Monday, June 16, 2014

Indy's title teams: The 1983 Checkers

This is the fourth in a nine-part series looking back at Indianapolis championship hockey teams. The next five editions will run each Monday. Previous retrospectives: the 2009 Indiana Ice, the 2000 Indianapolis Ice and the 1990 Indianapolis Ice.Next Monday: The 1982 Indianapolis Checkers.

The Checkers stream off the bench to celebrate the 1983 championship.
The New York Islanders were hockey's premier franchise in the early 1980s. Winners of four straight Stanley Cups -- and five straight trips to the Stanley Cup Final -- they were one of hockey's greatest dynasties.

Not only were the Islanders one of the greatest teams in NHL history in that time frame, their success filtered down through the organization. During their dynasty years -- from 1979-84 -- their top farm team was the Indianapolis Checkers. Wearing the same blue-and-orange uniforms as the Islanders, the Checkers mirrored the success of their parent club -- with a group of veteran stars that remained largely intact year-to-year, a stable roster and a winning tradition. The Checkers had been birthed in the aftermath of the Racers' midseason suspension of operations in December 1978. Eight months later, the Islanders put a minor-league team in Indianapolis, and GM Jim Devellano said, "when hockey treats Indianapolis right, Indianapolis will treat hockey right."

The Islanders and Checkers couldn't have treated Indianapolis much better, putting a winning team on the ice their first two seasons -- although they were successful, they couldn't scale the mountain and win a title. In 1981-82, that changed. With new coach Fred Creighton in charge, a stellar tandem of Rob Holland and future NHL mainstay Kelly Hrudey in goal, and a roster built around a veteran core and a few promising prospects, the Checkers had the right ingredients. One big addition was that of 40-goal scorer Red Laurence, whom Creighton had coached in the NHL. The team caught fire at the end of the season and won the Adams Cup championship.

In 1982-83, the team looked poised for a repeat. Many of the same players were back -- including Holland and Hrudey in goal, rocks Tim Lockridge, Kelly Davis and Darcy Regier on the blueline, and perennial Checkers Garth MacGuigan, Kevin Devine, Steve Stoyanovich and Laurence up front, the team had a strong veteran core. Add to it a slew of talented rookies -- Gord Dineen, Scott Howson, Mats Hallin, Greg Gilbert, Ron Handy and Dave Simpson among them -- and this team looked to be the class of the CHL.

They spent the entire season proving it, putting together a tremendous 50-28-2 season and rolling to their second straight Adams Cup championship, as close to a dynasty as one can put together in affiliated minor-league hockey. Part of the reason was the Islanders' success -- they had little reason to change their NHL roster. At that time, NHL teams also carried virtually unlimited minor-league rosters, allowing them to keep veteran players on minor-league teams -- and in the Checkers' case, keep the core together. Despite owning the team, the Islanders kept a hands-off policy as much as possible with the Checkers.

Kevin Devine with the Cup
The season started off with a bang on Oct. 8 in another former WHA city -- and a new city in the CHL. It's the same place where the season would end -- Birmingham, Alabama. The Checkers and Birmingham South Stars would become very familiar with each other during the year, but the Checkers got the first laugh with a 6-1 victory. Dave Simpson started the year with two first-period goals. Greg Gilbert assisted on two, and Kelly Hrudey stopped 26 of 27 shots in the victory. Birmingham was the one new team in the six-team CHL, which was in the midst of some significant transition -- the Cincinnati Tigers, Dallas Black Hawks, Nashville Ice Flyers, Oklahoma City Stars and Fort Worth Texans were all gone from the year before. Replacing them were new teams in Birmingham and Denver, to go along with the existing teams in Indianapolis, Tulsa, Wichita and Salt Lake City. Wichita and Birmingham wouldn't make it to the next season, and only Indianapolis and Salt Lake would be standing by the fall of 1984.

The home season opened the next night in front of 4,609 fans with the same two teams in action. Gilbert got them out of their seats quickly -- he scored 54 seconds in -- but the South Stars spoiled the Checkers' home opener 4-2.

