Many of the names and some of the descriptions in this blog have been changed to protect the guilty.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Springfield Indians: Shake, Rattle . . . and a Roll! Part 1

She sat diagonally in front of us and she was wearing a “Fuck New Haven” T-shirt. The lettering was on the back, not the front, sooo…I guess it wasn’t tooo bad. They had let this blonde lass into the Eastern States Coliseum—but probably because ushers didn’t see her “custom” fan gear until she got to her seat. She kept standing up during the game and turning around to show the Nighthawks fans just what she thought of their fair city, but she didn’t get thrown out.

Whenever these visiting fans chanted a pro-New Haven or anti-Springfield Indians slogan, she stood up and turned around, and pointed to her embroidery with her thumbs. Our section hooted at her message and at her hooters—after all, she had a great rack, and a passable face. One can only wonder why she didn’t have her lettering put on the front. Who cares? We appreciated her efforts. All of us. Except the middle-aged woman behind her, who was missing half the game because of this “Fuck New Haven” booby show.

Soon there were words between these two—both Indians fans. Then there were more words—swear words. And then there were slaps and punches. The fight was on, and the crowd went wild. It’s difficult for many of the younger Springfield Falcons fans to imagine the raucous atmosphere in the old hockey barn that was the Coliseum—that New Haven Nighthawks and Hershey Bears boosters traveled by bus to West Springfield, and their enthusiasm sometimes led to fisticuffs in the stands or in the beer and bathroom lines. But a couple of Indians chick fans going at it? This was too good.

The middle-aged woman was getting the worst of it, so she bolted across the row of seats, ran down a few steps, flagged a uniformed fire official, and demanded her assailant’s arrest. “What do you want me to do, lady?” he laughed. “I ain’t no cop. Now quit blockin’ the aisle!”

I recently bought a T-shirt of my own: a classic Springfield Indians T at Steve’s Sports in West Springfield (above). The reason I mention this is not to try to get a discount on future Indians merchandise there (well, maybe I’ll try). I just wanted to show not only the incredible nostalgia that exists for the Indians, but also the logo that I was most familiar with as a rabid fan in the mid- and late-1970s.

Andre Peloffy

Charlie Simmer

Mario Lessard

We worshipped Andre Peloffy, Charlie Simmer, and Mario Lessard. Those were the days—when they played Shake, Rattle, and Roll in the Coliseum, where the stands literally shook with fan enthusiasm. Ladies and gentlemen, here are your Springfield Indians.

Get out from that kitchen and rattle those pots and pans
Get out from that kitchen and rattle those pots and pans
Well, roll my breakfast 'cause I'm a hungry man

I said Shake, rattle and roll
I said Shake, rattle and roll
I said Shake, rattle and roll
I said Shake, rattle and roll
Well, you never do nothin' to save your doggone soul

The Indians had an incredibly long run in Springfield (mostly West Springfield)—from 1926 to 1994, give or take a few years when the Coliseum as commandeered for the World War II effort and when Eddie Shore moved the franchise to Syracuse from 1951 to 1954. They won three straight Calder Cups from 1961 to 1963, and won another one as the Springfield Kings in 1971 with Butch Goring and Billy Smith. Those unlikely champions in the purple and gold barely got into the playoffs with a losing record and went on an incredible 11-1 run.

Butch Goring

Billy Smith

To give you some idea of how rowdy it was in the Coliseum in those days, below is an account of a near riot there that season, in which a fight on the ice soon involved fans and ended up in the PARKING LOT!

The Kings were the darlings of Springfield in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and I remember when they moved from the Coliseum to the newly built Springfield Civic Center in 1972, the inside of the McDonald’s restaurant across State Street was adorned with a huge Kings crown wall edifice on the south side of the facility. I never found a photo of it, but I did uncover a photo of Ronald McDonald with a hockey stick on McDonald’s other wall.

Shore, who had leased his franchise to the Kings from 1971 to 1974, took full control of the team in true Eddie Shore fashion—wrestling it from them—and changed its uniform colors from purple and gold back to blue, white and red right in the middle of the 1974-1975 season. In his almost-last hurrah, and they won their fifth Calder Cup before sold the team in 1977.

