Toledo Remembers The “Old Barn”

By Mark Monroe
Sports Writer
The Toledo Blade

TOLEDO, Ohio – Hockey echoes throughout the colorful story of the legendary Toledo Sports Arena.

Hockey was the lifeblood of the great “Old Barn” at One Main Street. Hockey is the main character of its story written over 60 years, authored by unforgettable athletes and witnessed by countless loyal and passionate fans.

The Sports Arena became part of hockey lore even as its rich life extended beyond its reasonable expiration date. As the historic building meets the wrecking ball tomorrow, any eulogy must shine a spotlight on the Sports Arena’s main tenant.

Eleven minor league hockey titles were won at the Sports Arena, including one in its first year of existence. That 1947-48 championship started a string that led to the most minor league hockey titles ever won in a single building.

The Sports Arena will forever be linked with teams that had a cast of characters and sported the familiar nicknames: Mercurys, Buckeyes, Blades, Hornets, Goaldiggers and Storm.

“There are a lot of memories in that joint,” said Gary Wyse, who served as general manager of the Sports Arena for the last 30 years. “It was designed to accommodate hockey. There will never be a better place to watch a hockey game. The players. The memories. The worst seats were only 40 feet from the ice. It was loud. “It echoed.”

The “Riverdome” offered an unparalleled, intimate setting where fervent fans truly were part of the action. It was the place to be in the heyday of the 1970s when Toledo became a true hockey town.

But the Sports Arena was equally despised by the opposition for its rowdy fans, small ice surface and closet-sized locker rooms.

Yet the players were treated like deities when they skated at the Sports Arena and their heroics continue to grow to this day.

The classic hockey movie Slap Shot could have been filmed there and the story lines would have been even crazier.

The first pro hockey team that played at the arena was called the Bauer-Harringtons, named for a local Mercury dealership, and it set a perfect precedent. That team won an International Hockey League title that first year and was renamed theMercurys.

The Mercs, which actually played in both the north and south divisions of the IHL the next year, would win two more titles in ’51 and ’52. The team left the IHL for the Eastern Hockey League for the 1949-50 season and was renamed the Buckeyes.

Frank Myers served as the stick boy for the Mercurys in 1959 and 1960 when he was a teenager. Myers, who grew up in East Toledo, recalled the wacky characters that once patrolled the ice at the Sports Arena when it was in its infancy.

“The Mercs were ahead by one goal late in the third period, but were running out of gas,” he said. “Toledo player-coach Frank Stahan called a timeout to ‘look’ for his false teeth that he claimed fell out of his mouth around the goal crease. After about five minutes of looking with no luck, play resumed and the Mercs hung on to win after the nice rest. Of course, his teeth were in a cup of water in the dressing room.”

Myers, who is now 63 and lives in Denver, also recalled when Billy Booth was in the penalty box for high sticking and hit the player over the head a second time when he skated past.

“I remember visiting teams going up in the stands after fans,” Myers said. “There was the famous incident of the St. Paul Saints standing in the middle of the ice during a riot with the fans. Players were swinging sticks at the fans and the fans were throwing chairs at the players before the riot squad showed up.”

Myers also said he attended hockey schools at the arena with NHL legends Gordie Howe, Terry Sawchuk and Leonard “Red” Kelly serving as the instructors.

Left-winger Greg Jablonski, who played for the Toledo Blades and Hornets over a 10-year career, said his first impression of the arena came as an opposing player.

“I remember playing against Toledo,” Jablonski said. “The fans would throw chairs on the ice. They’d squirt you with mustard and ketchup through the chicken wire. We used to have awful games in Toledo.”

Jablonski, now 72, led the Blades to two Turner Cup titles (1964 and 1967) during a no-holds-barred era that seemed perfectly fit for the Sports Arena.

“If you ever saw the movie Slap Shot, well I have stories that would put that to shame,” Jablonski said.

Forward Brian Kinsella, who led the Goaldiggers to a Turner Cup championship in 1981-82 and helped the team repeat the following year, said as much as the Sports Arena was loved by the home fans, it was despised by opposing players.

“I loved the small ice surface. It benefited me,” Kinsella said. “The fans treated you like you were a god and there wasn’t a bad seat in the whole building. But when I was with Dayton, we hated coming in here. If you happened to win, it was unbelievable.”

Longtime hockey broadcaster Mike Miller began calling games in Toledo in 1980-81 and broadcast Goaldigger games for five years.

“I started working there in the ’70s selling season tickets when they were the Hornets,” Miller said. “It was a huge thrill. There were so many tremendous players.

“In the ’70s it was the place to be around here,” Miller said. “They packed in 4,000 every weekend and the place would just rock. The crowd was right on top of you.”

Miller said the Goaldiggers were tough, but could score and always dominated at home. He said the reason Toledo is such “a tremendous hockey town” had everything to do with the atmosphere at the Sports Arena.

“It’s really part of hockey lore,” he said. “If you run into a player and tell them you’re from Toledo, the first thing they talk about is playing there. The stories go on and on amongst players.”

The Goaldiggers, led by feisty coach Ted Garvin, and their fans were “like a cult,” Miller said.

“I’ll never forget Mike Greeder skating around with the Cup with tears in his eyes. He was a tough, rugged guy,” Miller said. “Those were some great teams. They were rough and skilled with Jim McCabe and Doug Mahood and so many more.”

Mahood, a popular forward for the Diggers, said the fans added significantly to the Sports Arena’s aura as an intimidating, band-sized rink.

“I’m still treated so well. It’s almost embarrassing,” Mahood said.

Former Storm player Iain Duncan agreed with those assessments. Duncan, who also played two-and-a-half seasons for the Winnipeg Jets, led the Storm to back-to-back Riley Cup titles in 1993 and 1994.

“I loved to play there,” Duncan said. “You didn’t have to skate far to hit someone. You never wanted to be the visiting team there though. The fans were right on top of you. And that locker room …”

Goalie Drew MacIntyre, who played three seasons for the Storm at the Sports Arena, said playing on the small surface made him a better netminder.

“It’s definitely a tougher place to play,” MacIntyre said. “If I can play well in the Sports Arena, I can play anywhere. It’s so much smaller, everything happens quicker. It’s a great atmosphere. The fans make it special.”

Defenseman Jason Maleyko, who served as captain of the last team to play there, said he was honored to be on the final Storm teams that would perform at the arena.

“It was a huge advantage,” Maleyko said. “The ice was so small and the fans were so loud. It was very intimidating for opposing teams to come in here.”

Nick Vitucci, the last coach of a pro team to play at the arena, always said the home ice advantage provided by the unique dimensions of the aging facility was a huge bonus.

“The atmosphere was second to none,” Vitucci said. “The enthusiasm and loudness was deafening. I would love it if they could bottle it up and put it in the new 8,000-seat arena.”