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Remembering Pro Hockey’s First Storm Surge in the Carolinas

Long before the NHL’s Hartford Whalers relocated to Raleigh to become the Carolina Hurricanes, decades before the Storm Surge swept across the arena, pro hockey made itself at home in the southern United States. And Greensboro and Winston-Salem were part of it all.

The Southern Hockey League was formed in 1973 and operated into 1977. It was the first professional hockey league in which all of the teams were situated in southeast US states. Four of the teams — the Roanoke Valley Rebels, Charlotte Checkers, Greensboro Generals, and Suncoast Suns – departed from the Eastern Hockey League and were joined by two new teams, the Winston-Salem Polar Twins and the Macon Whoopees, for the inaugural 1973-74 season of the SHL. This was also taking place as the NHL first expanded into the southern USA, adding the Atlanta Flames as an expansion franchise in 1972.

Southern Hockey League” by SPHL is licensed under CC BY 3.0

While top online sports betting sites such as Spin Palace are currently offering short odds on the Hurricanes as NHL Central Division contenders and even potentially repeating the Stanley Cup triumph they previously earned in 2005-06, not many would’ve been betting on the odds of minor league hockey gaining a foothold in the U.S. south in the 1970s. And to be brutally honest, the brief journey of the SHL was definitely a rough and bumpy ride.

Birth Of The SHL

The founding of the SHL was unveiled on May 21, 1973. The Polar Twins, so named to represent the twin cities of Winston-Salem, featured cartoon skating polar bears as a logo and were owned by a conglomerate of 15 people. Eventually, Jim Crockett Jr. took over ownership of the team. Best known as a wrestling promoter, Crockett was the man behind the NWA and is given credit for discovering Ric Flair.

A month after the SHL formed, the Generals were sold by owner Tedd Munchak, who was also owner of the ABA Carolina Cougars at the time, to a pair of Greensboro residents, Norman Curtis and Carl Scheer. Scheer would make his name as an NBA GM. He was the first GM of the Charlotte Hornets and is also credited as the man who created the NBA slam dunk contest during the league’s all-star weekend.

To recognize the work he’d done in getting the league off the ground, the SHL named its championship award the Tedd Munchak Trophy.

Greensboro, Winston-Salem and Charlotte were the only franchises that were part of each season of the SHL.

WHA Affiliation

The plan was for the SHL franchises to be affiliates for teams in the World Hockey Association, a major-league rival to the NHL. On paper, it made sense, but from a marketing standpoint it proved a challenge. Teams didn’t know who’d be on their rosters until just prior to the start of the season, so promoting the club to the fanbase and creating a buzz about the team was difficult.

Southern Hockey League” by SPHL is licensed under CC BY 3.0

Turnover in personnel was frequent. In 1973-74, the Generals suited up seven goalies. Two seasons later, the roster featured six netminders. Greensboro’s lineup included Earl Heiskala, who played 127 games for the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers and Jeff Carlson, best remembered as one of the Hanson brothers in the hockey cult film Slap Shot.

Winston-Salem’s most famous face was Forbes Kennedy, who coached the club from 1974-76. A long time NHL tough guy, Kennedy led the NHL in penalty minutes in 1968-69, notoriously finishing his season while playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs by decking linesman George Ashley during a bench-clearing brawl in a Stanley Cup game against the Boston Bruins.

Another notable Polar Twin was goaltender Bob Champoux. During the 1964 NHL playoffs, Champoux was a last-minute replacement when Detroit Red Wings goalie Terry Sawchuk suffered a back injury. Making his NHL debut in what would be his only Stanley Cup game, Champoux beat the Chicago Blackhawks 6-4.

When Things Went South For the SHL

It all began to unravel for the SHL in January of 1977. On Jan. 3, both the Richmond and Generals franchises folded. Four days later, players of the Tidewater Sharks, owed two weeks back pay, announced they wouldn’t play their game that night against Baltimore.

Tidewater ownership opted to pull the plug and Crockett announced he’d be following suit shortly thereafter. The three remaining teams made a pitch to the IHL and NAHL to play an interlocking schedule, but were rebuffed by those leagues.

On Jan. 30, 1977, the SHL ceased operations.

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