Saturday, December 1, 2012
The Indians fans at the Coliseum were wild (above), but back in the day the crowd at the Civic Center also rocked.
In the 1981 playoffs, the hate for the Maine Mariners in the Springfield Civic Center was so thick in the air that you could cut it with—well—a removable plastic arm rest. Make that several hundred flying arm rests.
The Mariners were thugs, the Springfield Indians fans despised them, and in 1981 the Civic Center faithful were bitter. This stinking Maine franchise had just come into the AHL in 1977 and immediately won two Calder Cups, in its inaugural season and in the following year. Meanwhile, the Indians, after having won the Calder Cup in 1975, hadn’t made the playoffs in two years.
Before this playoff game, I hadn’t been to an Indians game in a couple of months, so I had no idea how electric the atmosphere would be in the Civic Center. I knew this was, after all, post-season hockey, but I didn’t expect to see more than 5,000 boisterous fans show up for game six of the division finals: many of them were drunk, and all of them were LOUD. There had been a brawl involving Springfield’s Steve Carlson, one of the “Hanson Brothers” in the movie Slap Shot, in a lopsided 10-3 Indians victory in Game 4, so there was bad blood that was reaching the boiling point (insert more clichés HERE.)
During pre-game warm-ups a fan threw a large yellow rubber ball into the Maine end, and a player whacked it back into the stands with his stick. A fan caught it and proceeded to launch it at him again, prompting the announcer to warn fans not to throw objects onto the ice. It was a harbinger of the debris storm to come.
I always thought this was a lovable Indians team because of its Bruins affiliation and players Craig McTavish (above), Keith Crowder, Mike Krushelynski, the great goaltender Marco Baron, and the return of “Hanson Brother” Steve Carlson.
In the third period, the Indians were again en-route to an easy win (9-2), and play got chippy. A brawl broke involving several players, including Springfield’s Tom Songin. According to the Springfield Morning Union, “Many among the crowd of 5,183 disproved of Maine’s intimidation tactics against the Indians.” And boy did they express their disapproval. I write “they,” because I—nor my friends—threw nothing. We threw no-THING! No-THING! We just watched the disturbance, which was described as a “near riot.”
In Exodus 8:2, the Egyptians were punished for their sins with a rain of frogs. On April 18, 1981, the Maine Mariners were plagued with a rain of black plastic arm rests. And that’s not all. The Morning Union reporter also saw beer cans, coins, and even a beer bottle on the ice. The Maine players had to flee their bench toward center ice because many of the projectiles came from Section 9 directly behind them.
“Goons spoil hockey!” many of the season-ticket holders chanted. Not only were there players battling each other, noted the Morning Union, but altercations also took place between players on the Maine Mariners and fans in the stands. “None of the visiting players actually climbed over the partition separating the bench from the stands, but at least one was seen to swing his stick several times against the top of the glass at fans who were leaning over to shake their fists,” the reporter wrote. The fracas “threatened to erupt even more seriously if a uniformed squad of nine police officers hadn’t rushed to the downtown facility to halt the melee.
A newspaper editorial several days later blasted the “deplorable” fan behavior, which it also described as “barbaric, childish, and immature.” It also called for the arm rests to be either permanently affixed to the seats or removed altogether. Yeah, no shit. I always wondered why there were snap-on arm rests in that building. Did that make them easier to clean? It sure did make them easier to throw, and they flew onto the ice again when the Indians won the 1990 and 1991 Calder Cup.
The reason I relate this account is not to encourage bad fan behavior, but to point out that there were still rabid Indians fans in the Civic Center. I was afraid I gave the impression in Part 1 that the franchise was doomed after the team moved from the Coliseum to the Civic Center in 1980, but that wasn’t the case. The Civic Center enjoyed that Coliseum spirit—for a while, anyway. They continued to support their team even after the Indians were eliminated from the playoffs by the damn Maine Mariners in Game 7 in 1981.
I always thought that the Indians having the Bruins as a parent club was a match made in heaven. My two favorite teams! But it didn’t last as the Indians went through a dazzling array of NHL affiliations, which hurt its fan base. Their uniforms and players changed every year.
