Ducks, Pucks and Cougar Tales
These are the memories of my brother-in-law, Herb Schmidt, and the great hockey we had on Long Island. I, too, made many trips to the (in)famous Long Island Arena in Commack,
This is the story of a hockey team, as I remember it. It was a replacement for an earlier team, and after some glory and some lean years, was subsequently replaced by another team that lasted only two seasons. But those years in between - I wouldn't surrender for anything.
Let's back up a bit - to the late 1930's when I was just a youth. My Dad bought me the latest rage in radio - an Emerson five tube Superhetrodine! Wow! I had it next to my bed and would listen to the broadcasts of the New York Ranger Hockey games, not understanding many of the rules, but knowing it had to be an exciting game.
After WWII and in high school, a group of us ventured to Madison Square Garden - the old one that was on the corner of 8th Avenue and 50th Street in New York City, to see our very first hockey game - The New York Rovers vs The Montreal Royals. The league was the old Quebec Senior Hockey League and was a development league for the National Hockey League. My first impression was that it was evident that the Garden spelled history. Even the ticket takers at the entrance were impressive - all in tuxedos and black fedora hats. (I expect this was in deference to the major sport that took most of the dates - professional boxing). After the game - we all were hooked on hockey, and returned often. Then one day we decided to stay until Sunday evening and see the New York Rangers in action - the big time NHL! Their opponent was the Detroit Red Wings - with Harry Lumley in goal, and Ted Lindsay, Red Kelly, and a rookie named Gordie Howe in the line up. What a lineup for the first time seeing a NHL game.
Four years in the U S Air Force put a hold on hockey, but in 1956, my best gal Marie and I visited the Garden for some Ranger games. One that stands out in my memory was against the feared Montreal Canadians - and Maurice Richard in the lineup. Then my hockey was relegated to TV games as Marie and I were married and moved farther away from New York City, out on Long Island. Little did we know that so much hockey enjoyment and excitement was in store.
The Puck is Dropped
We read with excited anticipation when an article in the now defunct Long Island Press stated a new hockey arena to seat four thousand was to be built at Commack, NY - just 20 or so miles from our home. The team was to be the NY Rovers, and the league was the Eastern Hockey League (EHL). The inaugural game was played in October of 1959, and Marie and I were there at the opening face off, along with only a few hundred other loyal souls.
Commack Arena was a Quonset hut type structure with seating on both sides and one end of the ice surface. There were two huge heaters above the side stands at center ice that weren't the most reliable. Cleaning the ice between periods - normally a 15-minute task - took an hour! The Zamboni ice surface machine was a thing for the future - so when the last player skated off the ice, a couple of maintenance people cleaned the surface with snow shovels. Then another man came out with a garden hose and sprayed the ice again. This would create puddles - which aggravated the drying. The concession stands loved it…
The first Rover team to play in the arena - 1959-60 season - came in last place, but we were seeing ice hockey, and some really entertaining games. The Rovers did have a few players though that would go on to better times - a defenseman named John Muckler would become coach of the Ducks in 1961, but eventually gained notoriety as an NHL coach of the Oilers, Sabres and Rangers. The goaltender would also go on to some glory years with the NY Rangers and Detroit Red Wings - his name: Ed Giacomin.
The Rovers returned for the 1960-61 season, but did not fair much better. Crowds were low at some games and high at others. But they seemed to be blessed with some out standing goaltenders. This season Gilles Villemure was in the nets - who would later pair up with Giacomin with the NY Rangers to win the Vezina Trophy for best goal tending in the NHL.
