark and another to Larry Wilson of the Buffalo Bisons (9:45) to spot the All-Stars a 2-0 lead less than 10 minutes in. But then the future Hall-of-Famer settled down. Worsley made 36 saves and limited the All-Stars to just one further tally.
At the other end of the ice, the All-Stars split the goaltending duties evenly between Hershey’s Bobby Perrault and Rochester’s Ed Chadwick. Perrault let in a couple of Springfield goals in back end of the 1st period to know the game at 2-2 at the first intermission. There the score still stood when Chadwick relieved him midway through the second period. Chadwick would go on to win the Hap Holmes Award as the AHL’s stingiest goalie that winter, but this wasn’t his night. The Indians peppered him for six goals in the exhibition’s final 30 minutes to run away with an 8-3 victory. Bill Sweeney and Dennis Olson notched a pair each for the hosts.
This would turn out to be the last All-Star Game for the AHL for 35 years, until the league revived the format in January 1995.
Johnstown, Pennsylvania holds a special place in the hearts of minor league hockey fans. The small city 70 miles east of Pittsburgh has a hard luck history, which includes three devastating floods, the decline of the steel, iron and coal mills that fueled the local economy, and the reduction by half of Johnstown’s population since 1970.
In 1976, director George Roy Hill filmed the Paul Newman hockey comedy ‘Slap Shot’ in Johnstown. The films fictional ‘Charlestown Chiefs’ were based loosely on the long-running Johnstown Jets (1950-1977) of the bruising North American Hockey League. Screenwriter Nancy Dowd based the story on tales from her brother Ned Dowd, who played for the Jets for two seasons in the mid-1970′s. (Ned Dowd also played infamous goon Ogie Ogilthorpe in the film). ‘Slap Shot’ was released in February 1977, but unlike ‘Bull Durham’, the minor league baseball comedy featuring North Carolina’s Durham Bulls released a decade later, ‘Slap Shot’ did not inspire an economic windfall for the home team. Instead, the Flood of 1977 hit Johnstown five months later and ruined the ice making equipment at the Cambria County War Memorial. The Jets were out of business after 27 seasons.
Flash forward a decade and a Virginia oil man named Henry Brabham needed a city to prop up the staggering All-American Hockey League and quick. In December 1987, the AAHL was down a team in midseason and needed a replacement. Brabham visited Johnstown, liked what he saw, and launched the team on two weeks notice. Long-time Johnstown Tribune-Democrat sports writer Mike Mastovich credits then War Memorial board President and marketing director Dennis Grenell with suggesting the ‘Chiefs’ nickname to Brabham, in honor of ‘Slap Shot’. Thus the Johnstown Chiefs were born in January 1988 as an emergency plug in the leaking All-American Hockey League.
After the 1987-88 season, Brabham pulled his clubs out of the AAHL and merged them with a couple of teams from another low-level circuit, the Atlantic Coast Hockey League. The resulting new league was dubbed the East Coast Hockey League and had five members clubs for the 1988-89 season, three of which were owned by Brabham. The Chiefs’ opponents for their first full season of play were Erie, Knoxville, Virginia and Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
For the 1988-89 season, the Chiefs hired Steve Carlson as their new Head Coach. Carlson’s hiring further the city and team’s tribute to ‘Slap Shot’, as he played one of the beloved Hanson Brothers in the 1977 film. The Chiefs would enjoy some of their finest seasons under Carlson, including their only visit to the ECHL’s Riley Cup finals series in 1989. In the championship, Johnstown outscored the Carolina Thunderbirds 14-2 in the series’ first two games en route to a commanding 2-0 series lead, but they would ultimately lose the Riley Cup to Carolina in seven games.
Carlson’s tenure came to an end in 1992 and Henry Brabham sold the Chiefs to local investors a year later. The Chiefs then struggled for a long-stretch of the 1990′s, failing to make the playoffs four straight years from 1996 until 1999. Johnstown struggled to compete as the ECHL grew from its modest mid-Atlantic roots to a sprawling, nationwide league with more than two dozen clubs. The team’s on-ice fortunes eventually rebounded in the early 2000′s, with several deep playoff runs under Head Coach Scott Allen.
Off the ice was a tougher story. The Chiefs ran six-figure operating losses virtually every season and went through multiple ownership groups over the years. None of them ever figured out how to make the Chiefs sustainable, but all displayed an admirable commitment to try to keep pro hockey in Johnstown. In 2003, for instance, then owners Richard & Connie Mayer sold the club to former New York Rangers General Manager Neil Smith for a single dollar in return for Smith’s commitment to keep the team in Johnstown. (The Chiefs previously sold for $600,000 in 1995).
