Monday, April 11, 2011

April 2011 Hall of Honor: Arthur Wirtz

Without Arthur Wirtz, the Indianapolis hockey landscape would be completely different. There would be no Fairgrounds/Pepsi Coliseum. No longtime history. The first two decades of local hockey wouldn't have happened.

Wirtz, who owned the Chicago Stadium and was involved in Detroit Olympia and the Red Wings, saw a Midwestern market that would provide a close-by AHL affiliate for the Red Wings and a large city for popular figure skater Sonja Henie -- whom Wirtz managed -- to perform.

Wirtz spurred construction on the $1,000,000 Fairgrounds Coliseum, which began in January, 1939 and was completed in time for the first game less than 11 months later. Meanwhile, he pressured the International-American Hockey League's owners to expand their league westward into Indianapolis. The IAHL was based on the Eastern Seaboard, with its western termini at Cleveland and Pittsburgh and teams spread throughout New York, Pennsylvania and New England. Many of the team owners also had control of their buildings at the time. Fear of losing Henie's Ice Revues -- and the buckets of dollars they brought to every building -- forced the IAHL's owners to admit Indianapolis as a franchise.

Ten months after construction began on the Coliseum, the finishing touches were being put on Indianapolis' first ice rink, and the Indianapolis Capitals took the ice for their first home game on Nov. 10. In front of 9,193 fans, the Caps beat the Syracuse Stars 5-1, with Don Deacon scoring the first goal.

Wirtz held controlling interest in the Capitals throughout their 13-year tenure, which ended in 1952 under allegations from the Indiana State Fair Board that Wirtz and the Capitals were delinquent in rent payments. A flurry of lawsuits and countersuits were filed, and the Capitals -- fresh off their worst season ever -- folded.

Wirtz went into other interests -- purchasing the Chicago Blackhawks outright with James D. Norris in 1954 (he had interests in the team dating back to 1933), as well as owning the St. Louis Arena -- after the Capitals' disappearance. He also continued to manage figure skaters and put on their programs.

But his presence would be felt in Indianapolis later on. In 1963, the Indianapolis Capitols were a first-year team in the new Central Professional Hockey League. The Wirtz-owned St. Louis Braves -- an affiliate of the Blackhawks -- were scheduled to come to the Coliseum on Oct. 12, 1963. Because of the outstanding litigation, the Braves refused to come into Indiana, fearing their equipment would be seized. The Capitols were awarded a 1-0 forfeit win, which would be the only victory in the short-lived franchise's history. Two weeks later, litigation had proceeded to the point where the Braves played their next scheduled game in Indianapolis, a 2-2 tie. Ironically, Wirtz's Braves would be the last hockey team to play in the arena whose building he spearheaded for nearly two decades. Five days after that game, an explosion at the Coliseum would claim many lives and force the Capitols to move to Cincinnati.

Wirtz's barn would become the home of the Indiana Pacers in 1967, and hockey would return in 1981, when the Indianapolis Checkers announced a move there. During the 1980s, the CHL's players voted the Coliseum the league's best arena. The Coliseum is now in its 72nd year, and is the second-oldest building in current use by a pro hockey team.

Wirtz died in 1983 at the age of 82, and left control of the Blackhawks to his son, William, whose team forged an 11-year relationship with the Indianapolis Ice in 1989. His grandson, Rocky, took control of the team after William's death and built the 2011 Stanley Cup champions. He posthumously won the NHL's King Clancy Award Award for service to hockey in 1985, and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder in 1971.

By being the father of Indianapolis hockey and building the one common threat that every team has -- the Fairgrounds (now Pepsi) Coliseum -- Arthur M. Wirtz is a member of the Indianapolis Hockey Hall of Honor.

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