Sunday, May 27, 2012
With today being the 96th running of the Indianapolis 500, we thought it would be an appropriate day to take a look at history of the Indianapolis Racers of the WHA.
Indianapolis went without a team for nine years following the demise of the Indianapolis Capitals of the Central Hockey League, who only played nine games of their inaugural season before a gas explosion during an ice show killed 74 people and heavily damaged their home, the Indiana State Fair Coliseum, causing their parent club, again the Detroit Red Wings, to move the franchise to Cincinnati for the remainder of the season.
Indianapolis went without hockey until the arrival of the first major league team in the city's history in the form of the Indianapolis Racers of the World Hockey Association in 1974-75. The Racers, the first team to embrace the racing heritage of the city, played their games in the brand new 16,000 seat Market Square Arena.
The Racers had quite a rough start, winning only 18 while losing 57 with 3 ties their first season to finish dead last in the then 14 team WHA. They were led in scoring by Bob Whitlock's 31 goals and 57 points. Their goaltending duo was the maskless Andy Brown (52 games) and Ed Dyck (32).
Andy Brown, the last goalie to play without a mask
They bounced back nicely in year two, now coached by eventual Stanley Cup winner Jacques Demers, winning their division, although with a sub-.500 record at 35-39-6. They had a balanced scoring group, with veteran Pat Stapleton's 45 points leading six players with 40 points or more. Rookie Michel Dion and Brown shared the bulk of the work in goal, with Dion's 14 wins leading the club and his 2.74 goals against average being the best in the league, which was recognized with the award as the league's best goaltender. In the playoffs, they drew the New England Whalers and fell behind 3 games to 1. They fought back to force a Game 7 only to fall absolutely flat in a 6-0 loss at home to end their season.
The WHA was down to 12 teams for 1976-77 and the Racers finished third in the Eastern Division with a 36-37-8 record and were led in scoring with 71 points by Darryl Maggs, who had joined the team the previous season when the Denver Spurs folded in the middle of the season. The Racers won their first playoff series with a sweep of the Cincinnati Stingers, outscoring them by a clear 19-9. Their reward was a matchup with the Quebec Nordiques, who were led by the league's leading scorer Real Cloutier (141 points) and 100 point scorers Marc Tardif (109)and Chris Bordeleau (107). The Nordiques proved too much for the Racers, eliminating Indianapolis in five games.
With new head coach Ron Ingram behind the bench, the wheels came off for the Racers. The league had shrunk to just eight teams and the Racers finished dead last with a 24-51-5 record, 20 points back of Cincinnati, the only other team to miss the playoffs. Newcomer Claude St. Sauveur was the scoring leader with 36 goals and 78 points, well ahead of the rest of the club while Gary Inness' 52 games were by far the most in goal, but resulted in just 14 wins.
Desperately trying to survive, owner Nelson Skalbania signed the then 17-year-old Wayne Gretzky to play for the Racers for the 1978-79 season, which saw the league start the season with just seven clubs. The arrangement would only last eight games before Skalbania sold Gretzky to Peter Pocklington who owned the Edmonton Oilers.
Wayne Gretzky during his time with the Racers
In addition to Gretzky, Mark Messier had a five game cameo with the Racers that same season, but gave little indication of the success they would share together as he was held pointless.
It was a death blow for the Racers, who lasted just 15 more games before folding after just 25 games and a dismal 5-18-2 record when Skalbania was informed that Indianapolis would not be included in any NHL expansion plans and pulled the plug on December 15, 1978 without the Racers ever posting a winning record in their four plus seasons.
Today's featured jersey is a 1977-78 Indianapolis Racers Rosaire Paiement jersey from the first Indianapolis team to embrace the heritage of the Indianapolis 500 in their identity package.
The Racers wore the same jerseys for each of their five seasons, the last two changing from two color names to one color names on the back and this jersey has the distinction of being Wayne Gretzky's first professional jersey.
Paiement came to the Racers in 1976-77, having previously played for the Whalers and Chicago Cougars in the WHA after leaving the NHL, where he had spent time with the Vancouver Canucks and Philadelphia Flyers. After his second season with Indianapolis in 1977-78, he retired from play after 645 combined games.
Today's video section begins with highlights of the Indianapolis Racers from 1974 to 1979.
Perhaps the most significant moment in Indianapolis hockey history, Wayne Gretzky's first professional goal as a member of the Racers.