Is Charlotte becoming a hockey town? The Checkers road to the Calder Cup might make you think so.
It’s always 90 degrees outside these days. But a local sports team has gotten even hotter than that – the Charlotte Checkers.
On Saturday at Bojangles’ Coliseum, the Checkers begin one last best-of-7 series against the Chicago Wolves. Minor-league hockey has roots in Charlotte dating back to 1956. But if the Checkers win this championship, it will be the most prestigious title the team has ever put on ice.
The Checkers already have a strong home fan base – they averaged about 6,700 fans during the regular season. But they shoehorned 8,393 people into their 64-year-old building Sunday night for a Game 6 playoff thriller in the Eastern Conference finals. Charlotte won in double overtime against Toronto on a goal by Morgan Geekie – yes, it was a Geekie goal — that pushed the Checkers into the Calder Cup Finals, which is minor-league hockey’s version of the Stanley Cup.
“It was electric,” said Pam Reddeck, a season-ticket holder. “When the Checkers got that last goal Sunday night, it just about blew the roof off the place.”
Reddeck and her husband have the sort of personal story that speaks to the deep roots that both Bojangles’ Coliseum (which opened in 1955) and the Checkers boast in Charlotte.
Jim Reddeck, 77, actually saw some of the city’s first minor-leaguehockey games in early 1956
. The home rink for the Baltimore Clippers was obliterated by a fire that season, and the Maryland team needed a place to play its final five games. An investment group from Charlotte convinced Baltimore to relocate those games to Charlotte.
Close to 10,000 Charlotteans came to each one (they were sometimes preceded by on-ice tutorials, since most Southerners only had a vague understanding of hockey’s rules). The Clippers were used to playing to crowds of about 2,000 in Baltimore. So they pulled up stakes and moved to Charlotte for the next season, officially becoming the Charlotte Clippers. The franchise would first receive the nickname of “Checkers” in the late 1950s after a name-the-team contest.
“I didn’t know much about hockey at first,” Jim Reddeck said of those early years, “but I couldn’t get enough of those games.”
Twenty years later, in 1976, Jim and Pam both attended a Checkers game on the same night. They met for the first time afterward at a local Charlotte bar.
They have since been married more than 40 years (she worked mostly as a nurse; he was a truck driver). They have attended hundreds more Checkers’ home games together in the coliseum.
“There’s not a bad seat in the whole place,” Pam Reddeck said.
“And this Checkers team,” Jim Reddeck said, “is special.”
‘Something I’m never going to forget’
The current Checkers’ players, of course, don’t have that sort of Queen City history. They are mostly young men in their 20s from other, colder places who are now playing at the top level of minor-league hockey. Charlotte moved up to this level of hockey, which is analogous to Triple-A baseball, in 2010, and is the affiliate for the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes.
Several Checkers players already have some NHL experience. All of them want to get to the NHL and then stick there.
But in the meantime, the Checkers are one of the last two teams standing in the 31-team American Hockey League.
Patrick Brown, a 27-year-old forward and a team captain, said Sunday’s double-OT win was one of the season’s defining moments. “You grow up playing hockey with your buddies when you’re five years old, and you dream about scoring that double OT goal,” he said.
Afterward, Brown said, the players saluted the crowd. “They were just jumping, going wild, screaming,” Brown said. “It’s something I’m never going to forget.”
The Checkers will host Games 1 and 2 of the Calder Cup Finals on Saturday and Sunday.
But the Checkers can’t practice on their home ice in Bojangles’ Coliseum all week, in part because of all the high school graduation ceremonies scheduled in the building over the next couple of weeks.
Instead, they are driving a half hour down to Extreme Ice in Indian Trail. But that’s no big deal to this team – the players are used to sharing their coliseum with all sorts of concerts and events.
The Checkers also shared the Spectrum Center with the Charlotte Hornets uptown for a decade beginning in 2005, but then returned to their roots in a renovated Bojangles’ Coliseum. They seem to fit better in the old building, anyway, which is more intimate (it has less than half the capacity of Spectrum Center) and gets more of the fans closer to the action.
Said Mike Vellucci, the Checkers coach: “You know what I love about that old building? It’s loud, right? The acoustics are great.”
Hockey in June?
Vellucci may be a future NHL coach himself. He guided the Checkers to a 51-17-8 record in the 2018-19 regular season – the best in franchise history – and was named the AHL’s Most Outstanding Coach. His team has already won three playoff series, including a victory over the defending champion Toronto Marlies in the Eastern Conference final.
“There are times I’ve got to steer the ship,” Vellucci said, “and there are times the players are going to steer it. I had to steer the ship when we were down 3-0 in Game 2 (against Toronto) and everybody looked in a little bit of a panic. My point to them was, ‘How good is it going to feel when we win?’ And we won.”
The Checkers have been doing a lot of that sort of thing lately, winning one close game after another. It helps that they also employ the AHL’s Most Outstanding Goalie in Alex Nedeljkovic and that the team is balanced enough to get scoring from all sorts of places.
Hockey in June is a rarity in Charlotte, but it’s about to happen. Bundle up.
AHL Calder Cup Finals
Saturday, 6 p.m.: at Charlotte
Sunday, 6 p.m.: at Charlotte
June 5, 8 p.m.: at Chicago
June 6, 8 p.m.: at Chicago
June 8, 8 p.m.: at Chicago*
June 13, 7 p.m.: at Charlotte*
June 14, 7 p.m.: at Charlotte*
*if necessary; games on AHLTV.