By Chuck Miller
An abridged version of this article was originally published in Hockey Digest
The owner signed himself to his team's roster. One player was traded for travel costs. Fans who showed up for three games straight were issued free season tickets. The captain, a Stanley Cup veteran, was claimed by another team on waivers, and their leading scorer had to be traded to get him back. If R.L. Stine wrote a hockey horror book, it would be the history of the Albany (N.Y.) Choppers, an International Hockey League franchise better known for its mishaps off the ice than for their victories on it.
Let's start at the beginning.
Hockey was a hot commodity in Albany and its surrounding cities. The Adirondack Red Wings, 50 miles to the north, packed the Glens Falls Civic Center night after night for ten years, and the Engineers of Troy's Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute were one of college hockey's juggernauts. And some Albany politicians felt that if there was that much support for hockey in Troy and Glens Falls, perhaps Albany could support a hockey team of their own.
And in 1990, Albany built the Knickerbocker Arena. A state-of-the-art facility, with expandable ice surface for NHL or Olympic contests, and 17,000 seats angled toward center ice. A facility any NHL team would be proud of. Although rumors abounded that the Winnipeg Jets or the Quebec Nordiques would move to Albany upon the arena's completion, no NHL teams were moving in the mid-1980's. An attempt to coax the AHL's Adirondack Red Wings to relocate to the Knick proved fruitless when the Wings signed a long-term lease with the Glens Falls Civic Center.
Unfortunately, Albany's AHL expansion hopes were dashed when the Adirondack Red Wings claimed the Knickerbocker Arena was in Adirondack's exclusive territory. Attempts to bring IHL teams from Saginaw and Denver to Albany were vetoed by the IHL Board of Governors.
Albany then joined the Global Hockey League, with proposed franchises from Providence to Quebec to Moscow, and more than 3,000 season tickets were sold for the GHL's Albany Admirals. But the GHL folded without dropping a single puck, and Albany's hockey future seemed dim at best.
Then David Welker entered the picture. Welker the owner of the IHL's Fort Wayne Komets, and one of the people who originally voted against Albany's joining the IHL, saw that Albany sold 3,000 season tickets for the GHL Admirals - 2,500 more season tickets than the Komets sold last year. "If they've already sold 3,000 out there," he said in an interview, "$10 and $12 per game for a team that doesn't exist, we should very easily get 2,000 at a $2 lower price."
Welker calculated that if 3,000 people were that hungry for hockey, then maybe Albany was a possible untapped resource. And maybe his decision to bar Albany from purchasing a defunct IHL team was wrong. From his hospital bed, the man who swore that the International Hockey League would not expand into the East Coast announced that he would sign a three-year lease with the Knickerbocker Arena and move his Komets to Albany. Within days, he began entertaining names for the new team. "I don't want a bunch of dumb names," said Welker to the Gazette. "I like frontier-type names, river-type names."
It didn't matter - within days, the team picked up sponsorship with Price Chopper Supermarkets, a major Northeastern grocery chain. And the Albany Choppers were born. Even an early version of the team logo resembled the supermarket's axe-into-a-coin trademark.
Welker's move caused severe ramifications in both the IHL and the AHL. Within days, the AHL spoke with local car dealer Mike Cantanucci, who had tried to get an AHL franchise for the Knickerbocker Arena and failed. Suddenly Cantanucci was able to purchase a dormant AHL franchise, pick up an affiliation with the New York Islanders, and a place to play at the RPI Fieldhouse in Troy.
And even though Welker had his franchise already in place, had signed David Allison as coach, and was searching for a league affiliation, the IHL still had to approve the Choppers' appearance in the league. They finally welcomed the Choppers when Welker made the unusual agreement to cover the travel costs, hotel and per diem bills for six of the midwestern IHL teams whenever they came to Albany.
And in one of the more unusual pre-season trades, Welker gave one of his players, winger Bob Lasko, to the new Fort Wayne Komets (who had relocated from Flint, Michigan) so that Fort Wayne would at least pay its own travel costs to Albany.
As an independent team, the Choppers could receive players from any NHL team, and sign free agents to play the entire season for them. And at first, NHL teams sent the Choppers enough players to field a team. The Pittsburgh Penguins sent goaltender Bruce Racine and center Jason Smart. From the New York Rangers came left winger Soren True. Dale Henry, a former member of the New York Islanders, signed a free agent contract with the team, as did minor league veteran goaltender Rick Knickle.
