Our 75 years of Indianapolis Hockey History series continues with a look at the Indianapolis Racers All-Time Team.
In 1973, Indianapolis had not had any form of professional hockey in a decade, but the popularity of the ABA’s Pacers had made Indy a major-league city. The pressure of the ABA and the westward movement of the population had forced the existing leagues to expand beyond their existing corridors in the northeast and legacy cities in the Upper Midwest, and “Naptown” was a perfect fit. With the established leagues skipping over Indy in their expansions, new “rival” circuits like the ABA didn’t. When Gary Davidson and Dennis Murphy, the fathers of the ABA, began to move into hockey, Indianapolis became a perfect fit. All we needed was the ideal building for the World Hockey Association, and the soon-to-be built Market Square Arena provided it. Not only would hockey return to Indianapolis, it would do so in major-league form.
There was a brief flirtation with the NHL prior to the arrival of the Racers, as Charlie Finley looked to moving his California Golden Seals several different places — to Vancouver, to Indy (they eventually settled on Cleveland, but the franchise lasted only two years there) — but any attempt at moving the fledgling team out of the Bay Area was stalled by lawsuits. Enter the World Hockey Association, which gave a franchise to Indianapolis in 1973. A year later, it took the ice and made Indy a major-league hockey town. In many ways, the coming of the Racers is the coming of the modern era of hockey in Indianapolis, just like the coming of the ABA and WHA marked a change in major-league sports (just like the AFL in the 1960s) — forcing existing leagues to break out of their old, Northeastern cores and find prosperous new markets.
The Racers lasted four and a half years. They started slowly in 1974, like a typical expansion team, with a last-place squad and a revolving door of players. They ended with a cloud of anger and legal controversy, as owner Nelson Skalbania folded the team mid-season in 1978-79, claiming heavy financial losses. In-between, they gave us three Hall of Famers — Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier at the beginning of their careers (although Messier would never actually play a home game in Indy), and Dave Keon near the end of his. They gave us the last unmasked goaltender in Andy Brown. And they ushered in a group of heroes who are still familiar to Indy hockey fans today — Whitey, Kenny, Big Mac, Reggie, Andy and, for a very brief moment, “The Great One.” The Racers’ heyday was a two-year span from 1975-77, where they won a division title in 1976, and then swept a playoff series against the hated rival Cincinnati Stingers the following year, before falling to the Quebec Nordiques in the semifinal round. In 1976-77, the Racers captivated the city and led the WHA in attendance. While the Racers didn’t make the merger, four WHA franchises still exist, with one — the Edmonton Oilers — still in their original city. Former WHA teams have won eight Stanley Cups between them since 1985. The Racers era is also considered to be the start of the modern era of hockey in Indianapolis. Since 1974, hockey has been a fixture in Indianapolis — the city has had either a professional or Junior A team represent the city every season but one.
Let’s look back at a Racers All-Time Team. Note, this only includes play while wearing a Racers uniform, so it will not include players like Gretzky or Messier, who played a combined 13 games as members of the Racers and went on to fame elsewhere.
Rene LeClerc: The midseason acquisition of LeClerc in 1975-76 was a big push to putting the Racers over the top in both the playoff and WHA East Division title races. LeClerc had 18 goals and 21 assists that season as the Racers transformed themselves from a last-place team to a division champion. He remained in Indianapolis for the remainder of the Racers’ days, following with a 25-goal season in 1976-77. In all, his 60 goals and 133 points are the second-most in Racers franchise history. Rene was a skilled offensive scorer.
Hugh Harris: Another midseason acquisition in 1975-76, Harris was a solid two-way player who scored at a point-a-game clip after joining the Racers, with 40 points in 41 games. Harris also had seven points in the epic seven-game series against the New England Whalers in the 1976 playoffs. The following year, “Hughie” had 21 goals and 56 points in just 46 games. When he left the Racers partway through the 1977-78 season, he had 104 points in 106 games. He was a major playmaker and a big reason for the Racers’ success in their two playoff years.