This would be the last year for the Rovers - a new management group took over and a different team was to play in the arena in the 1961-62 season - and a new era of hockey was born. The Long Island Ducks would take to the ice for the next twelve years. And what years they were…
The 1961-62 season saw John Muckler as player-coach, but a leg injury would cause him to stay off ice and behind the bench - which as history shows was the best of all things. He then became general manager, and the team roster started to look more like a hockey team that could win. The hard shooting Norm Ryder, smart Gordie Matheson, Muckler and the (in)famous John Brophy were a stellar defensive corps that won as many fights as games. When another tough defenseman Don Perry joined the team, and forwards Russ McClenaghan, Gene Achtymichuk, Gordie Stratton, Ed Stankiewicz and Ron Hergott were added - the Ducks were on their way to a championship - which they attained in the 1964-65 season - winning the Walker Cup.
During the mid 1960's, the crowds were pretty good, especially when the Clinton Comets - with their arsenal of scorers and defensemen like Pat Kelly and goalie Norm DeFelice came to town. Now DeFelice was a premier goaltender and frustrated every team. One game a fan got behind him (before the glass was installed on the boards and a cyclone fence protected the fans from the puck, and the players from the fans) and razzed Norm unmercifully. He took just so much, then skated out of his nets and climbed the fence - skates, pads and all - to the top and started swinging his big goalie stick at the fan.
The EHL possibly was the inspiration for the quote: "I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out." And the biggest fighter - not in size but in heart - was John Brophy. He was "hated" wherever he played, except by the team he played on. One game he was skating in the pre-game warm-up and a fan was giving him a verbal lashing. John would slap his stick against the cyclone fence where the fan was standing. The "brave" fan knew Brophy could not get to him, so he kept up his tirade. After 3 or 4 slaps AT the fence, John turned his stick around and poked the shaft THROUGH the fence, and right into the fan's teeth!
John Brophy holds the all time penalty record for the EHL, and he earned every minute. He eventually became the Ducks coach and later the L.I. Cougars coach, but he did go on to be head coach of the NHL Toronto Maple Leafs. His latest coaching effort is in the East Coast Hockey league, where he won some championships. During the 1999 ECHL All Star game on TV, commentator Barry Melrose said Brophy would be his subject if he wrote a book about hockey characters. When questioned by his TV partner on Brophy's record of penalties, he said they didn't even give them for tripping and holding! (They did - but this was Barry's way of describing the pugilistic atmosphere of the EHL.) The movie "Slap Shot" was said to be a loose biography of John Brophy, his character being played by Paul Newman.
The Commack Arena was the scene of numerous incidents that only memory has recorded:
· The heaters failed one Sunday afternoon game with the Clinton Comets. The temperature was around 10 degrees in the stands. One fan removed his shoes and held a cigarette lighter under his feet. The concession stands ran out of hot coffee and chocolate, so they sold hot water.
· Before the wireless microphone was common, the announcer was at center ice making a speech. The visiting team skated out on the ice in the darkened arena, and skated over the mike cord, cutting the wire and the announcers speech!
· One game, the Ducks received a delay of game penalty because the organ continued the music after the puck was dropped.
· A local Rambler auto dealer sponsored a game called Ducko where a person would try to shoot a puck from center ice through a small hole in a board set up on a goal net. To advertise the dealership, a Rambler auto was driven out on the ice during the Ducko game. One night, the car got a flat tire while on the ice, and it took over an hour to get it off. The jack would slide and so would the Rambler.
· The NY NETS basketball team started playing at the Commack Arena when they first were formed and they had special TV lighting installed over the center ice area for their games. The Ducks decided to use these lights one night, and succeeded in melting a square of ice just the size of a basketball court. The game was delayed while the ice re-froze, but it was considerably dimmer on the ice.
· The infamous mid night Ducks vs New Haven game has been written about profusely, but this narrative is my personal account:
My friend Gene and I arrived at the arena at around 7:15 PM for an 8:00 PM game with New Haven Blades. They were there but the Ducks weren't - stuck in DC or Philadelphia due to bad weather. No planes out so they started by bus. The Blades came out and practiced then left the ice. They dressed and went next door to a movie! Now nearing midnight, the Ducks trickled out on the ice, some still putting on their final pieces of their uniforms. It was so late, the referee wouldn't let them get a practice.