Other signees included right winger Byron Lomow, a skater with well-worn knuckles (he boasted that his goal would be 250 penalty minutes, five minutes at a time, for the season). Another winger, Stuart Burnie, joined the Choppers after a tryout with the Canadian Olympic team.
And in a surprising development, owner David Welker signed himself to a player's contract as a defenseman. The contract, which guaranteed Welker $11,000 for the year and health insurance coverage through the Player's Union, became the first instance of the unorthodox dealings between the Choppers, their host city and their new owner.
On October 5, 1990, the three-way hockey war began when the Capital District Islanders beat Adirondack at the RPI Fieldhouse. The Choppers opened the next night against the Kalamazoo Wings. It had taken five years, from planning to formation to building an arena to acquiring a team, and now professional hockey finally came to Albany.
And lost its home opener to Kalamazoo, 6-2, despite holding the Wings to a 1-1 tie in the first period. Three unanswered goals zinged through Bruce Racine's goalie pads, and the Choppers had their first loss of the season. Only 3,011 fans showed up at a 16,000 seat arena, and David Welker claimed that the crowd would have been bigger if the hockey fans weren't drawn away by a Boston-Oakland baseball playoff game on television.
On October 13, 1990, the Choppers scored their first win in franchise history, a 5-2 victory over the Phoenix Roadrunners. Stu Burnie and Byron Lomow each scored goals, while Bruce Racine kept anything and everything away from the net. And David Welker was even more pleased that the Choppers outdrew the Islanders when both teams played at home on the same night (2,972 for the Choppers, 1,819 for the Islanders).
But Welker needed 4,000 people a night in the Knick to break even, and in an effort to get more fannies in the seats, the Choppers lowered their ticket prices three weeks after Opening Night. Center ice tickets, originally $12 a seat, now were so inexpensive that with newspaper coupons and discounts, you could sit at center ice for only $3.
After the Choppers lost a two-game series against Fort Wayne in late October, more changes were made to the lineup. Forward Yves Heroux joined the team from the St. Louis Blues. And center Alain Lemieux signed a free-agent contract with the Choppers. David Welker hoped that Lemieux, whose brother was NHL superstar Mario Lemieux, could be the Choppers' drawing card.
And Lemieux could have been - if the problem with attendance figures hadn't been discovered.
The Albany Times-Union regularly compared the attendance figures of the Red Wings, CD Islanders and Choppers, and showed "faceoff" reports when two or more teams played home games on the same day. Some newspaper and television reporters physically counted heads at the Knick one night, and found their tabulation much lower than what was published in the paper the next day.
Choppers General Manager Jim Salfi took umbrage with the accusations, whether or not they were true. "I just get the figure from the box office," Salfi told the Times-Union. "What hurts is that when people question the attendance figure, they're questioning me. They're calling me a liar, and that's a reflection on my integrity." In fact, for about a month Salfi refused to announce the attendance figures, forcing the newspapers to count the people themselves or put in a number with an (est.) after the figure.
Not that the Choppers played to an empty Knick every night. They drew 3,643 fans when they hosted the San Diego Gulls, but since the Gulls were a minor league farm team for the Detroit Red Wings, and since most of the Gulls were former Adirondack Red Wings, the 2,500 Adirondack fans at the Knick outcheered the few Choppers fans.
A few days later, the Chops lost 5-3 to the Peoria Rivermen. 2,917 appeared at the Knick, but the attraction this time was former Troy resident and Peoria goaltender Guy Hebert, who would later play in the NHL.
The Choppers even drew respectively for a Thanksgiving night game, but they weren't the main attraction that night - fans came for the chance to win tickets for a sold-out Billy Joel concert at the Knick.
The few fans the Choppers did have formed a booster club (the Chop Sticks), and received special gifts from the team for their loyalty. "One day," said Chop Sticks member Rich Mahady, "the president of the booster club brought a bunch of envelopes to the game and said, 'Hey Rich, pick one.' So I did, I figured it was a pack of Chopper trading cards or something like that, I'm getting something for nothing. Did I ever. It turned out to be a season ticket, center ice, for the rest of the year."