Reg Thomas: His 208 games as a Racers were the second-most in team history, but Reggie was a popular scorer who played for the Racers from 1975 through the midpoint of the 1977-78 season. In 1975-76, his 23 goals led the team. He had an incredible playoff in 1977, with 16 points in the nine games, following a 25-goal season in 1976-77. As a Racer, he had 63 goals (most in franchise history), 63 assists (eighth-most) and 126 points (fourth-most). Thomas later returned to Indy as the head coach of the Indianapolis Ice at the end of the 1988-89 season. He had 130 goals in 467 major pro games in the WHA and NHL from 1973-80.
Darryl Maggs: Maggs gave the Racers an offensive dimension from the blueline, while also giving them some toughness. In 1976-77, he led the playoff-bound Racers in scoring, with 71 points in 81 games. A big reason why was his passing from the blueline, as he had 55 assists. The right-shot defenseman joined the team in the 1976 playoff push after a trade from the Denver Spurs. He contributed 21 points in that season, and also played for the Racers in 1977-78. Maggs’ 86 assists were third-most among Racers players, and his 113 points were eighth-most. In 1977, Maggs became the only Racer to be named a WHA First Team All-Star.
Pat Stapleton: Arguably the most popular and recognizable Racer, “Whitey” was the consummate leader of the team. He was a WHA Second Team All-Star in 1976 — and was the team’s leading scorer with 45 points that season — and was a steady defenseman and a rock on the Racers’ blueline from 1975-77. He returned in 1978 to coach the team, and therefore became Wayne Gretzky’s first professional coach. Stapleton’s two years of playing for the Racers were the team’s two playoff years — in 161 games, he had 13 goals and 85 assists. He also had a big playoff in 1977, with nine points in nine games.
Michel Dion: Goaltenders came and went in the red, white and blue — with 74 games, Dion played the second-most (to Andy Brown) among Racers goaltenders. His best year came in 1975-76, when he went 14-15-1 with a 2.74 GAA and a .910 save percentage — very solid numbers in the offense-heavy WHA. His overall Racers record was 31-35-4 with a 3.09 GAA from the 1974-75 season (when he played one game) through 1977. He also started seven playoff games for the Racers. Dion continued to have a productive WHA and NHL career through 1985.
Jacques Demers: Demers became coach early in the 1975-76 season, when the first coach in Racers history — Gerry Moore — was fired after a loss. He led the Racers to the franchise’s two best seasons, winning a division title in 1975-76 and a playoff series the following year. He followed much of the team in jumping to the Cincinnati Stingers in 1977, and would continue to have success — winning the NHL’s Jack Adams Award as top coach twice, and later, winning the Stanley Cup in 1993. He later became a member of the Canadian Parliament.
Blair McDonald: Blair found his stride in 1976-77. He had 34 goals to lead the team that season, and also had a phenomenal playoff with 15 points in nine postsesaon games. The winger had two very strong seasons with the team, and was a key part of both playoff runs. He had 53 goals and 41 assists in 137 games. He went from the Racers to Edmonton, and continued to put up big years, including a 94-point season as Wayne Gretzky’s right wing in 1979-80, the year after the NHL/WHA merger. He was a veteran of 695 NHL/WHA games, with 262 goals and 265 assists. After leaving the Racers, he was a WHA Second Team All-Star in 1979 playing alongside Gretzky in Edmonton.
Claude St. Sauveur: St. Sauveur only played one full season as a Racer, in 1977-78, but had the best offensive season in franchise history. He tallied 36 goals and 42 assists, leading the team in all three scoring categories and setting the franchise record for goals and points in a season. He played 17 games the following year, and had four goals and two assists, giving him 40 goals, 44 assists and 84 points in 89 games as a Racer. He joined the Cincinnati Stingers after the Racers folded, but did not stick in the NHL after the 1979 merger.
Bob Sicinski: “Sinker” was an original Racer who joined the team in 1974, and played through the two playoff years. He was a strong playmaker and setup man who didn’t put up huge goal totals, but was among the team leader in assists all three years. In 1974-75, he had 19 goals and 53 points. He led the team in assists and was second to Bob Whitlock in points that season. His 43 points were third-most on the 1975-76 team — bolstered by 34 assists. He also played through 1977. He had 40 goals and 92 assists in 207 games as a Racer. He is the team’s all-time leader in assists, and is third in games and points.
