A diamond anniversary

Seventy-five years ago, Indianapolis had a new arena. And a new sport.

The Coliseum as it looked during its early days.

The Coliseum as it looked during its early days.

On November 10, 1939, the Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum — a building that cost $1 million to build and took 10 months to complete — threw open its doors. A capacity crowd jammed every corner of the building not just to see a new arena, but to see this unknown new game on ice called hockey.

The Detroit Red Wings had moved their primary affiliate in the International-American Hockey League (it would drop the “International” from its name the next year) to Indianapolis, and professional hockey was about to join the local sports scene.

The building was literally being finished on the day the Indianapolis Capitals, the IAHL expansion team, played their first game. Paint on the maroon wall surrounding the arena floor was still drying, sawdust from the construction slowed the ice surface a bit.

That night began a new era of the sport in Indianapolis. It’s taken us through seven leagues, nine different franchises, seven nicknames, nine championships and more than a dozen Hockey Hall of Famers including names like Gretzky, Messier, Sawchuk, Pronovost, Delvecchio, Lindsay, Abel and Hasek. It begat a tremendous history.

One of the ribbons that has tied all of those franchises together — that 1939 building that hosted the Capitals’ first game, and now, in a modernized form, hosts the ECHL’s Indy Fuel.

The first team was the Capitals. With only seven teams in the NHL — it would soon become six for a quarter-century — the IAHL was practically big-league. And they provided a great foundation for the sport.

The Coliseum went up in the span of 10 months, at a cost of $1 million. Fans got into the general admission seats for 75 and 40 cents. There was still a little bit of sawdust around the sparkling new place, which was built on the site of the old 1909-era Fairgrounds Coliseum with a hand from FDR’s New Deal programs.

It was the brainchild of Arthur Wirtz. He used his business acumen to get the Capitals into the IAHL. Indianapolis was a bit far-flung in a league with teams from places like Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Hershey and Cleveland. A promoter, he controlled the appearances of popular figure skater Sonja Henie, and promised the building owners of the IAHL that Henie would be more likely to make appearances in their buildings if they granted Indianapolis a team in the league. Wirtz was one of the owners of the Detroit Red Wings, and their top farm team was shifted from Pittsburgh to Indianapolis. In 1946, Wirtz would become part of a group that purchased the Chicago Blackhawks, a team currently owned by his grandson Rocky, and who has an affiliation with the newest tenant of “his” arena, the ECHL Indy Fuel.

On November 10, 1939, hockey and the Coliseum were both new to the city.

The citizenry turned out in huge numbers, as 9,193 folks crammed themselves into every nook and cranny of the sparkling new building.

Anticipating the sellout crowd, the Coliseum folks constructed over 1,000 temporary box seats at rinkside for the city’s elite. Think of it as an early form of luxury suites.

Venerable Indianapolis News columnist William Fox anticipated the coming of hockey this way: “The Hoosier sport and show-loving public will have a tremendous respite from the siege of basketball, which has in the past been the state’s leading tantrum producer.”

But on to the game. The Capitals beat the Syracuse Stars 5-1, with Syracuse notching its only tally with 30 seconds left. Don Deacon scored the first goal in the building’s history. Jimmy Franks came very close to inaugurating the building with a shutout.

Here’s how the local writers saw it:

William Fox, Indianapolis News: “Indianapolis, well, 9,193 of us, took to ice hockey last night like father to Junior’s first electric train. And Herbie Lewis and his youthful and very offensive collection of young men on steel oustaked their Syracuse opposition through three periods and missed a shutout by the narrow margin of thirty seconds …

“M. Clifford Townsend, Governor of Indiana, told the gay gathering they were “seeing a dream come true.” … Everything went off in grand style and out in the foyers between the periods all comment indicated that the town was having the time of its young and old life.”

