Where's The Zamboni?Posted on February 05, 2008
By Phil Jackman
Hockey in Baltimore.
OK, wipe that perplexed look off your face, and let’s figure out where to start.
Maybe at the end is as good a place as any. The Baltimore Bandits. Ah, yes, a team that played here for a couple of seasons a decade ago, but for the most part was pretty much under-appreciated, if not ignored.
For one thing, the Bandits weren’t around long enough for the word to get passed around. And for another, too many years had gone by, which led to a disconnect to the glory days of the American Hockey League as perceived locally. And face it, the AHL had always been where Baltimore’s ice hockey existence truly belonged.
Still, the AHL was deliriously happy to welcome Baltimore back to the operation which had grown to a solid 18 teams by the time it celebrated its 60th anniversary in 1996. And despite spotty ownership (another name for lack of capital) and a somewhat weak working agreement with the National Hockey League’s Anaheim Mighty Ducks (only 3,000 miles way), the Bandits were a good show, particularly during their second season.
Almost from the start hockey was not an easy sell in Baltimore, due mainly to the fact there was no background for the sport here -- no high school teams, no college teams, no recreation programs, few indoor skating rinks and, worst of all, no ponds or lakes icing over in winter.
This goes back to the days when the southern-most town in the NHL was the New York Rangers, 200 miles up the road.
Despite this drawback, however, as soon as the sporting public became aware of what a fantastic sport hockey is, the Baltimore Clippers semi-flourished.
Here, oldtimers will jump in and wax poetic about the good old days when 8,000-9,000 would show up at the brand spanking new Civic Center, which gave every indication of being old and outdated almost from the time it opened in the early ’60s. Just as impressive was the number of fans who would journey north into Pennsylvania whenever the club was to take on the hated Bears at the HersheyPark Arena.
What helped tremendously is the best Clippers teams had several veteran players who not only had NHL experience and know-how, but similar to the Baltimore Colts football players of that era, worked and lived here and otherwise became involved during the offseason.
Sure, it would have been nice to have a spiffy new 18,000-seat arena when the NHL came calling to expand to a dozen teams from its original six in 1967, but in the end the fairly new “showplace” showed poorly. Besides, the city didn’t really have a single big moneyman willing to lead the charge. All things considered, finishing seventh wasn’t a bad showing.
Regardless and in spite of the fact hockey took a hit when fans gave up asserting that Baltimore deserved a team in the big leagues, the sport did well with working agreements with NHL clubs and a small group of investors who stuck doggedly with the ship.
These benefactors couldn’t go on forever, though, and with the NHL expanding two teams at a time seemingly every month, the AHL was constantly taking hits.
From a tight-knit group that once included name cities like Baltimore, Buffalo, Rochester, Hershey, Pittsburgh, Providence, Cleveland, Quebec and Springfield, the league soon boasted teams from northern towns with at least two stoplights and a general store. And, oh yes, an ice rink.
Thing is, that always turned out to be the league’s strength. The NHL needed a feeder system, and if it involved whistlestop franchises as a stopgap, so be it. That and the fact that the AHL always allowed bygones to be bygones. That means if you had a franchise fold previously, it wasn’t held against you. For instance, Baltimore was never considered a lost cause for going through the Clippers, Skipjacks and Bandits. New Haven went through five teams, Syracuse four and Philadelphia, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Binghamton three each.
Presently, the AHL has 29 teams in four divisions stretching all the way from Portland, Maine, to Iowa and from Manitoba to San Antonio. Imagine some of the road trips wherein buses are usually the mode of transportation.
Anyway, the oldtimers are right when they insist the Clippers were good. In the early ’70s, they won their division during three of four seasons, but never were up to winning the Calder Cup, the sign of supremacy in the AHL. In their one try at it, they lost to Nova Scotia in 1972.
The Clippers disbanded shortly after midseason in 1975 but were back in the faceoff circle opening night 10 months later. They folded for good after that season, which opened it up for the Skipjacks six years later. In between, the World Hockey Association (remember it?) paid a visit for about a month and you know your stuff, Waldo, if you can name five players off that club, the Baltimore Blades, which landed here via Michigan (Stags) and, if you dig deep enough, Los Angeles (Sharks).
The most anyone can remember about the WHA is that Bobby Hull played in Winnipeg with about six guys named Stasny and Gordie Howe was in Houston playing with several family members. Best player in the league was Wayne Gretzky, who was about 11 years old at the time.
The Skipjacks lasted a decade and thereafter Baltimore was included in what seems like at least a dozen minor league operations where a decent right cross or a passable left hook seemed to be the only things most players possessed.
It would be unfair at this point to label Baltimore as an unsuccessful hockey town because of its ups and downs over almost 40 years. The locals learned to live with Dorothy Lamour’s cumbersome stage downtown almost immediately so there’s no use including the “municipal ruins,” as one smart alecky columnist used to refer to it, as an excuse for lack of attendance.
You can blame the inability to grab one of the half-dozen expansion teams and the resulting disappointment for any perceived lack of interest here. But Baltimore was clearly nowhere ready to become an NHL member at the time, and it would have had trouble sticking out the two seasons that the Washington Capitals' expansion partner in the early ’70s, the Kansas City Scouts, lasted.
A very wise NHL general manager and one-time minor league commissioner once said if hockey wanted to capture the hearts and minds of the populace, the way was to get women to like the sport, or at least accept it. They pass it on to the kids, which is important since, just as in soccer, mothers are the ones who end up driving youngsters to games, practices and so on.
I saw proof of this returning from the Winter Olympics in Calgary 20 years ago. We had a stopover in Edmonton, Alberta, after starting out in Calgary and in both terminals there were hundreds of people reading the “Hockey News,” and most of them were women. And one thing about hockey -- if perchance you become a fan, it’s almost impossible to shake it.
Some things that have changed over the last generation would undoubtedly benefit the return of hockey to town. There has been NHL hockey in Washington 35 years and although many Baltimoreans wouldn’t chance a look-see to check it out at the old Capital Centre, it has created thousands of fans in the region.
Both high schools and colleges hereabouts maintain programs that are getting better and access to ice is improving all the time. I really wasn’t aware of this until several seasons ago, when a couple of schoolboy teams were playing for a championship after a dull Caps game.
The kids from Mount St. Joseph and DeMatha played excellent hockey, and it was an easy decision writing about them instead of the pros. I carried this message back to the paper and suggested we run league standings and toss in a roundup story now and then. I got a we’ve-got-enough-sports-to-worry-about-now-we’re-not-going-to-add-another-one look and that was that.
Actually, that’s probably the same feeling that exists now, but with the threat of a new arena being built here, the time inevitably will come when ice hockey will be pressed back into service. Forget the NHL (too expensive); figure the return of the AHL and those red-hot games with the Hershey Bears and Philadelphia Phantoms with “Howling Harry” screaming his lungs out from a seat in the second balcony. After much consideration, I’ve come to the conclusion what he was yelping about were the horrible sight lines.
There have to be some old Clippers uniforms stored away somewhere at First Mariner Arena.
Issue 3.6: February 7, 2008