During this wait, many fans stayed there, and the refreshment stands - especially the beer - was heavily visited. You can tell the mood of the fans by now. The referee called the teams to center ice and dropped the puck, and in less than a minute, bedlam broke out - on the ice and off. Some idiot threw a full beer can down and it hit one of the Duck players. He went down, and the trainer came out on the ice to attend to him. Now the ref skates away from a fight (there were many all over the ice) and tells the trainer to get back to the bench. Bill, the trainer, says he wants to patch the player, but the ref still was insisting he leave. With that, Bill gets off his knees and grabs the ref by the throat and the two of them are wrestling on the ice. One of the players had to separate them.
The hockey players fought for a considerable time, and it was over an hour later when the game finally continued - more Ducks & Blades in the penalty box than on the ice.
The penalty box was for both teams, with only the penalty timekeeper separating them. He wore an army helmet most of the time. Gene and I finally got home after 3AM!
· Another time a visiting player was hurt and was carried off the ice on a stretcher someone put his hockey stick on the stretcher with him. As he was going through the exit, a fan leaned over the rail and expressed his opinion on what he thought his prognosis should be. The player got off the stretcher and smacked the fan over the head with the stick!
· One fan let a burlap bag of pigeons loose in the arena, and they were there for the rest of the season.
· Henry, the Zamboni driver became a fan favorite - waving to the crowd as he drove around cleaning the ice. He got so involved in waving, he drove through the dasher boards.
· When John Muckler was coach, he was a disciplinarian. Every player same to the game in a suit and tie, and he took the whole team by bus to the barber for a crew cut each week. (Before longer hair was the style.)
· The Ducks usually traveled the league circuit by team bus. The ownership bought a DC-3 transport aircraft and named it "The Flying Duck". It had a Ducks logo and team colors. Cost caught up with the aircraft and it was sold, a minor league hockey team could not handle it.
· Salaries of the EHL were minimal, so many of the players had "outside jobs". A number of them worked at construction jobs, and others worked for United Exterminers, a pest control outfit owned partially by one of the players.
· The Ducks had a player named Sam Gregory. One night he got into a brawl and handed his false teeth to a fan in the first row. Gregory was banished from the game, and the fan went off with his teeth. Some years later, a hockey friend that was attending a party told me, and in a place of honor were Gregory’s false teeth!
· Aside from the previously mentioned Ed Giacomin and Gilles Villemure playing for the NY Rangers, a few of the other ducks made it to the NHL - but as coaches.
Don Perry coached the Los Angeles Kings
John Brophy coached the Toronto Maple Leafs
John Muckler coached the Edmonton Oilers (Stanley Cup), Buffalo Sabres, and NY Rangers.
Even Clinton's Pat Kelly coached the Colorado Rockies. He also was a founder of the current East Coast Hockey League.
The Ducks lasted through thick and thin but ceased operation with the 1972-73 season. My pals and I had season's tickets most of the time. The threat of the NY Islanders and the new World Hockey League was too much for them. But some remnants persisted.
The 1973-74 Season brought on the Long Island Cougars - a farm team of the WHA Chicago Cougars. Some of the Ducks found positions on the new squad. In their last season, 1974-75, John Brophy launched his full time coaching career with the Cougars in the new North American Hockey League (NAHL).
The Commack Arena organization spruced up the old rink, but no matter how much "class" they tried to institute, the ghosts of the EHL were ever present. The crowds were no better even with all the management's innovations. A season ticket holder's only "hospitality room" was opened, with unlimited drinks free to the season fans between periods. This developed into a contest to see how many drinks one could gulp down in 15 minutes - with the expected rowdy results during the following period.
The Cougars team faired no better than the Ducks. In fact there seemed to be an air of resentment - those old Ducks were loved. One nice thing they offered was fan appreciation trips on the bus with the team on road games.
