by Daniel Schere

Several times per year, thousands of black and gold clad students pack Joel Coliseum to see their beloved Demon Deacons take the court. Most probably have no idea that 30 years ago, another arena sat on this very site, and it was hockey, not basketball that dominated the schedule.

The Carolina Thunderbirds, later the Winston-Salem Thunderbirds, played from 1981 until 1992 when the team was sold and moved to Wheeling, West Virginia. They played in two arenas and three leagues, and they won four championships over that span. Old fans might remember names such as Randy Irving, Dave Watson, Michel Lanouette and Brian Carroll. A few went on to the big leagues, including John Torchetti and former coach Rick Dudley, both of whom went on to coach NHL teams. Dudley is now Senior Vice President for Hockey Operations of the Montreal Canadiens.

But most of the franchise’s core players elected to stay local and chase after the next dream. Irving, the franchise leader in points and games played grew up in Lake Cowichan, British Columbia “” a town of about 3,000 people on Vancouver Island. He started playing hockey when he was eight. After four years in the Canadian junior leagues, he began playing professional hockey for several minor league teams in Denver and the Fort Worth Texans. Before arriving in North Carolina in 1982, his only exposure to the state was through Andy Griffith.

“A buddy of mine was playing down here and asked me to come down here, and I came down at the end of the year (1982),” he said. “They had like 15 games left and they were in last place.”

Irving said the weather helped him fall in love with the area. “It was October, and it was 70 degrees, so I knew I’d like it more than the Northwest where it rained all the time,” he said.

At the time, the Thunderbirds were only the second hockey team to come to the Triad, following the collapse of the Polar Twins in 1977.

“Back then there was no team in Greensboro, so they say there was a couple thousand from Greensboro that came to every game,” Irving said. “During the ACC tournament, you know in the basketball tournament we would only get a few thousand but on Friday and Saturday nights there would be 4,000-7,000 people there every game.”

Irving retired after the ’89-’90 season and worked in a friend’s tire shop for five years. Later he was a warehouse manager and a seismic driller.

When asked whether he is proud of being one of the franchise’s leaders, Irving shrugs and says he is proud of the four championships the team won in seven years from 1982 to 1989.

Irving resides in Oak Ridge where he operates a taxi for a business run by his former teammate, Watson.

Another of Irving’s teammates, Joe Curran, also operates a taxi service called Joe’s Taxi in Clemmons. Curran played for the Thunderbirds for four years and was a member of the championship teams in 1985 and 1986. From his accent, it might come as no surprise that he grew up in Boston. He attended the University of Massachusetts Boston from 1980 to 1984, where he played college hockey and earned a degree in sociology. Curran said he was familiar with Winston-Salem before he arrived because the Boston Red Sox operated their farm team there.

Curran said while he was there the team had a loyal following and built a family atmosphere for the players.

“People used to look out for us,” he said. “They had us over for dinner all the time. It was a lot of fun.”

Perhaps one of the more interesting career pathways has been Matt Winnicki, a player with the team during the ’84- ’85 and ’85-’86 seasons. Winnicki grew up on Long Island and played hockey on a full scholarship at the University of Vermont where he earned a degree in teaching. He ended up coming to Winston- Salem after being recruited by the Boston Bruins his senior year.

“Other than the American League and the International League, there wasn’t really any hockey development league like baseball has, like AA, AAA,” Winnicki said.

“At that time they didn’t have any.”

The Bruins and the Philadelphia Flyers both shared the Hershey Bears as their farm team, creating a limit of 10 to 12 players that could be signed upon being drafted. Finding out he would be heading to the lower tier Atlantic Coast Hockey League did not come as welcome news to Winnicki.

“So I’m sitting in the office and they told me that they’re sending you down to this league and here are the places that you could end up playing, one of them being Winston-Salem,” he said. “And I said, wait a minute, you’re sending me to North Carolina to play hockey? And they said, well we’re sending you down to this development league and that’s one of the places you can end up and I just looked at the general manager, and I said nobody plays hockey down there. Nobody even knows about hockey down there. If you send me down there, I’m just going to die and you’ll forget about me. So here I am 31 years later, I’m still here. I’ll probably die here.”

Winnicki said he was shocked at the level of passion and knowledge the fans carried with them.

“We filled that building (Memorial Coliseum) up quite a lot, which was really shocking,” he said. “I thought, wow this is a pretty wild atmosphere and fans were very knowledgeable, more than I ever thought.”

That included booster club president Doris Robinson and her husband Romeo, Winnicki said.

“They were the most fun, awesome people you’ll ever meet,” he said. “They were at every game, and they knew more about hockey than anybody in this area.”

Winnicki was scouted by the New York Islanders, but it didn’t work out and he retired from hockey in 1989. He was perfectly content to move on to his next career phase: law enforcement.

“I decided, looking at my personal life at that time, you know I had my degree. Playing hockey professional, or playing any professional sport, you know, it’s such a low percentage of people who actually make it that I felt myself fortunate to go and do what I did,” he said.

Winnicki had become friends with the police officers that provided security during games, and decided to put in an application to the Winston-Salem Police Department to be one himself. He said it took some time before others took him seriously.

“I didn’t really get too many funny stares, I just think that there were some that thought, well this guy’s a hockey player and all he’s going to want to do is fight and be a knucklehead because when he played we did a lot of fighting and a lot of other things,” he said.

