The Story of Major League Hockey in Cherry Hill New Jersey
There was the chain-link fence instead of Plexiglas around the rink and the ice that one hockey immortal described as ``wavy.''
Yet to this day, one of the most vivid memories that Andre Lacroix has from the five months he spent playing professional hockey in Cherry Hill in the early 1970s is the locker rooms.
They weren't much bigger than walk-in closets, which made it impossible for players to dress at the same time. That's why it was common to see visiting teams trooping into Cherry Hill Arena already in uniform. ``You would see Bobby Hull or Gordie Howe coming in a school bus carrying their equipment just like school kids,'' Lacroix said, laughing.
Twenty-five years ago, those scenes played out in Cherry Hill, when the township, tiny by pro-sports standards, became the home of a professional hockey franchise for five months. The World Hockey Association - an upstart league that gave Wayne Gretzky his start and rivaled the NHL - moved the bankrupt New York Golden Blades from Madison Square Garden to the Cherry Hill Arena, which had been built as a recreational skating facility.
Major-league hockey in Cherry Hill?
That depends on whom you ask.
Seeing players such as Howe and Hull in Cherry Hill Arena, said former Flyers broadcaster and Cherry Hill resident Gene Hart, ``would be like seeing Bruce Springsteen working in the local bar in Pleasantville, N.J., with eight drunks.'' On the other hand, the Jersey Knights gave area hockey fans a chance to see some of the game's biggest names at reasonable prices. The money that fans plunked down for tickets back then would likely get them only a couple of hot dogs and sodas at today's sporting events.
Because Cherry Hill Arena seated fewer than 6,000 people, fans also got an intimacy that few of the bigger arenas provided. ``It was affordable and a good way to see pro hockey,'' said Jim Bottini, a 1976 graduate of Cherry Hill East, adding that he and his friends went to six or eight Knights games during the 1973-74 season. ``There really wasn't a bad seat in the house, no, because you could see everything.''
The quaint setting in the barnlike structure may have appealed to fans, but the arena, which has long since been torn down, certainly did not endear itself to the players. To many of them, it was about as charming as the receiving end of a cross-check. ``No doubt, the conditions I played in in Cherry Hill were the worst I ever played in, by far,'' said Lacroix, who scored a team-high 111 points for the Blades/Knights in '73-74 and twice led the WHA in scoring. ``You almost had to jump over the red line because there was such a dip there. It was basically dangerous to be out there.''
Howe, the Hall of Famer who spent 26 years in the NHL and six in the WHA, remembers the thin ice sometimes breaking up behind a player as he skated away. Howe said the ice was pockmarked, giving it a wavy quality that left goaltenders understandably jumpy. ``For goaltenders, anything shot on net was potentially dangerous,'' said Howe, who played in the Cherry Hill Arena as a member of the Houston Aeros. ``It wasn't much of a rink, to be honest with you.''
Or much of a franchise, said Hart, the radio voice of the Flyers from 1967 through 1995. ``Of all the teams the WHA had, they were all run with varying degrees of credibility,'' Hart said. ``But the Jersey Knights were the one ragtag embarrassment.'' Hart, who lives less than five minutes from where the arena stood on Brace Road, said he went to about six games that season out of curiosity. He recalled one game in which the Quebec Nordiques visited.
The Nordiques' bus had broken down before the game, and the team showed up at the arena in school buses. For at least one Nordique, the exasperation was just beginning. During the game, the Nordiques experienced the inconsistencies of the ice and playing in a rink where a chain-link fence - not the traditional Plexiglas - stopped pucks from flying into the stands. Afterward, Hart popped his head in the Nordiques' bus because he wanted to say hello to John Guy, who had earlier played for the Flyers. ``Gene,'' Hart recalled Guy saying, imitating Guy's thick French accent, ``I been in these games 30 years. This league take the cake.''
Then again, such reactions should have been predictable. The players who had been lured from the NHL - Hull was signed away by the Winnipeg Jets for a then-unheard-of $1 million contract in 1972 - were accustomed to playing in big rinks in big cities, not a suburban rink that had housed two minor-league franchises (the Jersey Larks and Jersey Devils, both of the Eastern Hockey League).