Above are my other prized possessions: a Kings shirt from Steve’s Sports, along with an Indians button and an old Kings banner that I’ve had for decades. Check out the back of that shirt:

Wearin’ those dresses, your hair done up so nice
Wearin’ those dresses, your hair done up so nice
You look so warm, but your heart is cold as ice

I said Shake, rattle and roll
I said Shake, rattle and roll
I said Shake, rattle and roll
I said Shake, rattle and roll
Well, you never do nothin’ to save your doggone soul

I recently wondered if Coliseum Charlie were still alive, in the unlikely event that his liver didn’t abandon ship. Unfortunately, I discovered that Charles G. Thibault died in 2007 at the age of 72. We also knew him as Nine-beer Charlie, because he drank three brews a period in his Civic Center Section 8 seat—give or take (mostly give)—a few. Actually, nine was a conservative estimate—he started drinking early at the Hob Nob on Chestnut Street before games in his Civic Center days. If the score was close at the end, and if the Indians scored, off came his sport jacket, which he whipped around in the air. And then off came his shirt, which at times ended up on the ice. If his throw couldn’t get his shirt over the boards, fellow fans would help him out and hand it down a few rows—a remarkable display of volunteerism—until it reached its destination. If he were lucky, an Indians player would lift the shirt with his stick and plop it back into the crowd, and he’d get it back.

To be fair to Thibault and his family, it wasn’t as crazy as it sounds. Charlie always had a wife-beater T-shirt on, and he kept it on, along with the red tie (matching his red drunken complexion) around his neck. It wasn’t until recently that someone told me that his repeated “Eee-oh” cry was supposed to be some kind of Indian war whoop. You learn something new every day! I thought this yelp was just some kind of Charlie buzz thang. Eddie Shore, the ultimate perfectionist and intimidator, used to take it upon himself to patrol the stands with a flashlight, beaming it in the faces of fans who put their feet on the seats in front of them, and according to blogger Paul Brown he used to yell at Charlie to put his shirt back on. At least he didn’t put his feet on the seats.

In 1981, Coliseum Charlie became “Civic Center Charlie” in an official “ceremony,” although the Indians experience was never quite the same when they moved across the river. The Coliseum was the ultimate place in which to watch a hockey game—despite the fact that it was built in 1926 for horse shows:

The wooden floorboards of the Coliseum made a hell of a lot of noise when fans stomped on it, and the vibration went right up your spine. The place rocked, and the Indians did move back there for the 1976-1977, 1977-1978, and 1978-79 seasons, before leaving their old stomping grounds for the Civic Center. 

Unfortunately, the post-Shore years saw limited success for the Indians, with a revolving door of NHL parent teams, but we loved them anyway. Adding to the fun was seeing Steve and Jeff Carlson—two of the three Hanson Brothers from the movie Slap Shot—playing for the Indians during the 1977-1978 season, shortly after the movie hit the theaters.

Steve and Jeff Carlson are pictured above and below playing for the Minnesota Fighting Saints.

Steves body work (above) and Jeffs stick work.

It was only a matter of time before the gloves came off Jeff Carlson. Look, ma, no foil!

Just dont bother them when theyre listening to the National Anthem.

Even the Civic Center years provided lots of entertainment, though the arena was derided as “sterile” and a “mausoleum,” especially when it was half empty. The true fans stayed true to the team, and in one hilarious tradition, developed a cheer that I used in the title of this blog entry. The old Jim Dandy fast food chicken chain ran a promotion in which the announcer proclaimed, “When the Indians get brave, you get chicken!” No, the Mad Men of Madison Avenue certainly weren’t recruited to write THIS hokey hockey copy. “If the Indians score five or more goals and win the game, bring your game program to your neighborhood Jim Dandy Fried Chicken restaurant within 24 hours, and we’ll give you a free Jim Dandy Hockey Pack: two pieces of mouth-watering chicken and a roll.” At first, season ticket holders retorted, “And a roll!” after the promo. A few games later, most of the Civic Center faithful screamed “And a roll!”