By December, the Choppers were in serious financial trouble. On Christmas Eve, a travel agency brought suit against the Choppers for non-payment of November travel bills. Two months later, the team's assets, more than $5,700.00, had been frozen as a result of the travel agency suit. Even the radio station who chose Choppers games instead of New York Knicks broadcasts quit after not being paid for three months in a row.
Where was David Welker while all this was happening? After announcing he would move to Albany and be with his team, he returned to Fort Wayne to run the gravel operation after the death of his father. The Choppers tried to put a positive spin on Welker's relocation to Fort Wayne, suggesting that he could be close to the team when the Choppers were on road trips.
But the players continued on, still taking the ice despite the lunacy surrounding them. Even Allison himself took responsibility for some player movements. Right winger Byron Lomow arrived in training camp out of shape, and after beginning the season in the starting lineup, he played lethargically in December and spent time between the penalty box and the bench. Lomow finally got up to speed in January, scoring an assist and a shootout goal in a game-winning effort.
A few days later, Allison traded Lomow to the San Diego Gulls for Jim McGeough - coincidentally, one day before pay day.
For all the players under contract to NHL teams, their biweekly paychecks were guaranteed by their respective parent clubs. But for Rick Knickle, Stu Burnie, Dale Henry and seven others, pay day came and went without a check.
That put the Choppers back in the headlines.
At least four times during January, the players held a vote to decide whether they should take the ice for games. Some of the players had not been paid, and if they refused to play more than two games, the Choppers would be thrown out of the IHL for good. Surprisingly, to a man, the team voted unanimously to continue, payroll or no payroll. "To date, it's been unanimous," said player representative/defenseman Curtis Hunt to the Schenectady Gazette. "The guys are frustrated that they're not getting paid, but it's more of a pressure thing. At some point, though, we're going to have to take a stand."
Hunt later remarked that the Choppers were little more than 22 guys that no hockey team wanted, a Bad News Bears on ice. Any victory against their IHL opponents were like David smiting Goliath.
January 16, 1991 was the lowest day in the Choppers' history. The Persian Gulf war began. On that same day, the Albany Choppers' paychecks were late. And Byron Lomow had just been traded away, after he played the best two weeks of hockey in his life.
To complicate life even more, the Choppers hosted Muskegon at the Knickerbocker Arena on the night of the Persian Gulf invasion. With the Choppers reeling from all the off-ice insanity, a game against the Muskegon Lumberjacks was comparatively minor. The crowd was listed at 1,275, but the 300 that really showed up had to wait two hours for the Lumberjacks to arrive in Albany (the team was delayed because of fog at the airport). Dave Allison looked at the stands. "I remember to this day, we had about 47 people in the stands. We started the game late, it was an awful night, the war broke out just to top it all off, and I heard somebody come in and say, 'Where's my seat?' The usher looked at him and said, 'What do you mean seat? Why don't you just take a section?'"
And although the Choppers had leads of 1-0 and 2-1, they lost the game, 3-2, when Muskegon's Mitch Wilson split the defense for only his third goal of the year. This time, Allison didn't stick around to talk to the media. The depression factor had finally gotten to him, and he left the arena immediately after the loss, uncharacteristically refusing to speak to the media.
By now, the only thing nice anybody could say about the Choppers was that they had a rhyming front line of Yves Heroux, Soren True and Alain Lemieux - and newly acquired goaltender John Blue, who played so well that Allison traded Bruce Racine to Muskegon. Blue was on loan from the Minnesota North Stars, who had too many goalies in their organization. "On an independent team," remembered Blue, "you're usually getting all the players that other teams don't want. We did all right for the team that we had."
By January, the Choppers were running short on equipment. Skates were wearing thin, goalie pads were tearing, and the equipment room was filled with sticks from players no longer on the Choppers' roster. It made General Manager Jim Salfi sick. "Soren True ordered four dozen sticks. With four dozen sticks, he doesn't score a goal. So he doesn't like them, he wants more sticks. And the sticks that he's got are in there, and no one else can use them because they're his sticks. And everybody's got their own pattern. That's typical of the pros. You can't buy the pro sticks through a sporting goods store. You've got to buy them direct from the company."