My pal Gene and I went on one in 1975 to the fabled Clinton Comets arena in Clinton, NY and on to Syracuse to watch the Blazers game. This trip is a highlight in my memory bank. On the bus traveling along the New York Thruway, we chatted with players and fans alike. Across the aisle from me was the Cougars play-by-play radio announcer Eli Gold. He did some Duck games previously. We chatted and he was, as I recall, making an audiotape for practice. He said he wanted to become a big time sports announcer. (He eventually did reach that goal - as he now has his own TV program on TNN, and is an anchor NASCAR Winston Cup stockcar race announcer and commentator.)
We arrived at the Clinton arena, a barn-like structure with no heat and only folding chairs for the fans. The temperature was 14 degrees in the arena. Could this be where the "class" of the old EHL was housed, Pat Kelly and his boys? It sure was. Commack Arena seemed like Madison Square Garden in comparison.
After the game, we bussed on to a hotel in Syracuse and bedded down well after midnight. The players took off for their favorite haunts although they had a game that evening. In the morning we had breakfast in the hotel restaurant with coach John Brophy - the terror of the EHL! Off the ice, he is a real gentleman as we saw it.
That evening it was on to the Syracuse Was Memorial. When the Cougars arrived, they were not allowed in the locker room. The "guards" said they never heard of them (although they played there often before.) This was minor league harassment in full bloom. Eventually entry was allowed, and the game was started. After a few minutes of play, a fight erupted, and it spilled over to the stands. Some of the Cougars were 5 or 6 rows back fighting both fans and players. The NAHL and the EHL were no different, only the names were changed.
Toward the end of the 1974-75, and final season, the Cougars were playing the Johnstown Jets at Commack. Three brothers played on the Jets - the Carlson brothers - #16, #17, & #18. We were in our usual season seats of Section 3, Row E, seats 1, 2, & 3, right behind the penalty box. A monster fight started right in front of us that involved the three Carlson brothers and the Cougars. (If one saw "Slapshot", the Carlson brothers actually had parts in the movie - only were named the "Hanson" brothers.) One of the Carlsons swung his stick into the stands nearly hitting a young boy sitting by the ice. I, being on the aisle seat, ran down and pulled the child away. An arena security guard grabbed me for getting involved in the fight with the players. My friends, whom I had gone to the games with for years, came to my rescue, and the fight grew in the stands to great proportions. We were "asked" to leave the arena, but were allowed back in our seats a few minutes later.
The season soon was over, and so was hockey at the Commack Arena.
The Final Buzzer
Years later, I happened to go to South Bay Electrical, a supply house that had a part I needed for a project. When I entered, I noticed large pictures of Duck players hanging on the walls. When a man asked me "can I help you", I immediately recognized the former ducks owner, Al Baron. My comments about the pictures led me to his office, and we had a nice chat for well over an hour all about the Ducks. He had uniforms, sticks, and all sorts of Ducks memorabilia in his office. What treasures I thought, but the chat with Baron was priceless to me.
The old EHL is long gone, the Commack Arena has been demolished - progress I guess. The Ducks and Cougars are only a memory now. But they were fun while they lasted.
But good things die hard, and the remnants hang on. The East Coast Hockey League is a first cousin to the old EHL, but it's run in a very professional manner. Beautiful facilities are offered, larger crowds attend, and with the ever expanding NHL and its appetite for new talent, more players have a chance at the NHL.
Just recently, now living in South Carolina, I was attending the Greenville Grrrowl vs the Hampton Roads Admirals game at the new 15,000-seat BI-LO Center in Greenville, SC. I was there with some dear friends and my son, who went to the Duck games as a small child. The Admirals coach was John Brophy, and when he came out and went behind the bench for the pre game skate, he was all alone. I took the opportunity to go to the bench and introduce myself, and we talked about the old Ducks for a few moments. His eyes seemed to brighten when he brought some memories to mind, and I know min did.
The Ducks may be a distant memory now, but WHAT a memory they are.