The Baltimore Hockey Classic marks the return of hockey to Charm City for the first time in 20 years. The Capitals will host Nashville on Tuesday night at 1st Mariner Arena. Gregg Mace, Sports Director of abc27 WHTM-TV in Harrisburg, grew up in Baltimore and shares his special thoughts about the return of hockey to his hometown.
Every hockey fan has a special story to tell. A story of how they became interested of this great game. Mine began in the mid 1960′s. As a seventh grader at Baltimore Friends School, I became an avid fan of the Baltimore Clippers, the first Baltimore team in the American Hockey League. The team played in what is now called 1st Mariner Arena. To me, it will always be the Baltimore Civic Center. When the building opened, the Baltimore Bullets (now Washington Wizards) and the Clippers were its prized tenants. The Clippers were just one of a handful of teams in the AHL, a far cry from its nationwide exsistance today.
My parents or grandparents would drive myself and my friends to nearly every game. Tickets in the 300 level were just $1.50. After the first period, we perfected the art of moving to an empty seat in the more expensive sections. The four rows behind the net cost just $4.00 each.
Younger fans will find this hard to believe, but there was chicken wire to protect the fans from the puck, not plexiglass. You could hear everything that was being said. There were no helmets and the Clippers had claim to the last goaltender to not wear a mask, Andy Brown.
An average crowd might be three or four thousand. But, much like Washington or Hershey, there was a sense of family when you went to a Clippers game. Many players were a part of the Clippers for years… legends of Baltimore hockey like Sandy McGregor, Jimmy Bartlett, Fred Speck and Bob Rivard. Former Caps radio announcer Ron Weber was the longtime voice of the Clippers and before him, the great Jim West. Color announcer and Baltimore News-American writer George Taylor actually did his announcing from the scorers table rinkside The games were heard on Baltimore powerhouse radio station WBAL.
After each game, there was free skating. My friends, David Chang, Mike Salter, and I had countless evenings at the Civic Center, sneaking to the lower seats and then pretending to check each other into the chicken wire.
The Clippers never won a Calder Cup, reaching the finals once but losing to Nova Scotia. I remember the incredible disappointment of not winning the title.
As I got older, longtime PR director Bob Elmer would let us go into the press box and practice our play-by-play into a tape recorder. It was a great experience for a young budding broadcaster.
Eventually the Clippers would fold… more than once. The first time to allow a WHA team to play in the Civic Center. The Clippers would eventually return, as would the Baltimore Bandits and Bruce Boudreau’s former team, the Baltimore Skipjacks.
Unless Baltimore gets a new arena, it seems unlikely that a professional team would return. Even then, last season AHL President Dave Andrews said that Baltimore wasn’t on the AHL’s radar screen, although some of us feel it would be a good geographical fit.
As I begin my 34th season of covering the Hershey Bears, I have been privileged to work with the new voice of the Washington Capitals, John Walton, doing Hershey Bears playoff games on abc27. Little did I think as a high school student , that over 40 years later, that my hockey experience would be such a big part of my career on television
Tuesday night will be a special night for those of us who loved Baltimore hockey. If you are going to the game, take a walk around the old “Civic Center.” You might just hear the echoes of the old fight song “Win You Baltimore Clippers.”
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