And of the players who remained with the Choppers, they were running out of sticks fast. Over the course of a season, the sticks would splinter, they would break, the blade would snap off, the shaft would crack. When the Choppers hosted the Fort Wayne Komets on January 31, the stick situation was getting worse. The game went into overtime, then to a shootout (a series of penalty shots designed to keep IHL games from ending in ties). Two of Fort Wayne's five penalty shooters scored; so did two of the Choppers. The next player to score would win the game for his team. Dave Allison recalls what happened next. "We went through our five shooters, they went through their five shooters, and now we're into sudden death overtime. So I go, 'Hank [Dale Henry], you're up.'
"'I can't go, Dave.'
"'Hank, don't worry about it. We've had five guys miss before. So do your best.'
"'I don't have any sticks.'
"I go down the bench and I say, "'Huntsie [Curtis Hunt], you're up.'
"'I can't. I don't have any sticks either.'
"So now we're down to Gordon Paddock, I said to Pads, 'You're up.'
"And he said the same thing, 'I don't have any sticks.'
"So finally I had to say, 'Who's got a good stick?' The only guy with a good stick was Jimmy McGeough."
McGeough, the player the Choppers received from San Diego in the Byron Lomow trade, took the ice. Skating toward goaltender Stephane Beauregard, McGeough faked a shot towards Beauregard's right side. The goaltender reacted to the expected puck - only to watch the Chopper right winger backhand the puck toward the left side, into the net. Game over, Choppers win. "If it wasn't for the end boards, he'd still be going down State Street," said Dave Allison. "Jimmy McGeough won that game and the only reason he won it was because he had a good stick. It was basically the only good stick we had."
Sticks were one thing. Some of the players needed replacement skates and gloves. And two boxes full of those essentials were sent C.O.D. to the Choppers. Needless to say, the packages returned to their manufacturers unopened.
Dave Allison now had a new problem on his hands - how to keep his team's morale up while the newspapers kept the death watch on. He took an idea from the movie Slapshot, where a hockey coach convinces his players that some non-existent owners would purchase the team and relocate it to a warmer climate. "We had all kinds of fun, we'd go into Kansas City, we're not sure if we're going to survive each and every day, so after the game we bought a couple cases of beer, the guys bought champagne because they thought it might be their last game together. So I bought some cigars for them and everything ... a couple of guys are going 'Who bought this? Who bought this?' And I go, 'Hey, the new owners from Texas.' Everybody thought there were new owners from Texas. They're going, 'Texas? All right! We get cowboy boots!'"
Back in Albany, the Choppers' boxscores were being buried in the sports sections, while their financial problems made the newspapers' front pages. While his team went on a hot streak, winning six of eight games and pulling closer to a playoff spot, David Welker ran from person to person, desperately seeking funds to try and keep his team afloat. Anybody and everybody involved in earlier plans to bring hockey to Albany were asked to purchase the Choppers - Jim Coyne, Joe O'Hara, Mike Addesa, Glenn Mazula. There were even rumors of prospective purchasers from Memphis, Tucson, Illinois, Atlanta.
But the problems multiplied. In a desperate effort to raise cash, Welker put all the non-NHL-contracted Choppers on the waiver line. "We had to waive them within our league," said Dave Allison. "So we tried to waive the whole team, in order to have a garage sale."
General Manager Jim Salfi tried to get the contracted Choppers off the waiver line, but before he could, the Milwaukee Admirals claimed Dale Henry. "I was pretty ticked off about it," said Allison, "because that was our captain. He was one of our best players. But by the letter of the law, he was Milwaukee's property, but they let us trade Alain Lemieux for Dale Henry. So we ended up trading our own guy, our leading scorer, to get our captain back."
The league finally stepped in and deciphered the latest Choppers shenanigan. Lemieux was now the property of the Milwaukee Admirals - but would be returned to the Choppers when (and if) David Welker sold the team.
The public relations nightmare on ice continued into February. Price Chopper president Neil Golub had dumped a ton of money into the Choppers, but by February decided to end sponsorship of the hockey team after their first season. "We're [the Choppers'] major sponsor and [David Welker] hasn't called me since before the start of the season," said Golub to The Troy Record. "He's probably the worst businessman I've ever met ... When we first came to town, we provided a tremendous amount of assistance. We held meetings and brought competent people in. But he just listens to everybody and ignores everybody ... Welker did nothing to promote the team until after the season started." Golub even threatened to remove the name "Choppers" from the hockey team, claiming it as the property of Price Chopper Supermarkets.
