Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Wrestling and Hockey Collide on Cape Cod




(These documentary-style features are what I aim to be the real "bread and butter" of the website. The human interest story should have a place in wrestling, and I lead today with one that really interested me personally, the story of Vince McMahon's little-known hockey franchise)

It often takes the inventive a few tries to find exactly their “schtick.”

Vince McMahon, Chairman, CEO, and founder of World Wrestling Entertainment, made his millions promoting wrestling, something he was born into, and born to change. The same creativity, though, that inspired him to introduce Hulk Hogan, the Ultimate Warrior, and the other larger-than-life characters that would eventually take wrestling out of small arenas and into being the perennial box-office smash it is today, also led, and continue to lead, him down other avenues. Over the years, he’s tried his hand at promoting the motorcycle jumps of Evil Knievel, boxing, bodybuilding, football, and movies, amongst other things.

It is unlikely his main passion has ever been anything but pro wrestling and the universe he has created – at least for any extended amount of time. Even still, knowing the creative mind rarely sees past the venture it is within, one must wonder about those times where, even if for just a passing moment, McMahon saw himself as the future of, not the squared circle, but the gridiron; not Slammys, but Oscars. By this way of thinking, the early eighties for Vince McMahon would mean those brief seconds in which he may have contemplated himself the next big name….in professional hockey.

It may sound crazy – it is not well known – but before the WBF or the XFL, before fetching Terry “The Hulk” Boulder from Minneapolis to be his wrestling champion, McMahon was striking deals and drawing up contracts with Paul Mooney, Harry Sinden, and the brass of the Boston Bruins. Using the B’s, he created such momentum on the small, scarcely-populated peninsula where he and his young family made their home from 1979 until he bought the then World Wrestling Federation from his father in 1982, that they in consequence eventually landed a hockey team of their own.


A fuzzy photograph of Andre the Giant, some local character calling himself "The Cape Cod Cowboy," and a very young Shane-O-Mac.

McMahon’s years-long foray into hockey all started in April 1979, when he began talks with a man name Ed Fruean to bring in one of his father’s wrestling shows to Fruean’s small local arena, the Cape Cod Coliseum in South Yarmouth, Massachusetts. He found in Fruean a man who had come to own an arena, but with no real interest in running events himself, and having had no real luck with the people he had brought in to do it for him. As such, what had started as a conversation about a single event on Cape Cod, turned into a dream deal for a young promoter looking to make a name for himself and step out of his father’s shadow. Fruean and McMahon agreed on a pact that would essentially allow McMahon, paying nothing up front, to lease the Coliseum.

And for what it was, the future “certified billionaire” succeeded where others had failed. The building to this point had a fraught history of being too-often empty and unused. But McMahon did well by bringing in different and eclectic acts, including Jeff Beck, the Allman Brothers, the Boston Pops, the Harlem Globetrotters, boxing cards, and of course, pro wrestling.

Hockey, on the other hand, was a different story. In the communities surrounding the Coliseum, there was skepticism abound, because of all the building’s past failures, disastrous experiments in semi-professional hockey had been the most epic and documented. The structure was built to house a hockey team, the Cape Cod Cubs of the Eastern Hockey League, in 1972. When they folded, the Cape Codders were brought in….and then the Cape Cod Freedom. Going into 1980, all three had failed, none seeing past two full seasons, and all leaving a trail of bankrupted investors in their wake. The warnings were clear and harsh, as one local columnist wrote, “When will people on Cape Cod, investors and creditors alike, finally realize and accept the fact that there is not enough year round population to support a professional hockey team here on our peninsula? You could wallpaper the cavernous confines of the Cape Cod Coliseum with IOU's and debts incurred by previous combines that will never be paid.”

Perhaps the way to discourage an entrepreneur the stature of Vince McMahon is to do anything but tell them they can’t make something work. In any case, the Boston Bruins were no semi-pro team, and in early September 1979, there he sat at a press conference alongside Brad Park and Rick Middleton to brashly announce “the event that would put the Coliseum on the map.” He had landed a Buffalo Sabres versus Boston Bruins preseason game to be played in the Coliseum on October 6. Whatever the history, the structure was rocking on that night, a sellout, 5-4 win for the Bruins, and one that would come to be viewed in many circles as McMahon had earlier predicted it would be, “the greatest event in the building’s history.”

