This past week we had the NWHL starting season two (with a team moving from Brooklyn to New Jersey) and the NHL opening with the continued question of where the Islanders will eventually end up; Brooklyn, Queens, back to Long Island…as they begin another season at Barclays Center. All that talk of prompted this post about a New York hockey team that well…never was. But I was a part of it. Here is the story circa 1985, of a team which I left working for before it really started, 29 years ago this week.
Yes there have been other hockey teams in the New York area other than the current three. The New York Raiders and Golden Blades, the Long Island Ducks, the New York (Brooklyn as well) Americans, the River Vale Skeeters (in my current town, although no trace still exists), the New York Rovers, Brooklyn Aviators and the Jersey Outlaws and…the New York Slapshots.
Never heard of the Slapshots, who were to play at the Phil Esposito Sports and Entertainment Center on Staten Island in the fall of 1985? Good reason. The arena and for the most part the team, never really existed for a long time. Now it wasn’t for a lack of trying. The Slapshots, named after the movie, were housed in the Windsor Terrace offices hard by the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, not far from where the Staten Island Yankees play in the New York Penn-League today. They were to be part of the fledgling Atlantic Coast Hockey League (there is a Wikipedia page for it) and would bring professional sports to the sometimes-forgotten but sports-crazy borough of Staten Island. They would be playing in a gleaming pre-fab building that would seats 3,500 (we had the diagrams) in the Travis section of Staten Island, near a new state-of-the art bowling center and easy access for fans coming from New Jersey and Brooklyn as well. The team had good senior management…Charlie Cuttone and longtime NHL and minor league sports empresario Norb Ecksl and we had a big time coach- Dave “The Hammer Schultz, not far removed from his days leading the Philadelphia Flyers to their Stanley Cups and looking to get into hockey adminstration.
There was a spring press conference in Manhattan, and a sales and marketing team was in place. So myself, fresh out of Fordham and working nights at SportsPhone (in the days before sports radio and regional networks this was how you git score updates, 976-1313) and a group of others looking to break into sports, including a former MLB umpire named Zach Rebekoff and a former Oakland A’s sales and marketing guy named Scott Alderman. I didn’t have a car so I would take the subway and the ferry to Staten Island and then set out on foot, train and bus to all parts of the Island selling tickets and advertising throughout the summer of 1986 and into the fall. There was great enthusiasm…we sold dasher boards and promotions, plastic cups and season tickets, eventhough no arena even existed. We hired a day-to-day guy to run the hockey operations (Joe Selenski who later went on to coach the Johnstown Chiefs in the city where “Slapshot” was filmed) and we had a draft and started to get players. All with seating charts and hope.
As the fall progressed even the most enthusiastic followers were getting worried. You see, the arena had yet to arrive. “It’s coming on a truck in pieces from Georgia, it will be here in a matter of days,” we were told. September turned into October, and players even started to arrive. We had a woman named Kate McCoy who helped arrange housing for the players as they showed up in Staten Island, staying at the Holiday Inn adjacent to the Staten Island Expressway. We started to plan for a season to start on the road in outposts like Erie, Pa., with hopes I had of broadcasting the games. We were hired to be the official statisticians for the ACHL (there were other franchises with real buildings in addition to players). Dave would do appearances and we would sign sponsors with the building arriving any day. It all seemed real…we had had real marketing people, real offices, a real logo, a VERY real coach and very real players. How couldn’t the building be real (we never did see Phil Esposito by the way, who never had any stake in the building or the project other than giving his name to it)? So I kept walking Staten Island with my sales kit (there were farms still at one end of the island) and kept talking to the players as they arrived from all parts of the hockey world, with training camp starting in the Ironbound Arena in Newark, New Jersey.
As the preseason started, we would now open the season on the road for a month and play the home opener before Christmas we were told, Alderman and I, neither with a car, decided to take a trip out to the site, which we heard was now being prepared for the area. As we arrived, the silence was deafening. Nothing. Not a worker or a construction trailer, just a blown down sign proclaiming the site as the “Future Home of The Slapshots.” Tumble weeds, Staten Island style, blew across the huge empty expanse of land. We were crushed. We returned to the ferry terminal in hopes that we were missing something.
As luck would have it for me, an opportunity arose. Iona College’s Sports Information Director Tom Didato had suddenly resigned, and the Gaels needed a quick replacement. Their season was to open in two weeks at the University of North Carolina. My mentor, the late PR guru Mike Cohen, called Iona athletic director Rick Mazutto and the job was mine. I left Staten Island and the Slapshots as the season opened somewhere in upstate New York. Although I returned to the borough to do stats for the league through the first month of the season on Sunday nights…typing and then sending the league info out via telecopier…the team never arrived. They played a few games in Ironbound and then headed to other locales like Virginia to play “home” games. The arena was some sort of scam, the money disappeared, and the Slapshots faded into history.
Over the years I kept in touch with Cuttone who has been involved in a variety of business and currently runs a top soccer website. Ecksl went on to work again with several professional teams in various marketing functions and stays busy in various areas of sports. Rebekoff ran an umpiring school for a while and stayed in sales, while Schultz remained and is still a Philly icon, although never as a coach. The others drifted away over time, some continuing on as the team ended up in Troy, New York before folding. As far as the ACHL, it eventually became part of the ECHL which exists today in the minors, but no team anywhere near Staten Island. The Yankees finally figured out the Staten Island passion and build their ballpark overlooking Manhattan and remain a strong force in minor league baseball. As far as the site goes, it had another brush with fame in sports a few years later, when NASCAR proposed building a track in the vast area close to New Jersey. Like the hockey building, that project never came to see the light of day either.
For me, the Slapshots were a great first step in a career, at the lowest rungs of sports, selling something that didn’t exist. It gave me that grassroots experience and a lot of fun with some very smart people who were in it for the passion as much as the money. Luckily I emerged from the experience unscathed financially, with a business card that I still hold on to (my first) to this day.
So as another NHL season gets going, maybe somewhere down the line they will honor some of those teams of the past with a little retro night in Brooklyn. If they do, I have the logo from a team that tried, and failed, to do what they will probably be successful at…creating fun and successful professional hockey outside of Manhattan. Nothing better than majoring in the minors to get a start, even on Staten Island.