Pro Hockey’s Legacy In New Jersey Prior to the NHL

Today, New Jersey is a participant in the National Hockey League with Newark’s New Jersey Devils franchise. But it was not always that way. New Jersey has had its share of minor league hockey over the years and it truly was a long road that the Garden State traveled to get to the big leagues.

The state of New Jersey first attempted to get into professional hockey in the 1920’s when the NHL was first expanding into American markets. After the first expansion, which included the New York Americans, the first hockey tenants of Madison Square Garden, the NHL received applications from several American and Canadian cities, including Jersey City. Although the city was turned down and did not receive an NHL franchise, that was not the last of the NHL’s interest in the state. Later in the ‘20s, the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Steel City’s first foray into the NHL, was struggling at the gate due to lackluster play and a dilapidated arena. The league’s original plan for the team was to relocate them to Atlantic City before the deal fell through. With nowhere else to go, the team was placed in Philadelphia and renamed the Quakers. The team was historically bad, losing 15 in a row at one point in their only season (1930-31) in the City of Brotherly Love. They folded after that single season. The NHL was not to return to Pittsburgh or Philly for almost another 40 years. Jersey would not get their chance at the NHL until the Devils arrived a little over 50 years later. Atlantic City would get their shot at pro hockey when the minor league Tri-State Hockey League’s Atlantic City Sea Gulls debuted in 1932-33 (the league’s only season). The Sea Gulls won the league’s only championship and competed against the Baltimore Orioles, Hershey B’ars (now the American League’s Hershey Bears) and Philadelphia Comets in the four team league.

Although major pro hockey was not in the cards for New Jersey at that point, there was minor pro hockey, which would go on to be centered in the Cherry Hill area in South Jersey throughout most of the 1960s and ‘70s. The Eastern Hockey League was a minor pro circuit that played from 1954 to 1973 and had teams based from New England to Florida in its heyday, including teams in Nashville (the Dixie Flyers), Long Island (the Ducks), Jacksonville (the Rockets) and Baltimore (the Clippers). In 1960, the Eastern Hockey League’s Washington Presidents moved to the Haddonfield Ice House and were renamed the Jersey Larks. The Larks lasted only one season in the EHL before moving to Knoxville, Tennessee to become the Knoxville Knights. They went 24-39-1 and lost in the second round of the EHL playoffs.

The next team to call New Jersey home played in the Cherry Hill Arena and was called the Jersey Devils. In August 1964, the Philadelphia Ramblers were replaced in the EHL by New Jersey’s second entry into the league after failing “to fulfill its financial obligations to the league” according to newspaper reports at the time. The Devils would eventually have an affiliation with Philadelphia’s new NHL expansion franchise, the Flyers. The first season (1964-65) the Jersey Devils, coached by Pat Kelly and playing in the EHL’s Northern Division went 34-34-4, but would lose in the first round of the playoffs. They missed out on the playoffs in their second season going 25-43-4 and being coached by Benny Woit. Their third season, 1966-67, they went 39-30-3 (the best record in team history) and lost in the EHL finals. That year, they were coached by Vic Stasiuk who would go on to coach in the NHL for the Flyers for two seasons, the California Golden Seals for one and the Vancouver Canucks for one. The team would play six more seasons in Cherry Hill and never make the playoffs again. They had five more head coaches, including Gord Stratton, Marcel Pelletier, Lou Jankowski, Wayne Kitchen and Jim Hay, but would not finish above .500 in those six years.

The Devils folded with the league in 1973, but the Cherry Hill Arena would not be vacant for long. The World Hockey Association formed in the early 1970s and one of their early priorities was to put a team in the New York City area. They were eyeing the newly-built Nassau Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum as a home for what they hoped would be the league’s premier franchise, the New York Raiders. However, in a pre-emptive strike, the NHL would grant the team that would become the New York Islanders to begin play in 1972-73 to owners that would put them in the building. With the Nassau Coliseum out of the question, the team would strike a deal that would see them share Madison Square Garden with the Rangers for the 72-73 WHA season. That worked about as well as you would expect and, despite changing their name to the New York Golden Blades for the 1973-74 season, they would move to Cherry Hill one month into the season, debuting in the rink on November 10, 1973 as the Jersey Knights. The arena was famously inadequate; with an incline in the ice surface and visiting dressing rooms that did not meet major league standards (the visitors had to change and shower in a motel across the street from the arena and take a bus to the rink in their uniforms). The Knights lasted the rest of the 1973-74 season in Cherry Hill before moving to San Diego to become the Mariners for the rest of their existence in the WHA.

Minor pro hockey would briefly reappear in Cherry Hill, as the Northeastern Hockey League’s Jersey Aces (who were sold to Philadelphia Phillies legend Mike Schmidt prior to their first season in 1978-79) would last at the newly-named Cherry Hill Centrum only a few months. On January 9, 1979, the Phillies star third baseman moved the team to Hampton, Virginia where they would split their games between the Hampton Coliseum and the Norfolk Scope in Norfolk. One player on the Aces was former Rangers and (briefly tenured) Islanders General Manager Neil Smith, the man who built the 1993-94 Stanley Cup champions who defeated the New Jersey Devils in seven hard-fought games (plus overtime) in the Eastern Conference Final.

The Cherry Hill Arena would eventually be torn down in the 1980s and replaced by a strip mall, but its place in New Jersey hockey lore is irreplaceable. It may not have been modern (or even satisfactory), but the building was the first to host big league hockey in the state of New Jersey until the Meadowlands Arena opened in 1981 (the Rangers and Flyers played in a preseason game a year prior to the arrival of the Devils). Finally in 1982-83, the NHL arrived in the form of the Colorado Rockies and the New Jersey Devils were born. Taking their nickname from the most successful of the teams to previously call Jersey home, the Devils are the heirs to a rich legacy of pro hockey in New Jersey that stretches back decades.

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