Through his efforts to bring in high-level professional hockey to his little building, McMahon had forged such close ties with the Bruins that they were back the next year to announce a preseason game against the New York Rangers, and also that a Cape Cod Coliseum exhibition would soon become an annual tradition. The real impact that these successes had on the region, however, was to again start the talk of Cape Cod having a team of their own.

Vince McMahon brings in the B's for a press conference at the Cape Cod Coliseum.

They got their chance in the summer of 1981 with the formation of a new semi-pro league, the Atlantic Coast Hockey League. When the Boston Bruins were approached about possibly fielding a team, though not interested in direct involvement, they did know just the man for the job. McMahon welcomed the proposition, and found his coach and general manager for the newly dubbed Cape Cod Buccaneers in a 28-year-old enforcer whose own pro career had just been cut short due to injury.

Jim Troy was a standout athlete at Boston College, where he played football and baseball. Afterwards, he made his living playing hockey. He had some success, playing for both the New England Whalers and Edmonton Oilers of the WHA, and working as a scout and assistant coach within the New York Rangers system after a thumb injury curtailed his playing days. Like the Mr. McMahon character launched two decades later, Troy’s character seemed to have its’ own conflicting traits. His reputation in the game was of a raucous fighter and tough guy, yet he idolized the introverted and even-tempered Fred Shero, and expressed publicly goals of wanting to coach similar to the legendary Flyers and Rangers coach in his newest endeavor. 



Troy, perhaps sticking with a theme of that era, comprised for McMahon a team made up almost exclusively of players from areas surrounding Boston, Massachusetts. Training camp began on October 12, 1981, and two preseason games, both wins, followed shortly thereafter.

The ACHL launched amongst great fanfare with seven teams scattered about the Eastern seaboard. In addition to the Bucs, there were the Baltimore Skipjacks, Fitchburg Trappers, Mohawk Valley Stars, Salem Raiders, Schenectady Chiefs, and Winston-Salem Thunderbirds. The Buccaneers opened the season in Schenectady, dropping a 5-2 decision. They won the next week at Fitchburg, but again lost in the home opener at the Coliseum.

In addition to the less-than-favorable results on the ice, it wasn’t long before the curse of Cape Cod hockey reared its’ ugly head once again. McMahon, showing some of the “ruthless aggression” he’d later become so famous for, requested that the league investigate the finances of both Fitchburg and Schenectady. He was rumored to be upset about both teams being owned by the same man. Whatever was truly the case, neither club let the investigations get too far, both folding before ten regular season games had been played.

The Buccaneer's Preston Boudreau looks for a goal versus Fitchburg.


The boss had made all fair, and gotten rid of two opponents, but ultimately the move may have proved a bad one. Fitchburg and Schenectady were two of the Buccaneers’ closest opponents. Travel expenses for his team would come to be an issue for the 36-year-old McMahon, who was nowhere near in as good financial standing as he is today. In addition to the money problems, which all of the teams seemed to face in some regard, the league losing two teams so early on seemed to shake an already weary public’s confidence. Media coverage for the small league dropped off notably at this point in the season.

The league forged on, though. A new schedule was drawn up and the Buc’s split the freezing cold East Coast winter months between playing in front of unexceptional crowds at the Coliseum, and road trips to Utica, Baltimore, and North Carolina.

The team’s roster had a hometown flavor from top to bottom, but the one real local product was a 22-year-old former star player for Provincetown High School named Larry Meads. Nicknamed “Mr. Desire” by Troy, Meads had grown up on Cape Cod, and after high school was a goal-scorer for Salem State College before turning pro with the Buccaneers. Meads, who retired from hockey after a few more seasons in the minors and has since made his living as a painter and tuna fisherman, remembered the Buc’s fondly as a good team to be on, and one in which the Boston dynamic made comradely easy.

For McMahon’s part, Meads describes an owner who for the most part kept separate from the players, and offered, “nothing bad to say about him, he was a class act – him and his wife.” Though tamer than what many wrestling fans might expect, he did offer one memory of the boss. McMahon apparently showed outward gratitude to the guys doing the work on the ice at least once that season, as in between one December road trip to Baltimore and home game at the Coliseum, the young McMahon family threw the boys a nice Christmas party at their home with, as Meads keenly remembered, “lots of shrimp.”

As for his coach, the former left wing seems to further the polarizing contradictions. Meads credits Troy with building more of a “college all-star team,” plucking talent from Boston College, Boston University, Brown, New Hampshire, and the like, different from what some of the other teams were doing by building their rosters out of rough and tumble junior players ready to kill. Yet, he also offers a telling story of the former fighter turned coached not ever being able to fully break from his roots and embrace his inner-Shero.


