History Lesson: The Eastern Hockey League (1933-1973)
The Eastern Hockey League ran from 1933-1973 (excluding an odd restart from 1978-81) and is a true classic when it comes to hockey in the United States. The league was also the inspiration to start VIH.
Over the summer, I was searching for a New York Rovers shirt, and Google searches came up with exactly nothing. Google has everything, but somehow couldn't show me any Rovers t-shirts. I couldn't believe that a classic New York hockey team that existed for a few decades in the biggest city in the United States was completely unrepresented. Granted, they hadn't taken the ice since the 1960s, but in an age where everything exists online, it was surprising. And so pulled out Adobe Illustrator, designed a Rovers logo, and VIH was born.
The Eastern Hockey League was stewarded by Tom Lockhart from its start in 1933 until the year prior to its demise in 1972. Lockhart, currently in the HHOF for his work with the EHL as well as being the creator of USA Hockey, helped create the league in 1933 from the Tri-State Hockey League. The league rebranded as the Eastern Amateur Hockey League and elected Lockhart President in 1933. Lockhart was also in charge of the Rovers franchise, and would wear dual hats of League President and Team President throughout the years.
The EHL would start with seven teams for the 1933-34 season, many of them localized in the New York City and Mid-Atlantic region (Atlantic City Sea Gulls, Baltimore Orioles, Hershey Chocolate B'ars, Bronx Tigers, Crescent Hamilton Athletic Club, New York Athletic Club, St. Nicholas Hockey Club). Out of the original teams, most didn't last very long. However, the Hershey franchise still exists in spirit today as the Hershey Bears of the AHL.
Over the years the league saw many one-and-done teams, as teams were either placed in markets that didn't work, teams tried to move in from a different league and didn't find success, or teams were poorly implemented with insufficient funding or arenas. In some ways, it's all the pitfalls that minor league hockey teams might face today. Some of these teams still left some awesome logos though, like the Troy Uncle Sam's Trojans, the Toledo Buckeyes, the Johnstown Blue Birds, and the Milwaukee Clarks.
Meanwhile, many other teams had staying power and made an indelible mark on their local communities. And one of the most interesting things that each of these teams have in common is that they called smaller locales home, unlike maybe of the big and medium sized cities that most teams call home today.
- Clinton Comets - The Clinton Comets grew up in probably the smallest locale on this list but raised a classic hockey team. The small town of Clinton, NY (pop 1,942 in the 2010 census) built the Clinton Arena in 1948. The arena burned down shortly thereafter in 1953, but the town was determined. They rebuilt the arena in 1954, and entered the Comets in the EHL. The Comets would play there until 1973 and win five league titles in that time. The arena still hosts hockey today and hosted an NHL pre-season game in 2018 as the town was named Kraft Hockeyville USA, which provided money to refurbish and upgrade the arena. It is currently on the National Register of Historic Places. The legacy of the Comets lives on not only in Clinton but also in the nearby city of Utica with the AHL's Comets.
- Johnstown Jets - The City of Johnstown is bigger than Clinton -- 21,000 in 2010 -- but is still small on the overall spectrum. If the name sounds familiar, that's because the city was the backdrop for the legendary hockey film Slapshot. The Jets were another passionately supported team in small town America. Like the Comets, they won five league titles between 1950-1973. The Jets would continue play after the EHL folded by joining the NAHL from 1973-1977 but would fold following that league's collapse. The Cambria County War Memorial Arena that once hosted the Jets still hosts hockey today with the junior-level NAHL's Johnstown Tomahawks.
- Long Island Ducks - One of the most rough-and-tumble teams of the old EHL was the Ducks, who occupied Long Island Arena in Commack, NY. Their fans were notoriously passionate and would express that passion in many ways, from cheering their team, to jeering and showering opposing teams and referees with more than boos. A lot of that may have come from the team on the ice, which was led many years by John Brophy, a legendary minor-league tough guy (who would later go on to coach the Toronto Maple Leafs). The Ducks started in the EHL as a reincarnated version of the New York Rovers for the 1959-60 season, and would change to the Ducks in 1961 as an homage to Long Island's many duck farms, which existed at that time. The Ducks would win make it to back-to-back EHL Finals in 1965 and 1966, winning the first. The team would continue on until 1973, when the NHL's establishment of the New York Islanders in nearby Uniondale drained the Ducks' attendance and finances.
- Nashville Dixie Flyers - The first team in Music City is the biggest team on this list but was nonetheless one of the most important and successful in the south. The Dixie Flyers started play in the EHL in 1962 and lasted about a decade through 1971. They won two straight league titles in 1966 and 1967 being only the second southern EHL franchise to win a title after Greensboro. The Dixie Flyers still exist in some form today, as their yellow and purple colors were clearly an influence on the NHL's Nashville franchise.
Over the years, these teams and more made an impression on their local communities in ways many minor league teams cannot today. EHL teams didn't always have a direct relationship with high minor league or pro teams, in the way that teams have pro affiliations today. In many ways, the players were members of the local community and you might see them around town at a supermarket or restaurant. Probably adding to that was the fact that many of these teams were based in smaller towns and cities outside of what are traditional hockey markets today.
The league was also on the train of expanding to non-traditional hockey markets many years before the NHL started down a similar path. The first pro hockey team in Tennesse was the EHL's Knoxville Knights. The Jacksonville Rockets (aka Florida Rockets) were the first team in the state of Florida, and later expanded into the St. Petersburg area with the Suncoast Suns.
As the years went on, the EHL became known as one of the roughest of the minor leagues and probably the roughest in the United States. The league and it's players inspired Slapshot, including John Brophy who is widely believed to the be basis for Reg Dunlop, the character portrayed by Paul Newman in the film. Syracuse Blazers tough guy Bill Goldthorpe is also the inspiration for the film's monster tough guy Ogie Ogilthorpe. The film was shot in a a couple of EHL barns including in Johnstown and Syracuse, with many of the films non-hockey shots taking place in Johnstown. It's not an unrealistic representation of what EHL (and NAHL) hockey was like in the 1970s. Not much actual EHL film exists today, but this home video from a Dixie Flyers vs. Ducks EHL Finals game can give you an idea of what it looked like.
The league would fold in 1973, when the southern teams broke off and formed their own league, the Southern Hockey League because of the costs incurred for travel and other disagreements over roster sizes. The northern teams would rearrange themselves by created the North American Hockey League. Both of those leagues would only last until 1977 as the unyielding expansion of the WHA an NHL took it's toll exacerbating the usual uncertainties that are involved with minor league teams.
For more on the EHL check out the extensive archive created at TheEHL.com or join the Facebook group, where the league still lives on today.
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