By Jack Horan
Special to The Charlotte Observer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Professional ice hockey arrived in Charlotte in 1956 by accident.
The Baltimore Clippers came here to play their final five games after the team’s arena in Baltimore burned.
On Jan. 30, 10,363 fans jammed the newly built Charlotte Coliseum (now Cricket Arena) on Independence Boulevard to watch the South’s first pro hockey game. Authorities turned away another 3,000 as the Clippers lost to the New Haven Blades 6-2.
Charlotte embraced the Clippers, who moved their franchise here the next year and won the league championship. Minor league hockey at the coliseum would become part of the city’s sport’s scene for most of 49 years.
The Clippers picked up a neighborhood rival in 1959 with the addition of the Greensboro Generals. The Clippers later solidified their identity with Charlotte in 1962 by adopting the name Checkers.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Friday night games against Greensboro often drew 8,000.
The 1970-71 and 1971-72 Checkers, coached by Fred Creighton, won league championships. Charlotte shifted to the Southern Hockey League in 1973, which folded in 1977. Coach Pat Kelly, who now lives in Charlotte, picked up two championships. Checker Gaye Cooley probably was the last goalie in pro hockey to play without a face mask.
After a 16-year lapse, team owners Carl Scheer and Felix Sabates in 1993 revived hockey after the city refurbished the coliseum, then called Independence Arena. The team, under different ownership in a different league, kept the name Checkers and created the bear-with-a-black-eye mascot called Chubby.
Under coach John Marks, the present Checkers won their only ECHL championship in 1996.