The Cherry Hill Arena was built as a recreational facility in 1959. (Its original name was The Ice House.) That leads to the obvious question of how a purported major-league hockey team from the Big Apple ended up in Cherry Hill. When the Blades' owners defaulted on rent payments to Madison Square Garden and couldn't pay the salaries of their players, the league took over day-to-day operations and assumed all debts of the team.
Intent on preserving stability in a league that was less than two years old, officials looked - advertised, actually - for a place where they could plunk down the Blades for the rest of the season. And fast. Enter Jack Maxwell. The promoter, who was born in Collingswood and still lives there, had dreamed of bringing professional hockey to South Jersey. That quest, he said, led him to secure financing for a state-of-the-art, 18,000-seat arena to be built off Route 38 in Mount Laurel that would eventually house a WHA or NHL franchise.
When the Blades became available, Maxwell saw it as a chance to audition for a major franchise. He knew that the Cherry Hill Arena was not equipped to house a major team permanently, but he hoped that enthusiasm in South Jersey would persuade officials in the WHA or NHL to award him a franchise when the new arena was built. So Maxwell answered an ad for the Blades that he saw in a newspaper. WHA officials ``didn't care where it was,'' Maxwell said. ``They wanted anybody to take over and not disrupt the rest of the league's schedule. That's why we got it.''
While the WHA paid salaries and day-to-day expenses of the team, Maxwell said, the owners of the Cherry Hill Arena spent $200,000 to $300,000 getting the place ready for the renamed Jersey Knights in late November 1973. On Nov. 25 - six days after the move became official, Maxwell said - the hockey team formerly known as the New York Golden Blades skated to a 3-1 victory over the Nordiques in front of more than 4,000 fans.
The next four months were glorious for Maxwell, even if he remembers sleeping in his office at the arena on many nights. He said the Knights filled the arena every night, though the league reported the average attendance at 2,585 (Madison Square Garden and Cherry Hill Arena combined). There was an interaction between the players and fans that would be unheard of in today's sporting world, where it is not uncommon for multimillionaire athletes to travel with bodyguards.
After games, players and fans hoisted beers together at Kaminski's Ale House, a popular haunt on Brace Road right across from where the arena stood. ``Many a times we closed that place,'' Maxwell said. ``People got to know the players, would have them over to their house for dinner or the holidays.''
Ultimately, Cherry Hill turned out to be what many people expected when the Knights arrived: a pit stop. The Knights, who finished last in the Eastern Division with a 32-42-4 record, were bought by Baltimore businessman Joe Schwartz in January 1974 and didn't stick around long after their home finale - a 4-2 loss to the Cleveland Crusaders on April 16.
They moved to San Diego, eventually were bought by the Kroc family of McDonald's fame, and folded in 1977. (The WHA followed suit two years later, and four of its teams joined the NHL.) Maxwell had tried to keep the Knights from leaving by vowing that a WHA franchise would not be welcomed in the new arena if the Knights left Cherry Hill after the '73-74 season.
But the arena that Maxwell said he and his group were two days from breaking ground on in 1971 was never built. Officials from Moorestown, which was able to file an injunction against Maxwell's group because it was within 200 feet of the proposed arena ground, blocked his attempt to build the complex, which included a convention center, for years.
Maxwell said he had to take his case all the way to the state Supreme Court. By then, he said, he had lost the funding for the complex.
``[The Knights] would have stayed right here with us,'' Maxwell said. ``We were going to have super boxes there and everything else.'' In the end, big-time hockey in South Jersey was a five-month curiosity, a chance to see some of hockey's premier players. Or something out of the movie Slapshot.
``I missed it,'' said Bottini, who now runs Kaminski's along with his brother. ``It was affordable and a good way to see pro hockey if you couldn't get to Philly.''by Taboola
The Formation of the World Hockey Association
In 1972 the only real threat ever to the NHL's dominance of the hockey world began when Dennis Murphy and Gary Davidson formed the World Hockey Association. No strangers to starting rebel sports leagues, they were also behind the defunct by now American Basketball Association, and would later start up the United States Football League. Officially announced on June 10, 1971 in New York, the WHA's philosophy was relatively simple - establish themselves in cities shunned by the NHL (many Canadian), as well as set up base in North America's media centres, competing head-on with the competition.