February 14, 1991. Payday was coming up again, and there was no money available for the next road trip, let alone for a payroll. A group of local Albany businessmen that Welker claimed were interested in buying the Choppers never came forward. On Valentine's Day, 24 hours before their next scheduled road game against the Milwaukee Admirals, and despite winning six of their last nine games and making a serious run for the playoffs, the Albany Choppers closed their doors.
"When they shut it down, I tried to get my equipment back," recalled goaltender John Blue. "They locked everything up, wouldn't let anybody in. It was comical."
Immediately the IHL readjusted the schedule so no team would lose any home games scheduled against the Choppers. In minutes, the idle Salt Lake Golden Eagles were flown to Wisconsin at the IHL's expense to be the Choppers' replacement against the Admirals. The Knickerbocker Arena also acted swiftly, filling the abandoned home dates with concerts.
And what happened to all the Choppers season ticket holders who now suddenly found themselves without a team? "The tickets were still good," said Chop Sticks fan club member Rich Mahady. "Capital District owner Mike Cantanucci decided to bring us all not only into the booster club of Capital District, which most of us took advantage of, but also our tickets became good as trade-ins for CDI games."
Although the Choppers never finished their season, every player who wanted to finish playing did so, either in the IHL or the AHL. Yves Heroux joined the Peoria Rivermen after the Choppers died, and was part of Peoria's championship season. In 1992, the St. John's Maple Leafs - and former Chopper Curtis Hunt - played in the AHL's Calder Cup finals.
But the biggest Chopper success stories involved the goaltenders. Before the Choppers folded, goalie Bruce Racine was traded to the Muskegon Lumberjacks. He played nine games with Muskegon, then bounced up to the Penguins, the first former Chopper to hit the NHL. Racine soon became the regular backup to Pittsburgh goalie Tom Barrasso, and in 1993, when the Penguins faced the Bruins, Racine faced his old pipemate, John Blue (who became the Bruins' starting goaltender in the 1993-94 season). And after 14 years and 500 wins in the minor leagues, bouncing from league to league like a Christmas fruitcake, Rick Knickle won a few games for the NHL's Los Angeles Kings. His greatest moment came in 1994, when as a member of the IHL's Detroit Vipers, Knickle stopped 31 shots as the Vipers beat Wayne Gretzky's All-Stars 3-2.
David Allison found a coaching job in the East Coast League, and even spent some time as coach of the NHL's Ottawa Senators - even though the Senators were the worst team in the NHL, Allison reminded them that it could have been worse - they might have played for the Choppers.
The Chop Sticks booster club members preserved their programs, their souvenirs and their season passes. Even today, those season passes are still lodged in wallets and pocketbooks, ready to be displayed as casually as one shows a driver's license or a credit card.
And David Welker? He vowed he would never own another hockey team, and went back to the gravel business. A year later, he filed for bankruptcy when the Choppers' debts finally did him in. He never did get that $11,000 or the medical coverage from the IHL.
What was the Choppers' true legacy? Were they a noble failure, or a cursed franchise? Some say that after the Choppers folded, hockey at the Knickerbocker Arena was never the same. NHL exhibition games, USA Olympic Team exhibitions, even the 1992 NCAA Division I Hockey Championships - although successful, none of them filled the arena. There were those who said this was the "curse of the Choppers."
It wasn't until 1993, when the Albany River Rats came to the Knick, did the Choppers finally serve their purpose. The River Rats studied what the Choppers did both on and off the ice - and resolved to not make the same mistakes the Choppers had made. The Rats had a major league affiliation, they were part of the American Hockey League (the Adirondack Red Wings finally agreed to let the AHL put a team in the Knick), and a curtain was draped over the Knick's upper deck, reconfiguring the arena to a cozy 7,000 seats.
And believe it or not, the Choppers actually made it to the Hockey Hall of Fame - Dale Henry's jersey was saved by an off-ice official, and along with some ticket stubs, programs and sticks, are preserved behind glass in the Toronto museum - just a slapshot away from the jerseys of Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr.
In the end, it was the closest the Choppers ever got to the big time.
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