Some say that the Indians’ fortunes were forever changed once owner Eddie Shore (pictured below) sold the team in 1977. His tenure with Springfield began in 1939 when he bought the team and hit the ice as player-owner with the same cantankerousness that marked his Bruins career. He actually forced players who were out of the lineup to perform maintenance on the Coliseum and stand on the corner wearing sandwich boards advertising games.
One reason that I once thought the movie Slap Shot’s Charlestown Chiefs might just have been based on the Springfield Indians (rather than the Johnstown Jets in Pennsylvania) was the fact that Shore made his players blow up balloons and sweep the aisles when the Ice Capades came to the Coliseum in the same way Chiefs owner Joe McGrath forced his players to do such belittling tasks as participating in a fashion show:
Shore even once called a meeting of the players’ wives, asking them to abstain from sex until their husbands played better. Was there any truth to the rumor that Shore, during lunch breaks at practices, made his players put on plastic skate guards and walk across Memorial Avenue in West Springfield to a restaurant rather than let them “waste time” by taking off their skates? Probably.
In 1966, his players had enough, striking for a week with a list of demands. It was pro hockey's first full-scale player walkout since 1925:
I wrote it once before and I’ll write it again: we still loved the post-Shore Indians, even the most reviled Springfield Indians. Boy did I pity the Indians players who became the targets of the angry fans’ wrath, just like the Charlestown Chiefs and their player-coach Reggie Dunlop.
“Dunlop, you stink!”
I always felt bad for Mike McMahon during his last season of professional hockey. In the 1976-1977 campaign, as he wrapped up a 17-year career, Springfield fans rode the defenseman mercilessly. He had seen action with six different NHL teams and a few WHA squads, but he often found himself bouncing back to the AHL, and when he returned to Springfield that final year, you would have thought that fans had harbored some good feelings for a member of the 1970-1971 Calder Cup Champion Springfield Kings—a man who had 10 assists in 12 playoff games during that title run. You would have thought they considered cutting the old guy some slack—especially since his father played his final pro year with the Indians in 1949.
No chance. Every muffed pass, every bad pass he issued, every time he failed to take the body as an opponent whizzed past him, the Springfield faithful foamed at the mouth. I daresay “McMahon!” was the most uttered name in the Coliseum that year.
Ray McKay was nicknamed “Spider” because of his lanky six-foot-four frame and had a similar hockey run to fellow defenseman Mike McMahon in terms of bopping back and forth between the NHL, WHA, and AHL. He succeeded McMahon as the Coliseum’s whipping boy, taking the heat for a team that wasn’t playoff-bound. My friends and I thought he was unfairly targeted, and one time Rick Riccardi, sitting next to me, responded to their jeers: “Shut up! Ray McKay is here to stay!”
“Rick,” I said. “Believe me, Ray McKay doesn’t want to hear that he’s here to stay. He wants to get back in the NHL. He certainly doesn’t want to be HERE.” No, Ray McKay wasn’t here to stay. But he never made it back to the NHL either. He drifted to the Hershey Bears and then the Adirondack Red Wings over the following two years and then hung up his skates.
Springfield fans also gave Tom Songin a lot of crap in 1980-1981, even though he was coming back from injury.
The fans saved their real enmity, however, for the visiting Hershey Bears and New Haven Nighthawks, undoubtedly because the teams brought their boosters with them. Also, arch-villains Archie Henderson (six-foot-six) and Larry Playfair played not-so-fair for Hershey. Below are undated photos from a WGBY special on the Springfield Indians showing the Hershey Bears climbing into the Coliseum crowd to go after fans.
The Acres Indians
Barry Ryan, the former Plumtree Road resident and son of the late longtime Hampden County District Attorney Matty Ryan, played with the Indians during the 1980-1981 season—one of the few teams to make the playoffs during my youth.
Barry spent many of his formative hockey days playing in “Siberia,” an outdoor hockey rink built in the early 1960s in South Branch Park and maintained by the Parks Department and then Sixteen Acres Youth Hockey. This is all that remains of “Siberia,” so-nicknamed by the kids who froze their…um…pucks off skating there: some rotting boards and a maintenance building, from where water was pumped in.
Now Barry is an attorney at the Springfield law firm Doherty, Wallace, Pillsbury, & Murphy:
Former New York Ranger Ricky Bennett, who grew up on Pineview Street, may have been the only player to play for both the Springfield Indians and the Springfield Falcons.