On Nov 1, 1971, Murphy and Davidson announced the 10 charter cities would be Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, Dayton Ohio, Long Island NY, and St Paul Minnesota, with themselves owning a club in San Fransisco. Three weeks later, two more franchises were added to the roster, with the New England Whalers anchoring themselves in Boston and a team to travel the highway between Ottawa and Toronto. But before the first puck was dropped however, several shufflings occurred after the NHL announced it's own expansion to Long Island and Atlanta.
Disgruntled after learning they'd be sharing Nassau County Coliseum with the Islanders, the upstart Raiders moved upriver to Manhattan. Fearing the Southern United states couldn't support two teams in a new sport for the region, the Screaming Eagles were also on the fly, nesting in Philadelphia as the Blazers. Though they weren't in fear of competing with the NHL in that market, the owners of the Dayton Aeros weren't pleased with initial interest and they moved to Texas, another hockey-virgin state, making Houston their home. But feeling a presence in Ohio was integral to the survival of the league, the league herded up the Calgary Broncos and moved them to Cleveland, where they became the Crusaders. This forced Edmonton to share the Oilers (basically the evolution of the WHL's Edmonton Oil Kings) with Calgary under the monikor 'the Alberta Oilers'. And when the owners of the team proposed for Ontario couldn't come to an agreement with Harold Ballard to share Maple Leaf Gardens, the club was moved to Ottawa full time and named The Nationals. The obvious conflict of interest Davidson and Murphy were faced with by owning a club as well as the league prompted prompted them to sell the San Fransisco Seahawks to a group in Quebec. A deal with Le Colisee in Quebec City was reached and Les Nordiques (the Northerners) were born.
The league knew that in order to survive, they'd have to raid the NHL of some marquee players and held their initial draft in 1972. Each team was allowed to protect four players. Although a few young minor leaguers and Olympians who the owners were hoping to build the future around were on the list, mostly major stars from the NHL had their WHA rights reserved. Most aggressive in trying to lure NHL'ers over to the other side were the Chicago and Quebec camps. Their general philosophy was to get names already known and loved by Les Canadiens and Black Hawks fans. Jerry Korab, Stan Mikita and goalie Gary Smith were originally courted, but none jumped ship. Other names to initially be approached by the WHA included goalies Gerry Desjardins (also of the Hawks), Ken Dryden, Phil Myre, Doug Favell, Gilles Villemeure and Eddie Johnston, as well as Gilbert Perrault, Jacques Lemaire, Guy Lapointe, Brad Park, Peter Mahovlich, Steve Shutt and Bobby Clarke. Although most of those courted remained in the NHL, The Maple Leafs' Bernie Parent was first to cross the line, signing with Miami. But it was Bobby Hull's inking a deal what at the time was the most ever paid to a hockey player with Winnipeg that got the attention. Eager to have arguably the top player in the game in the new league, the $1 million signing bonus was chipped in by all teams as well as league officials. This opened the doors for several other 'names' jumping ship, including the Blazers who signed the Bruins' Derek Sanderson and the Flyers' Andre Lacroix & Bernie Parent. Cleveland signed Gerry Cheevers, Chicago came to terms with ex-Hawks Pat Stapleton and Ralph Backstrom, then with the New York Rangers. Quebec meanwhile employed the same tactic, signing several players in the Montreal lineup including Jean Claude Tremblay and Rejean Houle, as well as many in Les Canadiens' farm system.
Another key to presenting the new league as an 'alternative' was to use red and blue pucks. Naturally this added to the 'curiosity factor' the media was already feeding on. Although they'd lost a few key players, the NHL wasn't taking the new kids on the block too seriously ... in public. But placing teams in Long Isand and Atlanta to rival the WHA's plans in those markets told a different story. The key would be media coverage - and for the most part television coverage during the first year was rather indifferent. But as the league's inaugural season drew closer, areas too small by NHL standards such as Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg embraced the new league whole heartedly.