Ken Block: Described as a consummate professional, Block was the ultimate defensive defenseman. He joined the Racers midway through the 1974-75 season in a trade with the San Diego Mariners and never left, playing all the way through the end of the team in December 1978. Block played a franchise-record 267 games. He scored seven goals and had 80 assists in those games, and was a constant presence in the back end for the Racers.
Bryon Baltimore: Another longtime Racer, Baltimore suited up in the red, white and blue 116 times. He had three goals and 33 assists, but was a key in the 1976 playoff push, when he was a plus-8 and had 11 points in 37 games. He had 15 assists the following year, and played briefly in the 1977-78 and 1978-79 seasons for the Racers. He joined the team in the same trade that brought Darryl Maggs to the team in 1975-76.
Jim Park: There are a lot of players who could be here – Ed Mio, Leif Holmquist, Paul Hoganson and Andy Brown all had solid runs with the Racers, but Park was solid in his time with the team. He joined it late in the 1975-76 season and was 6-4-0 as the Racers made a push for the playoffs. He was 14-12-4 in the following year, making 31 starts. His 23-23-4 regular-season record is the best winning percentage for Racers goaltenders. He had a 3.70 career GAA, but was stellar in 1976 (6-4-0, 2.41 GAA, .923 save percentage). He also had a playoff shutout for the Racers.
Forwards: Brian “Big Mac” MacDonald, Bob Whitlock, Kevin Morrison, Gene Peacosh
Defensemen: Dick Proceviat
Goaltender: Andy Brown, Leif Holmquist, Paul Hoganson
All-“Made our name elsewhere” team
Wayne Gretzky: Simply the most prolific scorer in pro hockey history. Gretzky has an entire wing devoted to him at the Hockey Hall of Fame. His 21-year pro career began as a teenager playing for the Racers in 1978. He played eight games for the team, scoring three goals and three assists before Nelson Skalbania sold him to the Edmonton Oilers, with whom he would follow through the NHL/WHA merger and win four Stanley Cups. He played 1,563 NHL/WHA games, with 940 goals and 2,027 assists. His 2,967 points, along with his goal and assists totals, are North American pro hockey records. Although he was here only a brief time, Indy remains very proud to be the first pro hockey home of “The Great One.”
Mark Messier: Played five games for the team on an amateur tryout after the Gretzky deal, becoming the second Hall of Famer to make his debut with the short-lived 1978 Racers. Messier won six Stanley Cups with the Oilers and Rangers during his 26-year professional career. He was the last active Racer, and last active WHA player. He played 1,808 professional games, with 695 goals and 1,203 assists over a career that took him to the Cincinnati Stingers, Edmonton Oilers, New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks through 2004.
Dave Keon: Keon came to the Racers in the latter stages of his 22-year NHL/WHA career. He was a stalwart on the Maple Leafs’ 1960 dynasty, and came to the Racers when the Minnesota Fighting Saints folded late in the 1975-76 season. He had 10 points in 12 games as the Racers made a playoff push, and also had four points in seven postseason contests. Keon went back to Minnesota to play for a new Fighting Saints franchise the following year, and closed out his career playing six seasons for the Whalers before retiring in 1982. He had 498 goals and 779 assists in 1,597 NHL/WHA games.
Gilles Marotte: Played for the Racers at the end of his 13-year NHL/WHA career, coming from Cincinnati and playing 44 games in 1977-78. Marotte had 15 points in 44 games for the Racers. He played 881 games for the Bruins, Blackhawks, Kings, Rangers, Blues, Stingers and Racers and was a solid defenseman in the 1960s and 1970s.
Ed Mio: Another player who began his career with the Racers, he played 22 games for the team in its final two seasons. He had a 4.04 GAA and went on to be a solid goaltender for the Oilers, Rangers and Red Wings through 1986.