The post-Shore Indians had only two winning seasons, but their fortunes changed in a big way in 1990 with a Calder Cup. Like the Charlestown Chiefs in Slapshot, ownership threatened to move the team out of the city in 1989, and the team responded by winning the league championship. “As it stands now, I’m 99 percent sure we will not be playing in the Springfield Civic Center next season,” said owner Peter Cooney in December of 1989. The result was glory in Springfield. Check out, during the celebration, someone throwing a beer on the Rochester goalie, who turns around and raises his stick threateningly:

In 1991, fans expected the worst when the Indians’ ownership, in a still-simmering dispute over the leasing arrangement at the Civic Center, changed the team’s affiliation to the Hartford Whalers. Most of their players came from a Binghamton Whalers team that posted the worst record in AHL history, but the Indians defied the odds and won their second Cup in a row:

Bruce Landon—the same goaltender who was involved in the Springfield Kings near riot in 1970, is the man credited with keeping AHL hockey in Springfield. He retired in 1977 when Jeff Carlson bounced a shot off his knee during a practice, ending his playing days at 28, and was offered a job doing public relations by then-owner of the Indians George Leary. He has been working for Springfield hockey ever since. Landon was general manager when the franchise was purchased by an out-of-town buyer in 1994 and moved to Worcester to become the Worcester IceCats, and thus ending the Indians team name in Springfield.

Bruce Landon

The same year, Landon secured a new franchise—the Springfield Falcons—and they have been playing here for 18 years. The team’s future was uncertain a few years ago after losing seasons and anemic attendance, but the good news is that in 2010 the franchise was sold to Falcons Hockey Entertainment, LLC, whose majority owner is Charles Pompea and the minority owner is Landon.

The Springfield hockey vibe is now a lot more sedate than it was back in the day, and the realities of the economy, the decline of the city—especially its downtown—and dismal Falcons teams (a nine-year playoff drought) have constantly threatened the very existence of the franchise. However, Landon thinks that on paper the team looks very good this year. As for the future of AHL hockey in Springfield: much of it depends on season ticket sales. At this point, an NHL lockout can only help the team as hockey-starved fans hopefully turn to the Falcons.

 “We’re reaching out to you, our season-ticket holders to get your friends to come out to games,” said Pompea at the team’s summer cookout. Friday and Saturday attendance at Falcons has been OK the past couple of years, but the same can’t be said for Sunday and midweek dates. “That's where we need to improve to get our attendance up to where it needs to be,” said Landon. “We're still not where we want to be with season tickets.”

Has anyone thought of bringing back the Indians name? That Indians franchise, now known as the Peoria Rivermen, isn’t using the moniker. I know it’s not politically correct to bring back Native American nicknames for sports teams, but…Well, at the very least, how about playing Shake, Rattle, and Roll again at the Civic—I mean MassMutual—Center?

I'm like a one-eyed cat, peepin’ in a sea-food store
I'm like a one-eyed cat, peepin
in a sea-food store
I can look at you, tell you don't love me no more

I believe you're doin
 me wrong and now I know
I believe you're doin
 me wrong and now I know
The more I work, the faster my money goes
I said Shake, rattle and roll
I said Shake, rattle and roll
I said Shake, rattle and roll
I said Shake, rattle and roll
Well, you never do nothin
 to save your doggone soul
Shake, rattle and roll!

For a while I debated whether or not to write a Springfield Indians blog entry because the subject has almost nothing to do specifically with Sixteen Acres—though Acres folk went to the games, and two guys from the neighborhood, Barry Ryan and Ricky Bennett, played for the Tribe. But then their theme song got stuck in my head, and the other day I saw the above sign in the Williamsburg General Store. I knew as I took the photo that Coliseum Charlie was channeling me from the grave, urging me to write this piece. So I had to. He also advised me to have nine beers—and a roll—at the next Falcons game I attend. I’ll work on it, Charlie, but I’m keeping my shirt on.