Winnicki retired from the department two and a half years ago and now works as a representative of LegalShield, an identity theft protection service.

Several factors contributed to the decline of the team in the early ’90s. When Memorial Coliseum was torn down to make way for Joel Coliseum, the team began playing at the arena’s annex, which Winnicki said was not designed for hockey.

“There’s no amenities, the sightlines are terrible, and it’s not an inviting environment to play hockey in,” he said.

League expansion also took its tool when the Atlantic Coast Hockey League folded in 1987 to make way for the East Coast Hockey League. Prior to that, the Thunderbirds never played in a league with more than seven teams, and the furthest they ever had to travel was to upstate New York or Massachusetts. The ECHL grew from eight to 11 teams by the ’90-91 season, including the new Greensboro Monarchs.

Bill Coffey, who owned the team from 1984 to 1987 and co-founded the ECHL, said the team was not based on an economic model.

“It was just a matter of trying to keep hockey in Winston-Salem,” he said.

Coffey said rent was $2,000 per night, which made up about 12 percent of the team’s expenses.

At 27 teams, the ECHL has grown to nearly six times the size it was in its first season 26 years ago. Only seven teams play on the east coast, and of those just five are located in the South. Other teams in the league play as far as California and Alaska.

Coffey has also owned teams in Greensboro; Fayetteville; St. Petersburg, Florida; and Knoxville, Tennessee. He said six-figure travel is standard today and puts a heavy strain on a team’s budget.

“If you’re putting a league together, you’ve got to have travel partners,” he said.

Coffey now lives in Ocean Isle where he still does some consulting by phone for hockey teams and leagues.

Tom Fredericks, who was the assistant city manager at the time, said voters approved a referendum around 1984 to build a new arena in place of the aging coliseum.

“Our solution to getting a referendum approved was to build two buildings,” he said. “Back in those days, they didn’t have the sophisticated ice systems that they’ve got today with these insulated boards. We were playing in an old coliseum that didn’t have the best air conditioning and sometimes we had a few games Wake was playing basketball on top of ice and temperatures warmed up, and we ended up with water on the floor. So it was a real hassle.”

Joel Coliseum opened in 1989, and the Thunderbirds played in the annex for one season before leaving town. Fredericks said at that time, the city was running a deficit of $250,000 and attendance had shrunk to 1,500 per game.

“Greensboro can run $2.5 million a year,” he said. “Our city and our citizens didn’t want to lose a dime a year.”

Fredericks added that the Thunderbirds asked for a larger arena, but it made no economic sense to build one since the crowds were so sparse.

“I never could figure that out because I think we were averaging in that last season we were here about 1,500 a game,” he said. “And I think we figured, well gosh if we built a facility that would handle twice that crowd for them they ought to do well. But they didn’t see it that way.”

Bucky Dame, who managed Memorial Coliseum beginning in 1982, said games were always popular on Friday and Saturday nights due in part to a migration of northerners to the south.

“Some people were knowledgeable,” he said. “A lot of people just liked it for the entertainment aspect, the physicality of it and the fights, so that was part of it. I think over time, during the last 30 years or so, there’s been a lot of people from the North to the South, and you’rebringing more educated fans down when that happens.”

Dame said in addition to paying rent, the team also did not profit from concessions or parking, but they did receive advertising revenue. He said when the team moved into its new facility, the seating capacity went from 5500 to 3800 and the operating budget grew. He thinks this played a large role in the team’s decline.

“If they had still done it in the old coliseum and they had kept that old building, yeah it probably would have made a difference, but then again that old building needed a lot of work, and it’s a tradeoff,” he said.

Dame said one positive aspect of moving to the ECHL was the addition of the Monarchs since it created an intercity competition.

“It actually created a rivalry which helped each other’s attendance so it was almost a positive thing when they played each other,” he said.

Dame agreed that travel and expansion have made minor league hockey a more economically competitive sport, and salary caps are now necessary.

“If you pull up the East Coast Hockey League, look where their cities are,” he said. “They’re not exactly on the east coast.”

Still, Dame said he remains optimistic that hockey will one day return to Winston-Salem, something Winnicki is skeptical of.

“The biggest drawback and the biggest bar to having a viable, consistent, minor league presence here is the city,” he said. “Because you’re playing in city facilities, and they’re contractual agreements are really adverse to the minor league owner.”

Winnicki said when he was playing, the city received most money the team made each night and they had a scalable lease, meaning that the rent increased as the team’s popularity grew.

“If you had a game during the week and there were other things going on and your attendance was down, you didn’t make very much money but your rent went up so you had to pay more money,” he said. “So that created a gap. And then on top of that the city never ever would share parking revenue or concession revenue with the team.”

Winnicki said among other things, the deteriorating relationship between the Thunderbirds and the city was what ultimately led to the team’s departure.

“It wasn’t seen as an asset, it was seen as almost an adversarial relationship,” he said. “And when a number owner would come in and purchase the team and they would try to negotiate a contract, the city of Winston- Salem was not very amicable or agreeable to helping facilitate that relationship.”

Since 1992, Winston-Salem has seen a few other hockey teams come and go, but none ever garnered the same following that the Thunderbirds had. Irving, like Dame, has left the door open on the possibility of another team succeeding here.

“They could but I don’t think they should until they get a proper arena,” Irving said. !