Hockey Headlines

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

It Sounds Like A Nice Place

When you consider a town that has the name of Cherry Hill, there are a lot of pleasant images that come to mind because of the name. Lots of tree-lined streets, big porches for lazy summer evenings, and a laid-back, care-free attitude from its citizens are what spring to mind for me. The reality is that Cherry Park, New Jersey is a bustling city that lies just west of Philadelphia, and is the home to a few major companies. The city is 71,000 citizens strong, and the city motto is "You couldn't pick a better place". That motto may be true for most people except if you played in the WHA. Cherry Hill Arena was, for lack of a better term, a nightmare.

The Cherry Hill Arena was initially known as the Haddonfield Ice House Arena, and it played host to an EHL team known as the Jersey Devils. The Philadelphia Ramblers of the EHL relocated to Delaware Township - Cherry Hill's former name - in 1964, and the team took up residence at the newly-named Cherry Hill Arena. The Jersey Devils didn't have a lot of stars playing for them, but Bobby Taylor, Dick Sarrazin, and Rosaire Paiement all suited up for them before moving on to play in the NHL. All three men would play for the Philadelphia Flyers at some point in their careers.

The team played for nine seasons in the EHL in Cherry Hill as the Jersey Devils before the EHL ceased operations. With the Cherry Hill Arena empty, the township looked for another tenant to fill their arena. What they got in 1974 was a lot more than they may have bargained for, but the visiting players would argue that they were worse off after playing in Cherry Hill Arena.

The New York Golden Blades, owned by New York real estate mogul Ralph Brent, was hemorrhaging money as the team was playing in front of crowds as sparse as 500 in Madison Square Garden. Realizing that his venture into pro sports was not going to turn out well, Brent turned control of the team over to the WHA Head Offices. The WHA decided to get out of their incredibly ridiculous lease at Madison Square Garden in order to stop a lot of the bleeding. After going 6-12-2, the Golden Blades needed a new place to play. One man had a vision.

Jack Maxwell convinced the WHA to move the team into the vacant Cherry Hill Arena. With the WHA desperate to find a venue for their team, they placed an advertisement in local newspapers. Maxwell answered the ad, and the wheels were set in motion. The WHA was excited to have a team close to Philadelphia again after the Blazers had moved to Vancouver, and there was optimism in Cherry Hill that the WHA might be the professional team they longed for as a tenant in their arena. Maxwell, however, dreamed of building a state-of-the-art facility that would house a professional hockey team for many years to come. He saw this as the city's opportunity to audition for that role.

WHA officials "didn't care where it was," Maxwell told Philly.com's Scott Brown. "They wanted anybody to take over and not disrupt the rest of the league's schedule. That's why we got it."

November 23, 1973 saw the newly-named New Jersey Knights defeat the Quebec Nordiques 3-1 in front of what some have called a "near-capacity crowd" of 4062 people - the arena actually sat approximately 5500 fans. But that's where the excitement ended if you were a visiting player. The problems that Cherry Hill Arena had were plentiful.

"No doubt, the conditions I played in in Cherry Hill were the worst I ever played in, by far," André Lacroix said to Philly.com's Scott Brown. "You almost had to jump over the red line because there was such a dip there. It was basically dangerous to be out there."

In Ed Willes' Rebel League, players expanded more on the incredibly dangerous conditions on the ice.

"There was a hill at center ice," reports Lacroix. "You could actually get a lot of momentum off it. It was like coming off a turn on a ski hill."

[Paul] Shmyr, for his part, says you could stand at one end of the rink, shoot the puck along the ice, watch it disappear into a depression, then take flight as it reappeared.

"The goalies used to say if you slap it along the ice at the red line, it will be just under the bar when it got to the net," says [Harry] Neale.

"There was a crown in the middle," says [John] Garrett. "A pass that was going along the ice would jump five feet in the air all of a sudden. You had to really keep your head up when you were going through the neutral zone."
Scott Brown dug up more about the rink.
[Gordie] 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."
The rink itself was slanted, causing the visitors to literally skate uphill for two periods. Plexiglass was not installed; chain link was used to separate the fans from the rink instead. The dressing rooms were tiny, and the visitors' dressing room had no showers. The home team Knights couldn't all dress at the same time due to the lack of space. Visiting teams were forced to dress at the Holiday Inn a few miles down the road, and then bus it to the arena where they would don their skates. Once the game was over, they would take their skates off, and bus it back to the Holiday Inn where they would change out of their gear and shower.

"You would see Bobby Hull or Gordie Howe coming in a school bus carrying their equipment just like school kids," Lacroix said, laughing. "It was embarrassing."

Clearly, the move to New Jersey was a mistake in both the financial sense as well as the physical dangers presented to the players at Cherry Hill Arena. As the number of fans dwindled once again in New Jersey, the Knights were rumoured to be moving to Baltimore. However, they would ultimately move southwest after the 1973-74 season ended to San Diego where they became the Mariners. The nightmare in New Jersey wouldn't be tried again by the WHA.

The Cherry Hill Arena went through another name change in 1975 as it was rechristened as the Cherry Hill Centrum. The arena has long been demolished, and a shopping center sits on its former location. A few businesses tried to capitalize on the Knights moving to town, but the writing was on the wall for this franchise the moment that the WHA took over its day-to-day operations.

While the city's motto is "You couldn't pick a better place", the WHA players who had to go into Cherry Hill, New Jersey would certainly disagree with that statement. The teams may have been better off just playing on a local pond.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a bunch of whiners!