Blaine Patton, Indianapolis Star: “An important factor in the splendid defensive play of the Indianapolis team was Jimmy Franks, who made some beautiful saves in front of the net he was defending as goalie … The initial tally which brought the great crpwd to its feet came after 9 minutes and 35 seconds in the first period. It was a brillant pass from (Eddie) Bush to (Don) Deacon which produced the score. It was an especially rough 20 minutes of skating during which Hudson of the Capitals and Coulsen of Syracuse substituted fists for hockey sticks and were given major penalties …”

Things would continue.

The Capitals won their second home game, too, beating the Philadelphia Ramblers 2-0, in front of a crowd of 6053.

According to Tom Ochiltree of the Indianapolis Times, the Caps “worked free for a lot more clear shots than the score would indicate.”

He also had some interesting observations to the coming of hockey to Indianapolis:

“… Ronald Hudson and Connie Brown, two quite lads who read books when they aren’t employing themselves as human projectiles in the interest of the Indianapolis Capitals. For it was their purposeful dives into a wilderness of meat, pads, sticks and ice spray which enabled the Capitals to defeat a conscientious Philadelphia hockey team …

“Like all the hockey players you will see here this season, Hudson and Brown have been skating since the days when they were too young to get in the Boy Scouts.

“On the whole, though, hockey officials seem pretty lenient. At least, none of them out here yet have gotten their police whistles caught between their teeth.”

An interesting side-note of the second game was the awarding of the first penalty shot in Indianapolis history. Capital defenseman Alvin Jones hid the puck under his body in front of the net. Jimmy Franks stopped the shot.

Much has changed since that first game. The IAHL became the American Hockey League a year later, and continues as the nation’s oldest minor professional hockey league. The Capitals went on to win two Calder Cup championships, in 1942 and 1950, before folding in 1952.

Indianapolis has since had teams in the International Hockey League (in two different eras), two different versions of the Central Hockey League and spent four and a half years in the big leagues with the World Hockey Association, as well as the junior United States Hockey League, and now the ECHL. None of those leagues even existed in 1939.

The NHL contracted from 10 to six teams by the end of WWII, and then expanded to the present-day 30 in the last 35 years of the 20th Century. Hockey is a much faster game now, but Lewis and several who remembered the Capitals have said the quality was equal to, if not better than, that produced by the Indianapolis Racers and the major-league WHA in the 1970s.

Eight of Indianapolis’ nine championship hockey teams called the Coliseum home – the 1942 and 1950 Capitals, the 1958 Chiefs, the 1982 and 1983 Checkers, the 1990 IHL Ice, the 2000 CHL Ice and the 2009 USHL Ice. The ninth champ, the 2014 USHL Ice, split its time between Pan Am Pavilion and Bankers Life Fieldhouse – a building that is a direct successor of the Coliseum as the home of the Indiana Pacers. All three of the Pacers’ ABA title teams also called the Coliseum home, as the team played there from 1967-74.

The Coliseum underwent some minor changes in its first seven decades. Once, it had open windows surrounding the building. Many of those windows were painted over, but were uncovered in the recent renovation. It opened with wooden seats, colored orange, red and gold. Many remained until 1998, when they were replaced in two waves. Today, one section of original seats remains in the corner of the arena, as a nod to the building’s history. The outer wall surrounding the rink was once painted maroon, much to the chagrin of Caps coach Herb Lewis, who felt it was too difficult for goaltenders to see the puck. But the designer of the Coliseum, an artsy man, would have none of it. Sometime between then and the 1960s, it was painted white, the color Lewis wanted it to be. When it was built, the building had an overhead scoreboard with a manual clock. They were replaced sometime in the 1960s with scoreboards on the sides, two generations of which lasted until 2012. The rink size was a huge 210×90 feet – harkening back to an era when rink sizes were contorted to fit the building. In the recent renovation, it was resized to the NHL-standard 200×85.

In 2012, the Coliseum was closed for two years for a full renovation — the entire interior was rebuilt and the arena became a new, modern arena inside the building’s historic shell, which opened in 2014. It also welcomed the Indy Fuel, a new professional hockey tenant, to celebrate the diamond anniversary of the building and the sport.