After a 1-2 start, Monty Trottier scored on overtime to beat Tulsa 5-4 on Oct. 15 -- and another famous name, Dave Hanson, scored his first goal as a Checker. The rugged veteran was finishing his hockey career, but was already well-known as a silver screen star, thanks to his role as one of the Hanson Brothers in "Slap Shot." The next night, Garth MacGuigan scored goals 18 seconds apart in the final minute and a half of the first period, Mats Hallin had two goals and Rob Holland stopped 42 shots in a 7-2 explosion in Tulsa. Simpson had a hat trick the next day in a 5-2 win over Salt Lake. Another hat trick, this time by MacGuigan, capped off a 9-4-0 October and a 4-1 win over Birmingham, with Kevin Devine and Gord Dineen each assisting on three goals.
The 1982-83 Adams Cup Champion Indianapolis Checkers.

The wins mounted -- the losses were few -- as the season went on. Monty Trottier scored hat tricks on successive Saturday nights in November -- a 6-3 win over Colorado Nov. 6 and a 7-3 win over Tulsa Nov. 13 -- potting a penalty shot goal in the second game. Scott Howson had a four-point night on Nov. 12 in a 6-2 win over Tulsa. He would top that -- and add a hat trick of his own -- on Nov. 20, when he had three goals and two assists in a 7-3 win over Birmingham. Mats Hallin would add a goal and four assists in that game. A week later, Red Laurence had a goal and four assists in a 7-3 win over Salt Lake, capping November with a 16-8-0 overall record. The victory also launched a 10-game winning streak for the Checkers that put them clear in first place.

Records were the story in December. Hallin had his first hat trick on Dec. 3 in a 4-1 win over Birmingham -- backstopped by 34 saves by Holland. On Dec. 10, Howson had two assists in a 6-2 win over Colorado, setting a team record with a 16-game scoring streak. On Dec. 15, Holland posted the season's first shutout, blanking Colorado with 23 saves, with Darcy Regier's three-point night supplying the offense. The win was also Holland's 10th straight, tying a CHL record. He would break the record in his next start three nights later, on Dec. 18 in Wichita. He stopped a 33 shots he faced, and Howson scored at 7:07 of the third, to key a 1-0 win. Not to be outdone, Hrudey turned aside 21 shots the next night, beating Colorado 5-0 at the Coliseum to cap the 10-game winning streak and give the Checkers a 25-9-0 record.

That was followed with a rough patch -- the team lost four straight games and eight of its next 10 -- in part due to injuries and callups. Hallin and Greg Gilbert both went to the Islanders at midseason, where they would be pivotal in leading the team to its fourth straight Stanley Cup title. Among the two wins in that stretch, one came with a wild 8-6 win over Salt Lake at the Coliseum on Jan. 4, in which Dave Hanson scored six seconds into the third period, and later, Howson, Laurence and MacGuigan scored in the third period to rally the team from behind 6-5 and win the game.

The team fell to 28-18-0 and briefly fell out of first place in the CHL, but seized it back with a 4-2 win over Salt Lake on Jan. 23, behind two goals from MacGuigan. Steve Stoyanovich had a hat trick in the first period and assisted on Gord Dineen's game-winner in overtime two days later to beat the Golden Eagles 5-4. The team eventually fell to 31-23-0, but caught fire at the end of the year. Dave Simpson had back-to-back OT winners to beat Wichita twice on Feb. 5-6 at the Coliseum, touching off a 6-1-1 stretch. Holland shut out Birmingham on March 4, 5-0, beginning a 12-1-1 run that ended the regular season and cemented the first regular-season title for the Checkers. The season concluded with 6-1 and 8-2 wins over Birmingham, and vaulted the team into the playoffs with 102 points. That was 17 better than second-place Colorado and 18 better than third-place Birmingham. One big boost for the team would be the return of defenseman Bruce Affleck from Europe. He completed his season overseas and played the final eight regular-season games. He would be a big boost for the team in the postseason. Together with Lockridge, Regier, Davis and Dineen, the Checkers had an airtight blueline.

The Checkers were dominant. Not only did they win the league by a 17-point spread, they led the league in scoring with 335 goals -- more than four goals per game. The 242 goals against were 55 fewer than anyone else in the league. Laurence (43 goals) and Stoyanovich (41 goals) each tallied 40-goal seasons. MacGuigan (37) and Howson (34) each topped 30. Simpson (29) and Devine (21) each topped 20. So did Hallin (26), although he was called up to the Isles mid-season. Gord Dineen had 47 assists from his blueline position. Holland (2.87) and Hrudey (3.04) were stellar in net.

The Checkers opened the postseason against an old nemesis -- the fourth-place Salt Lake Golden Eagles. The St. Louis Blues' top farm team, they had gone 41-38-1 during the regular season, and were led by former Checker Charlie Skjodt and 30-goal scorers John Markell and Rob Tudor. The opener in the Coliseum was a thriller. The Checkers took early leads of 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 behind goals by Scott Howson (twice) and Dave Simpson. Salt Lake's Markell tied it late in the second, and Claude Julien scored his second on a long slapshot moments later to give the visitors a 4-3 edge. Stoyanovich tied the game at 2:15 of the third, and Kelly Hrudey made it stick. He made a big save on Markell early in the OT period, and a minute later, Howson took a feed from Kelly Davis, skated in and rifled a shot past Eagles goaltender Paul Skidmore for a 5-4 Checkers victory.

Game 2 was a bit more of a breather. Creighton continued his policy of rotating goalies, and Holland got the start in Game 2. He made 21 saves, but the Checkers exploded for three first-period goals from Glen Duncan, Kevin Devine and Red Laurence. Laurence would later add two more goals for a hat trick in an 8-3 victory. The trip back west wasn't as fruitful -- the Salt Palace had always been a difficult place for the team to win. Markell beat the Checkers 3-2 in OT in Game 3, and six different Eagles scored to beat the Checkers 6-5 in Game 4, evening the series at 2-2. The Checkers took command of the series in Game 5 in Salt Lake, winning 4-2. Glen Duncan and Dave Simpson scored in the first, and Steve Stoyanovich had two second-period goals to give the Checkers a 4-0 lead. Hrudey stopped 33 shots in the win.

Back in Indianapolis for Game 6, the Checkers made it a no-doubter, routing the Eagles 11-4 to clinch the series four games to two. The 11 goals tied a CHL record for goals in a playoff game. Laurence had his second hat trick of the series. Garth MacGuigan and Scott Howson scored two goals each. Steve Stoyanovich, Glen Duncan, Mike Greeder and Ron Handy also scored in the game. The Checkers never trailed, with MacGuigan and Laurence scoring 1:17 apart in the opening period. Howson and Laurence scored 93 seconds apart in the second to touch off a five-goal period and make it a 4-1 game. Stoyanovich, MacGuigan and Mike Greeder would later score in the period to make it an 8-3 contest, and four more goals would come across in the third.

That put the Checkers into the Adams Cup Final against the Birmingham South Stars, who beat Colorado in the other semifinal series. The series was an unusual best-of-nine format -- the only time the CHL tried such a format. Coached by Gene Ubracio, the South Stars had a big scorer in Wes Jarvis, who had 40 goals and 68 assists during the season. Jim Dobson, Craig Homola and Dan McCarthy had been 30-goal scorers, and Warren Young had tallied 26 goals and 84 points during the year. Game 1 -- played at Market Square Arena due to a building conflict at the Coliseum -- was a romp, with Scott Howson scoring twice, Red Laurence, Glen Duncan and Randy Johnston all scoring in the first period of a 7-1 victory. Dave Simpson had a goal and three assists in the rout, that saw the Checkers pelt two Stars goaltenders with 46 shots. Birmingham rallied in Game 2. The Checkers led 3-1, but Dobson and Jarvis scored 12 seconds apart in the third to tie the game, and Dobson completed a hat trick nine seconds into OT to win 4-3 at MSA. Back to Birmingham for Games 3 and 4, the Checkers fell behind in the series with a 4-2 loss in the third game.

The series turned in Game 4. The Checkers trailed 2-0 going into the third period and looked to be falling behind three games to one. But Howson scored 17 seconds into the period, and Dave Simpson tied it at 44 seconds. Dobson put Birmingham ahead, but Kevin Devine scored to tie it and assisted on Gord Dineen's go-ahead goal with 3:07 left. Unfortunately, Birmingham's hot stick, Dave DeBol, scored his third goal in two games with 25 seconds left to send the game to OT. The two teams felt each other out in the period, but the Checkers had an offensive zone faceoff with three seconds left. Garth MacGuigan drew the puck cleanly back to Red Laurence, who fired a slapshot from the the point past Stars goaltender Mario Lessard with one second left in OT. There was initial confusion as to whether or not the goal would count, but it was ruled to beat the buzzer and the Checkers headed home with the series tied.

They would seize control from there. In Game 5, Garth MacGuigan, Scott Howson and Glen Duncan staked the Checkers to a 3-0 lead by the midpoint of the second. Ron Handy and Kevin Devine added insurance goals in the third period of a 5-2 win, in which MacGuigan had a goal and two assists, and Bruce Affleck assisted on three goals. Game 6 marked the series' third overtime game -- and one that went double OT. Bob Boileau gave Birmingham a 2-1 lead in the third, but Ron Handy buried his own rebound with 2:29 left to tie the game. The Checkers dominated the first OT, outshooting Birmingham 12-5, but neither team would score, although each would hit a post. In the second OT, the Checkers killed off an early penalty to Monty Trottier, then got a power play of their own when Glenn Hicks was called for roughing. Dave Simpson shot the puck, Lessard stopped it, but Scott Howson pounced on the rebound to give the Checkers a 3-2 victory after 86:08 of hockey and put them one game from an Adams Cup title.

The championship game would be a celebration for the visitors -- and a mid-game onslaught. The Checkers trailed 1-0 after a period when Wendell Young scored, but had killed off five power plays in the process, keeping themselves in the game. Kelly Davis, talking to the Indianapolis Star's Bill Pickett, said "we got away with the first period and I think they realized it was all over."

It was. The Checkers took advantage. Kevin Devine scored at 57 seconds of the second, Dave Simpson added another at 9:04 and then assisted on the Cup-winner by Glen Duncan at 16:43 to put the Checkers up 3-1. Duncan completed the hat trick in the third, and Laurence and Howson would later score -- the latter putting the exclamation point on a 7-2 victory with 11 seconds left. Hurdey stopped just 16 shots in the win as the Checkers dominated.

Affleck was named the playoff MVP despite not scoring a goal. He had 18 assists and strong defensive play. Laurence won his fourth straight title -- he also won the championship with Salt Lake in 1980 and 1981, and the Checkers in 1982.

"This year, we won the regular season and everyone expected us to win the Cup," Affleck told Pickett in The Star. "This put a little more pressure on us. ... When we got behind, we really got going."

Laurence had a big playoff, with 11 goals and 11 assists. Howson had 12 goals and nine assists. Simpson also had a 20-point playoff with seven goals and 13 assists. Duncan scored nine goals in 13 postseason games -- after scoring just 18 in 73 regular-season games. Holland and Hrudey were spectacular in the playoffs.

Again, the Checkers were champions. The individual hardware came in postseason, as well. In addition to Affleck's playoff MVP trophy, Dineen was named both the most valuable defenseman and the most improved blueliner in the CHL. Holland and Hrudey shared the Terry Sawchuk Trophy for fewest goals allowed for the second straight year. Hrudey was also named the CHL's MVP. Laurence won the Don Ashby Trophy as the league's unsung hero.

They would come close to repeating the feat the next year -- despite losing several key players to the NHL and other teams. Hrudey would go to the Islanders to back up Billy Smith. Dineen would follow partway through the season. Stoyanovich went to the Hartford Whalers. Kelly Davis, Randy Johnston and Glen Duncan retired from hockey. Much of the rest of the core -- Holland, Devine, Regier, MacGuigan, Laurence, Trottier, Simpson, Affleck, Lockridge, Howson and Handy -- would remain in Indianapolis. The Checkers would finish fourth in the 1983-84 standings, but catch fire in the playoffs, upsetting heavily-favored Colorado in the semis before being swept by a homeless team formerly known as the Tulsa Oilers in the championship series. The CHL would cease to exist after that season. The Islanders moved their primary affiliation to the AHL's Springfield Indians, keeping a secondary affiliation with the Checkers as they moved to the International Hockey League. They never quite recaptured the same success in the IHL, but the early 1980s were a halcyon era for the Checkers and for hockey in Indianapolis. No other team in the city's hockey history won back-to-back titles -- only the 1942 and 1943 Capitals went to league finals in consecutive years -- and none has ever made three trips to the league's championship series. That they did so largely with the same core of players is impressive.

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