He is now the head hockey coach at Union College (above). Ricky played a lot of pond hockey on Putnam’s Puddle, where the only reminder a pond once existed is dam with a gigantic hole on the bottom:
In my quest for Springfield Indians apparel, I’ve come across some curious—and awesome—items. Stall & Dean, whose specialties include hip hop clothing, used to sell this Springfield Indians jacket, but I can’t find it online any more:
You can still get the cap, though.
Why would the hip hop crowd buy Springfield Indians apparel? Maybe it has something to do with Snoop Doggy Dogg’s 1995 video Gin and Juice:
The ultimate score would be Eddie Shore’s Indians coaching jacket, which is in a private collection:
OK, I guess it’s time for me to contribute some photos of my own to these Springfield Indians blog entries. Much of what I have offered visually has been taken from the web—that’s me: take, take, take. What I can give, aside from my memories, are some covers of Indians programs I saved from the late 1970s and early 1980s. The plethora of logos also gives you an idea of how many parent clubs they went through during this period:
I recently took my seven-year-old son to his first Springfield Falcons game, and it was a great experience—one I hope to relive with him often in future years if the franchise remains in the city, which is not a given. After their affiliation with the Columbus Blue Jackets—and their contract with the MassMutual Center—expire following the 2013-204 season, will they stay or will they go? I wasn’t encouraged by the attendance at the game I went to: 2,692. Granted, it was a Sunday afternoon game, but this was the Sunday of Veterans Day weekend. Can’t area hockey fans do better than that, especially with a first-place team and an NHL lockout going on?
It took many losing seasons to erode their fan base, so I guess I can’t expect it to build back up overnight. My son and I saw a fantastic 5-0 Falcons victory and I remembered why professional hockey in Springfield lured me when I was a youngster: you get a close-up view of the fastest sport in the world.
As we sat in Section 9—the same section from which the shower of arm rests came 29 years ago—I noticed that the equipment managers from both teams were giving broken and worn out sticks to kids. So I kept bugging the Norfolk Admirals equipment guy for a stick, and he finally came through! It was the highlight of my boy’s game. (Yep, that’s what he keeps telling me.) Check it out (and try not to notice all the empty seats in the background):
He hung onto the thing like Linus’s blanket the rest of the game.
It reminded me of the game in 1978 when New Haven Nighthawks goaltender Doug Soetaert broke the blade of this stick during warm-ups and I asked him for it, and sure enough he skated over to the boards and handed it to me. Hot damn! His name was stamped on the stick, so I followed his career, knowing that he had played for the New York Rangers and was likely to again. He was always a backup goaltender, but he ended up back on the Rangers, then the Winnipeg Jets and the Montreal Canadiens.
So we’re going to pay a bit more attention to the career of defenseman Ryan Parent, who it turns out had seen significant playing time for the Philadelphia Flyers for four years. We’re rooting for you, Ryan! I also took a couple of photos of Springfield goaltender and savior Curtis McElhinny giving puck to a kid after being named game MVP (below). So far, the Falcons are doing everything right this season. Keep kicking ass, Curtis. In Mac we trust.
What the Springfield Falcons have going for them is local ownership and now a good product for families to enjoy. I have no desire to see the rowdy element return to the building—scratch that. A little of the “old time hockey” crowd wouldn’t hurt. I saw plenty of children at the recent game, but where were the teenagers? Where were the college kids? I went to Indians games during MY college holiday breaks. The nearest top-quality college hockey program in the area is a pretty long drive up I-91 to UMass Amherst. Don’t young adults around here know there is great hockey in town? Enjoy it while you can.
“As we move forward, our intention is to keep hockey here in Springfield and provide a consistency of an NHL affiliation,” according to owner Charlie Pompea. “We also want to provide our fans with aggressive, entertaining and winning hockey. I realize that our record on the ice has not been very impressive over the last several years, but we have been assured by the management of the Columbus Blue Jackets that they will do their very best to provide us with players that will help us bring winning hockey to Springfield.”
I must confess that I was in error at the conclusion of Part 1. They do indeed play Shake, Rattle, and Roll at the MassMutual Center at the end of every Falcons game. So I’ll leave you with this: