Earlier this week, Bryan Trottier noted that former Islanders coach Al Arbour was suffering from dementia.
Arbour is 81, played nearly 900 NHL games, and coached one of the NHL’s last great dynasties — the early 1980s New York Islanders.
For hockey fans under 40, it’s hard to think of the Islanders as being the team in the NHL, or even a marginally relevant one nationally. On the ice, their biggest highlight of the last quarter-century happened more than two decades ago — ending the Penguins’ mini-dynasty in the 1993 playoffs, despite being without top scorer Pierre Turgeon.
But, for their first decade of existence, the Islanders were one of the premier franchises in hockey — building a contender around Denis Potvin, Trottier, Mike Bossy and Billy Smith. They finally scaled the mountain in 1980 and won their first Stanley Cup. They’d win four straight Cups from 1980-83, and play in five straight Stanley Cup Finals, before passing the torch to Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers in 1984.
What does this have to do with Indianapolis hockey?
Rewind to August 1, 1979 at Market Square Arena. Nine months earlier, the Indianapolis Racers abruptly announced they were closing up shop and left a pretty bitter pill for hockey fans in Indy. The Racers had been wildly popular and successful, but couldn’t survive a down economy, the exodus of players to Cincinnati and the wholesale changes that accompanied Nelson Skalbania’s ownership of the team. Racers fans — who filled the more seats than any other WHA team two years prior — suddenly found themselves without a team while four of their WHA brethren were absorbed into the NHL.
For any hockey team, that would be a tough act to follow.
But the New York Islanders decided to follow it. Just two months before opening night, they announced they were moving their top minor-league franchise into Indianapolis. The Checkers were born. At the introductory press conference, Isles president Bill Torrey waded into the decision to bring a team to Indianapolis amid the fallout from the Racers’ demise, and answered with a comment that has stuck with me for years.
“When hockey treats Indianapolis right, Indianapolis will treat hockey right.”
The Islanders held up their end of the bargain. For five years, the owned the Indianapolis Checkers. For five years, the Islanders iced competitive, exciting teams. In those five seasons, the Checkers had four winning years, won two championships, made a third surprise run to the league finals, won back many fans and created lots of new ones. They gave us a team with a core of outstanding players — Red Laurence, Neil Hawryliw, Kevin Devine, Steve Stoyanovich, Scott Howson, Darcy Regier, Bruce Affleck, Garth MacGuigan, Charlie Skjodt, Tim Lockridge, Rob Holland. The core of those teams stayed intact so long, it’s hard to list them all. They were the training ground for several future Isles — Greg Gilbert, Billy Carroll, Gord Dineen, Gerald Diduck, Roland Melanson and, of course, Kelly Hrudey. It’s amazing to look and see the names on that list who are still very involved in hockey today in high front-office levels.
The ties to the parent club were everywhere. The Checkers wore the same iconic orange-and-blue sweaters as the Islanders, only with the checkered flag across the front replacing the Islanders’ circular crest. But if one looked up in the stands, one was as likely to see an “NY” and the outline of Long Island on the front of jerseys being worn by fans.
If you’re under 40, you know Indy as a city whose hockey loyalties are largely split between the Blackhawks and Red Wings, where you might run into an occasional Blues or Blue Jackets fan, or even more rarely, a fan of another team.
But in the early 1980s, Indy was, in part, an Islanders town. One can still run into a few Isles fans who came of age in those days. In the 1980s, NHL hockey was beginning to find its way onto local TV sets thanks to cable. But that usually meant one game a week on USA Network, and one that nearly always involved a Patrick Division team — and nearly always involved the Islanders. So, it was much easier to follow the Isles than virtually any other team. And their roster always had a few players who we’d seen playing in front of our eyes, wearing nearly the same uniforms. And, when all eyes went onto the playoffs and the exposure went from weekly to nightly, there were the Islanders, winning playoff games, series and skating off with the Stanley Cup, year after year after year.
And, in quite a few Indianapolis homes, there were high-fives all around when the parent club would skate the Cup, and maybe a few tears shed when the “Drive for Five” was ended by the Edmonton Oilers in 1984 — as one dynasty gave way to another.
Seeing Al Arbour behind the bench for all of those championships, the steady, bespectacled calming hand who had his team a well-oiled machine, was a rite of winter and spring each year. And then, we’d head off to the Coliseum and watch the local team do the same thing.
During their five years as the owners — and primary parent club of the Checkers — the Islanders played in the Stanley Cup Final each year.
Eventually, the Central Hockey League closed shop in 1984 — the league’s final game after 21 years was held in the Carmel Ice Skadium, with the Adams Cup being handed to a homeless team that had been locked out of its rink in Tulsa earlier in the year, in a matchup of the Islanders’ and Rangers’ top affiliates. The Checkers transferred to the IHL for three years and were the secondary affiliate for several teams, primarily the Minnesota North Stars, while the Islanders transferred their primary affiliation to the AHL.
The memory of that era of the Checkers would survive in blips — Kelly Hrudey’s spectacular goaltending performance in the Easter Epic in 1987, won when former Checkers Gord Dineen and Ken Leiter assisted on Pat LaFontaine’s goal midway through the fourth overtime. There was Hrudey’s run to the Stanley Cup Final with the Kings six years later. The Checkers themselves would go under in 1987, but the team would be resurrected a year later as the IHL Indianapolis Ice, beginning a long, uninterrupted period of hockey in Indianapolis — three different franchises would claim the Ice name in three leagues and win four championships, and now the ECHL Indy Fuel are taking the mantel of the sport.
It was those days that made me a hockey fan. I relished going to the Coliseum to watch the guys in blue-and-orange sweaters in this fast game on ice as a seven-year-old. Regier and Hrudey and MacGuigan and Laurence and Affleck might as well have been Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy (I’d say Gretzky, but he played for the rival Oilers). And while I was in that stage of life where fandom is developing and not cemented — my rooting interests would end up with a team that plays a little bit northeast of Long Island — I was still following the Isles every step of their Cup runs and cheering for the players we’d seen wearing the same uniforms here.
The Checkers era is a long time ago. But it came at a pivotal moment in Indianapolis hockey. The New York Islanders came at a pivotal moment for us. They gave us a team in Indy we could be proud of. And they resurrected the game in this city. One need not look far to find similarly-sized cities where hockey hasn’t taken root at all, or went years without having any kind of hockey team stick.
That was the organization Al Arbour was a part of. It was the organization that created a positive foundation and brought championship hockey to Indianapolis.
That organization treated Indianapolis right. We’re going to keep treating hockey right.