“Some of the fans who have just come on board in the last few years don’t realize what the history is here,” said Ken Reid, a defenseman on the Southern Hockey League’s Charlotte Checkers from 1973-75. “We have a lot of hockey history.”
Hockey’s origins in Charlotte have been documented over the last few years in conjunction with the current version of the team moving back into historic Bojangles’ Coliseum. As the story goes, a fire forced the Baltimore Clippers out of their home rink near the end of the 1955-56 season. The Clippers finished up their season in Charlotte and, after an impressive showing from local fans, decided to permanently move the team here.
“At the end of the year in Winnipeg, [then Checkers coach] Fred Creighton was there at a Rangers camp that I went to,” said Jim Lane, who manned the blue line for the Checkers in 1965-66. “He asked if I would want to come to Charlotte. I had another friend from home so we both came together. It was great. We knew it was warm here and there was no snow. So that was really the focus. We came in and it was real pretty and we could still play hockey. We thought that was great.”
“I was in Rochester’s camp and things didn’t work out there,” said Reid. “I had the choice to go to Johnstown or Charlotte and I figured I needed to get to the warmer weather, so I headed down here.”
Once those players made it down to Charlotte they were introduced to what is now known as Bojangles’ Coliseum. A marvel of the time, the building was a spectacle to the incoming Canadians.
“I had never been in a dome like that,” said Lane. “To go into a building that you were going to play in that didn’t have pillars inside the boards, it was different. It was a beautiful building.”
“It was pretty impressive,” said Reid. “Being a freestanding dome, most of the buildings we played in were older style. This was a big change from the rinks I grew up playing in.”
“You had your shoulder pads, which were just little caps on your shoulders that were tied to your suspenders,” said Lane. “As far as the rest of your body you had nothing. On your pants you had a little thing on the front of them but there wasn’t much padding on that. And then you had your shin pads. Your skates weighed as much as all of their equipment does now. They were leather with steel on the bottom. I go into the dressing room now and it looks like they’re going to war.”
As for the actual hockey, that era embraced the rough-around-the-edges nature of the sport.
“The fans would come to see a fight,” said Lane. “That’s what they were there for. The fans were looking for action. They wanted something to happen.”
“Sometimes the players went into the stands,” said Lane. “We would go into Greensboro’s stands and fight. Nashville would come into our stands and fight. People would throw something on you or spit on you, you’d go up into the stands after them. You didn’t think anything of it.
“One time when we were playing Clinton for the championship, there was a big fight. One of our guys chased one of their guys off the ice and into the dressing room. He chased him all the way there. You wouldn’t see that today. It was funny. I’m not going to mention names because some of them are still around here.”
Those tussles weren’t just reserved for the players and fans.
“I remember one game when we were on the road, towards the end of the game things got kind of out of hand,” said Reid. “[former Checkers coach Pat Kelly] and another character, John Brophy, they had a little altercation on the bench. It looked like the WWF.”
Despite not being the quintessential hotbed for hockey, Charlotte built some fierce rivalries around the region.
“Our rivalry was with Greensboro,” said Lane. “We would usually play here on Friday and then in Greensboro on Saturday. Anytime we played back-to-backs with them, you knew something was going to happen. A lot of Greensboro fans came down here and a lot of our fans would go up there. After the game, the teams would be buddies. You played junior with most of them, but when the puck dropped at 8:00, they had a different colored shirt on. It was an eye for an eye.”
With such strong geographical ties, the locals became enthralled with the Checkers.
“I guess not having anything other than maybe Double-A baseball, it was a new sensation and they latched onto it,” said Reid. “You had your hardcore fans. It was really nice for guys to come from Canada and be accepted like that.”
“Everything was by bus,” said Lane. “They had every other seat in there and in between there was a piece of plywood with a mattress on them. Two guys slept on each spot.
“One day we went from Charlotte to Jacksonville, Florida, and then from Jacksonville to Long Island, New York. We’d play nine games in nine nights. You just didn’t think anything of it. That’s just how it was. We just wanted to play.”
“We had a parade a couple of days later,” said Reid, a member of the ‘75 title-winning team. “We spent the night up in Hampton and came back the next day and we had quite a few fans in the parking lot. It was kind of a crazy ride home. We got a warm reception back home. It’s a memory that I’ll keep forever.”
Those original Checkers teams helped plant the seeds for what has become a town with strong hockey roots, from youth players to the pros.
“It’s evolved with the city,” said Reid. “They’ve embraced hockey.”
“Today I go to the games and I see a lot of the same fans that were there when we played,” said Lane. “They’re a little bit older, but they’re there.”
“I’m pleased to be honored,” said Lane. “It’s a big thing for me and it’s a big thing for the game. I’ve been here since 1965. I have eight or nine teammates who have all been here just as long. And they stayed here. All their wives are from here. The players were faithful to what went on here.”