By Matt Gilligan
September 15, 2016 (updated)
Although still thought of primarily as a northern sport, hockey has made tremendous progress in the south. NHL teams, and numerous minor league hockey teams, now dot the southern landscape, and Charlotte has played an important role in that expansion.
The Charlotte Coliseum (today known as Bojangles’ Coliseum) was only a few months old when fate intervened and hockey was introduced to the local population. On January 23, 1956, the arena of the Baltimore Clippers of the Eastern Hockey League burned to the ground. The Clippers needed a rink to call home for the remainder of the season, and a group of Charlotte businessmen offered the state-of-the-art Coliseum to the team. Just a week after the fire, on January 30, 1956, over 10,000 people filled the Coliseum in Charlotte to see the Clippers take on the New Haven Blades. A majority of the crowd got their first taste of hockey that evening, and they were immediately hooked by the speed and physical nature of the game.
Hockey was a hit in Charlotte and the Clippers decided to stay in North Carolina permanently after their trial run in early 1956. This represented a shift in the history of hockey in the United States. Besides a very brief attempt to form a league in Florida in the 1930s, no professional team had ever played south of Louisville, or east of Houston in the Southeast. The Clippers name was kept until 1960, when the team decided to change it to the Checkers.
From 1956 until 1977, Charlotte became a proving ground for hockey players looking to make the leap to higher leagues, with some even making it to the NHL. Young men who hailed from distant cities such as Saskatoon, Montreal, and Winnipeg with nicknames like “Bones,” “Wimpy,” and “Boom Boom” endured a grueling travel schedule of long bus rides to play in front of hostile fans. Even a raw prospect named Bob Knievel, later known to the world as “Evel,” played briefly for the Clippers in 1959 before deciding to return to his native Montana. Rumor has it that in the old days, Charlotte players had to be bailed out of jail in other cities for going into the stands to fight opposing fans on numerous occasions.
The Clippers/Checkers enjoyed enormous success on the ice, winning championships in 1957, 1971, 1972, 1975, and 1976. But, sports can be a fickle business and, by the late 1970s, the Checkers, now playing in the Southern Hockey League, were forced out of business when the majority of teams in the league folded in early 1977. Local residents would wait for 16 years before professional hockey returned to Charlotte, and in 2019, the Checkers won the Calder Cup.
In 1993, the Checkers returned as members of the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL). The new-look team was representative of the changing demographics of hockey players on this side of the globe. An exodus of Eastern European players descended on North America after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, reshaping all leagues in the U.S. and Canada. Russian players, in addition to the traditional Canadians and Americans, rounded out the Checkers roster. The Charlotte squad wasted little time becoming successful, and they captured the championship in 1996.
The Checkers played in the ECHL for 17 seasons. In 2010, the Albany River Rats of the American Hockey League (AHL) relocated to Charlotte. Team owners decided to name the team the Checkers in honor of Charlotte’s hockey past. This represented a major step forward for hockey in the Queen City. The AHL is the primary development league for the NHL, like AAA is for Major League Baseball. The best hockey prospects in the world showcase their skills for and against the Checkers throughout the season. Charlotte is still a proving ground for young hockey players looking to make it to the big show.
The history of hockey in Charlotte is a story of ups and downs, wins and losses, and colorful personalities that spans six decades. During those years, a game previously thought of as strictly a “Yankee sport” has caught on and spread throughout the region.
Check out the full 2023-24 Charlotte Checkers season schedule.