Despite the red ink, Smith kept to the club running in Johnstown for nearly a decade with a variety of partners. Chiefs attendance continued to rank near the bottom of the ECHL, however, which now included big city teams as far away as Anchorage, Las Vegas and Fresno. In February 2010, Smith’s group bowed to the inevitable and announced the Chiefs would move to Greenville, South Carolina at the conclusion of the 2009-10 season, the club’s 22nd campaign in the ECHL.
The New York Times sent a reporter to the Chiefs’ final game at Cambria County War Memorial on April 3, 2010. Minority owner Ned Nakles noted to The Times that Johnstown outlasted 48 other cities that lost their ECHL franchises during Johnstown’s 22 years in the league. Johnstown was also the last survivor of the original five cities that formed the league in 1988.
The Fredericton Express was an American Hockey League team in the Canadian Maritime province of New Brunswick. The club was founded as an expansion team in 1981 to serve as a farm club to the NHL’s Quebec Nordiques. In 1982, the Vancouver Canucks entered a partnership with the Nordiques to jointly operate and provide prospects to the club, although Quebec continued in the lead role, including appointing the Fredericton President and the farm team’s Head Coach.
Strains in the arrangement between the two NHL clubs came out in the open after the Canucks hired Brian Burke as Vice President and Director of Hockey Operations in 1987. Burke visited Fredericton for the first time in October of that year. The previous season the Express had the 2nd worst record in the AHL and the team’s top five scorers were all sent down by the Canucks. Burke made clear to the local press that the Canucks were unhappy with the partnership and with Quebec’s track record in contributing worthy coaches and players to the farm club.
Despite the management turmoil, the Express had their finest season in 1987-88. The team advanced to the Calder Cup championship series for the first and only time, where they were swept in four games by the Hershey Bears. The losses to Hershey in the Finals series turned out to be the final games ever played by the Express. The following month, Vancouver, as expected, bought out the final year of its agreement with Quebec. The Canucks set up their own farm team at Milwaukee in the International League to replace Fredericton. The Nordiques, meanwhile, moved the former Express franchise to Halifax, Nova Scotia in June of 1988, where team was re-branded as the Halifax Citadels prior to the 1988-89 season.
After a two-year absence, the AHL returned to Fredericton in 1990 with the arrival of the Fredericton Canadiens (1990-1999).
==Fredericton Express Games on Fun While It Lasted==
Popular but short-lived minor league hockey team that played at the Cincinnati Gardens from the fall of 1971 through the spring of 1974. The Cincinnati Swords were formed as an American Hockey League farm club of the NHL’s expansion Buffalo Sabres franchise (hence the name).
The team was outstanding, posting winning records in all three seasons of play. The Swords ran away from the rest of the AHL in their second season, posting a dominant 54-17-5 record and defeating the Nova Scotia Voyageurs in the Calder Cup finals.
Following the 1973-74 season, the Swords closed down to make way for the expansion Cincinnati Stingers of the World Hockey Association, due to arrive in the Queen City in the fall of 1975. The Sabres signed an affiliation with the AHL’s Hershey Bears to replace Cincinnati in their farm system.
==Cincinnati Swords Games on Fun While It Lasted==
The Jaros, who played in the tiny Palais Des Sports in the city of Saint-Georges Quebec, were expansionists in the winter of 1975-76. Five games into the season, when this contest was played against the visiting Maine Nordiques, there was little to indicate that Joe Hardy was on his way to one of the greatest offensive campaigns in history of hockey.
The Beauce coach/captain was a 30-year old Quebecois center who played 273 games in the National Hockey League and its rival, the World Hockey Association (WHA), between 1969 and 1975. Although a solid scorer throughout his career, Hardy had never been notched more than 28 goals in a single campaign. The previous winter, in his final season at the Major League level, Hardy’s skills seemed to be in decline, at least on paper. He scored just 5 goals in 61 games split between three WHA clubs.
Through the first four games of the 1975-76 season, Hardy was off to a solid start in Beauce with 1 goal and two assists, but it was nothing to notify The Hockey News about. Then he exploded. Over the next 68 games, Hardy scored 59 times and tallied a mind-blowing 146 assists. His 148 assists and 208 total points on the season were both all-time pro hockey records. The NAHL, of course, named Hardy the Most Valuable Player of the 1975-76 season. More impressive, The Hockey News recognized Hardy as its Minor League Player-of-the-Year, breaking from a habit of only recognizing players in the American and Central leagues, which served the NHL. (The NAHL was the top minor league circuit of the rebel WHA).
Jocelyn Hardy became the first player to score 200 points in a pro season. Wayne Gretzky would become the 2nd, accomplishing the feat four times in the NHL between 1982 and 1986. To this day, Hardy and Gretzky remain the only professional players to score 200 points in the pros at any level.