Meads recalled one incident of having been called into Troy’s office before an early season game and told, “We’ve got to cut one more player, and that player is you.” Then his coach offered him an out. His mind could apparently be changed, should the first-year pro cut the skates out from under a particularly troublesome opposing player, and start a brawl with him to get the energy up. Meads decided that night to keep his job. Throughout the season, McMahon and Troy became close, and though it would be a reach for anyone besides them to say what the attraction was, or what qualities they admired in one another, it is interesting that years later, in the wrestling realm, one of McMahon’s employees would describe, “Vince wants you to fight, Vince wants you to claw, Vince wants you to dig….show him your passion.”

The flagrant penalty and resulting fisticuffs Meads describes wasn’t an isolated incident that year, for the Buccaneers or the league, as the teams plugged on through the rest of December and January. In an abridged season (Winston-Salem ended up playing the most regular season games with 50), the five remaining teams finished with an average of 1,312 combined penalty minutes. That’s more than 28 NHL teams had in an 82 game schedule in 2010-11. So, in a sense, the World Wrestling Entertainment headman has also promoted mixed martial arts.

McMahon’s first and only professional hockey team never got above .500, or had the opportunity to prove themselves in a playoff. Come the end of January, attendance at the Coliseum wasn’t cutting it and the financial strain had become too much. McMahon asked for a loan from the league to keep their hopes alive, but when that was denied, he folded the franchise on February 1, 1982. Several players, including Meads, were shipped off and allowed to play elsewhere to finish the season. The Cape Cod Buccaneers final record in their only season was 17-21-1.

Evolution.

The ACHL, now having lost half the teams it had started with in less than four months of play, decided to cut games short and move right into a playoff with the remaining teams. The Mohawk Valley Stars defeated the Salem Raiders in a best-of-seven series to become the inaugural champions.

Vince McMahon didn’t look back to hockey again until introducing The Goon, a man who was “thrown out of every hockey league he ever participated in,” and a character that would have fit right into the ACHL, to the World Wrestling Federation in the mid-1990’s. Almost four months to the day after folding the Buccaneers, he went with his associates, of whom now included new right-hand-man Jim Troy, to New York to buy out his father and take ownership of the WWF. Throughout his days on the Cape, McMahon had been involved in the company, both behind the scenes and as an on-screen commentator, but now he had what he wanted and a platform for his true vision.

In their book on McMahon, Sex, Lies, and Headlocks, authors Shaun Assael and Mike Mooneyham suggest that the young promoter studied  every act that came into the Coliseum at that time, watching “how they set their lighting rigs, wired their sound, placed their T-shirt stands.” Nobody can say for sure what lessons Vince McMahon still carries with him from his time in Massachusetts, but it also would be foolish to think that one doesn’t learn something from every stage of their development as a person. Jim Troy, introduced to him at the start of the 1980’s as a young man that could effectively steer his attempt at owning a sports franchise, went on to work closely with McMahon and the WWF for the next several years. Another player, Mike Breen, who had 16 points that season as a defenseman with the Bucs, was also brought in as an early-WWF employee. Hockey is a culture, and that culture was represented in the building of a wrestling empire. In the thirty years since, Vince McMahon has employed people from all walks of life, wild characters and down-to-earth businessman, introverts and extroverts, wrestlers, models, and attractions. It is fun to wonder what else he may have taken from the only thirty-five hockey players, who at one time spent their days living and fighting on Cape Cod.

This work is largely incomplete, and there is a lot more about this story that could be uncovered. I urge those involved in the Cape Cod Buccaneers' inaugral season, or anyone with anything to contribute to write me at heartpunchwrestling@yahoo.com for possible inclusion in an "Extras" section to be posted later this month.

Acknowledgements: Most of the information and many of the photographs were found via combing through old newspapers, namely the Cape Cod Chronicle and Cape Cod Times. Additional thanks to Larry Meads for allowing me into his home, the interview, access to his memorabilia, and pictures, Mike Breen, and Ralph Slate of hockeydb.com. As mentioned, Shaun Assael and Mike Mooneyham's book, Sex, Lies, and Headlocks gave me a starting point. The quote about Vince McMahon loving his employees to fight was taken from a interview with the Big Show on the McMahon DVD. The following websites were also helpful in the completion of this project: HockeyDB.com, Corporate.wwe.com, NHL.com.

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