April 18, 2011

From NEHJ: Rhode Island remembers its Reds

By Jesse Connolly

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal. 

The Rhode Island Reds, including the 1929-30 team, formed an uncommon bond with their fans.

The Rhode Island Reds, including the 1929-30 team, formed an uncommon bond with their fans.

Throughout their 50-plus year existence, the Providence Reds were perhaps one of the most cherished sports teams in North America. The minor-league hockey club, which captured the Calder Cup on four occasions as champions of the AHL, formed a familial bond with their fans — one so strong that literally nothing could keep them from attending every home game at the smoke-filled, jam-packed Rhode Island Auditorium on Main Street in Providence.

And while it’s been more than three decades since the Reds played their last game before being relocated to New York and rebranded as the Binghamton Dusters, the love affair remains as strong as ever. Longtime sportscaster and owner of RocJo Productions, Joe Rocco, spent two years putting together more than 20 hours of interviews, film and photos to tell the Reds’ tale, an effort that earned him an Emmy Award for best sports special of 2009, “When the Reds Ruled the Roost.”

How did you get involved in putting the special on the Reds together?

“I got involved because I’ve been a member of the Rhode Island Reds Heritage Society, which is an organization down here that has over 700 members. The team hasn’t played since 1977. Just going to some of the functions and hearing some of the classic stories from some of those hockey legends, starting maybe five or six years ago, had me thinking that these were great stories. Whether they were Hall of Famers or they just played on the third line, they were all great stories, and none of these guys were getting any younger.”

What part of the Reds’ story was the most compelling and really motivated you to want to tell it?

“There wasn’t really one compelling issue, it was just to be able to show the love affair between a hockey club and its passionate fans. This team, especially in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, they were true heroes in this community. They were as popular as the Red Sox and Patriots are now, and that’s kind of unthinkable for a minor-league hockey team. We didn’t want to just put together a nuts-and-bolts hockey piece. Even if you couldn’t care less about the Reds or you weren’t a huge hockey fan, you’d still be entertained by the piece. From the tons of feedback that we’ve gotten, even the lukewarm hockey fans have really loved it because we told a story.

“I found so much of the individual stories, whether it was about crazy things that happened in this famous arena down here or just the passion that the people had — people who would walk through blizzards for hours and never miss a Sunday night game no matter what — you just don’t see that anymore, especially in minor-league sports.”

How did the bond between the community and the team, from ownership down to the players, set the Reds apart?

“It was a different era and a different time. The owner was a guy that would invite the players over to his backyard for cookouts. They do a reunion once a year down here and the players come in from everywhere. Johnny Bower sends a bus full of fans down from Toronto. Milt Schmidt comes and they sell it out every year. How many teams could do that 34 years after they’ve played their last game?”

What transpired in 1977 that forced the Reds to leave Providence behind?

“The team had no affiliation at that point. They had ownership that, I was told, wasn’t really running the team well. The team didn’t have a good record and players were coming and going. A big part of it, too, was that they moved to the Providence Civic Center. It was a nice, shiny, new building, but it didn’t have the charm and the history of the Rhode Island Auditorium that people grew up going to. Five thousand people in the auditorium, the place was rocking. But with 3,500 people in a new cavernous arena, one that held 12,000 fans, it just wasn’t the same. Because the team wasn’t winning and the atmosphere was different, it just died a slow death.”

How have the former Reds, including their stars, remained connected to the team and its loyal fans?

“Milt Schmidt, he was a guy that was down here for only a couple of months, he still comes to these Reds events. He came to our documentary premiere. You’d think the guy played for the team for seven years. The thing you have to remember is, back then, there were only six NHL teams. You could make the argument that probably half the guys that played on the Reds today would be in the NHL, and that they’d be stars.

“You look at a guy like Gil Mayer, a five-time winner of the Harry Holmes Memorial Award (lowest goals-against average), there were only 12 goalies in the NHL at the time. A guy like that would’ve probably been one of the best goalies to ever play in the National Hockey League.”

Could the aura that surrounded the Reds ever again be replicated?

“I’ve heard so many stories that I felt like I spent time in that Rhode Island Auditorium. I have spent plenty of time at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center watching the Providence Bruins. It was special when the P-Bruins first arrived, but I think it’s pretty safe to say that the atmosphere now — and certainly the passion — is not even close to what it was for the Reds, especially during their heyday when they won a few championships. It’s not even close.

“We had so many great stories that we might even do a second volume. If you didn’t even know who the Reds were, you’d at least be somewhat entertained listening to these guys.”

Fans interested in “When the Reds Ruled the Roost” can visit www.rocjo.com