The Jersey Devils, Real ‘Slapshot’ Inspiration | SUNDAYS WITH STAN

Baldwin happens to be a lifetime hockey man who, among other things, owns a couple of Stanley Cup rings and at least one from the World Hockey Association. He’s also a good friend of mine and, in a sense, was my employer for two years.

Furthermore, Baldwin as WHA president, hammered home the landmark merger with the NHL. He also was the executive who ran the Pittsburgh Penguins when Mario Lemieux led the Flightless Birds to a pair of Stanley Cups in 1992 and 1992, among other feats.

The Hollywood version of Baldwin — along with his wife, Karen –has produced a couple of prize hockey flicks including “Mystery Alaska. But none of the aforementioned could have happened to this Renaissance man without the Jersey Devils. 

As it happened, the Eastern League team came about at the right time and place for young Baldwin who was looking to enter the sports world; although he didn’t know how. Take it away, Howard, and tell us the tale:

“It all started with Bill Putnam, who was a family friend. Bill had begun organizating the Philadelphia Flyers for the new (1967-68) NHL expansion that next season,” Baldwin recalls. “Bill phoned me and said the Flyers will have an interest in an Eastern League franchise based in New Jersey.

“Putnam told me, ‘We need an Operations Manager, do you want the job?’ And I said, ‘Of course,’ not knowing what the heck an Operations Manager– or the Jersey Devils, for that matter –‘ was all about.”

Baldwin learned soon enough that his new home would be the Cherry Hill Arena in — where else? — Cherry Hill, New Jersey, not far from Philadelphia. And when he drove up to the ice barn, Howard was impressed.

“I thought it was the most beautiful arena I’d ever seen,” he reflects. “The trouble is that I had only seen two — Boston Garden and the old Madison Square Garden. But this was my arena, my home for at least a year.”

Actually, it was his second — and shared — home. He moved into an apartment with the EHL Devil’s coach, Vic Stasiuk, a former very good NHL player with both Boston and Detroit, now trying his hand as a minor league mentor.

Soon, Howard would meet other co-workers including Philly sportscaster Stu Nahan — later to star in “Rocky,” the movie — and an office manager, Jeannie Verlandin, who did stuff like sellingl tickets, doing the program and arrangeing for the team’s travel.

The new Devils were slated to play such EHL teams as the Long Island Ducks, Clinton Comets, Johnstown Jets and New Haven Blades. All of this was new to Howard who had never seen a hell-for-leather EHL game. 

All he knew about hockey was gleaned from the more sanitized college and prep school games. And was this naive young man in for a surprise; big-time.

Baldwin: “Our first game was an exhibition at home and we drew a couple thousand people. I was counting tickets under the stands in my office when the game began. All of a sudden I hear a commotion in the arena that sounded like a riot was taking place.

“I raced out to the arena and there on the ice was every player, wailing away at each other while the fans were throwing portable seats on to the ice. It was bedlam; so I went up to coach Stasiuk and asked him, ‘How the hell did this happen?”

Stasiuk, who hailed from Lethbridge, Alberta, had been around hockey long enough to smile at Baldwin’s innocent query. Vic spoke as a man who had seen many Pier Six hockey brawls in his lifetime

“Nothing happened,” Vic shot back. “Welcome to Eastern League hockey!”

It didn’t take long for Baldwin to digest the EHL apetizers. He couldn’t have known it at the time but he was witnessing “Slapshot” live, in living, bloody color orchestrated with swinging fists — and years before “Slapshot,” the movie, ever went before the cameras.

“Many people thought ‘Slapshot.’ was a fabrication of what went on in the Eastern League, and not accurate,” Howard chuckles. “From what I saw of our Jersey Devils that season I can assure you that the movie couldn’t have been more accurate.”

The good news was that Cherry Hill’s favorite hockey team was very competitive and featured players who either were in The Show or eventually would played in the NHL. They included Rosaire Paiement, Rick Foley and Hec Lalonde.

By February 1967 it was clear that Stasiuk’s team was good enough to win the EHL title. After a Saturday night victory, Vic summoned Howard to his office. Since there was a week’s break, the coach planned on jetting to Lethbridge to visit with his family.

“Vic said he’d be back by Friday for a big game with our arch-rival, the Ducks from Long Island,” Baldwin recalls. “So, I said ‘Who’s gonna coach the team during the week?’ And he says, ‘You will, Howard, and it’ll be fine. Plus, it’ll look good on your resume.'”

Baldwin, only 24, was younger than 75 percent of his players. And they were a tough-tough group. Stasiuk handed the new interim coach his notes with all the drills. The scrimmages would end with a dozen full-out wind sprints.

Sure enough, there was the EHL’s newest coach out on the ice, whistle in mouth, orchestrating his first workout. Now it’s down to the final, dozen wind sprints and six have been completed.

Baldwin: “After the sixth sprint I felt a stick whack me on my ass. Fairly hard, I might add. It was Reggie Meserve, a career Eastern League legend; skilled but also the toughest of the tough. ‘Howard,’ he says, ‘I want to go home. The guys want to go home. Vic went home so we’re goin’ home.’

“I looked at Reg, smiled and said, ‘Of course, Reg — can I give you a lift?'”

Ah, but the tale doesn’t end there. The week is coming to a close and Vic hasn’t returned. Even more daunting, the Flyers new NHL high command was coming to see the big game against Long Island. Bud Poile, new g.m. of the even newer Flyers, wanted to talk to Vic.

Finally, Howard has to fess up that Stasiuk is in Lethbridge and, because of a blizzard, may not get to Cherry Hill in time. So, Poile added: “If Vic doesn’t make it, Howard, you’re coaching the team.”

Baldwin couldn’t find enough aspirins to cancel his headaches. Meanwhile, he was suffering nightmares about screwing up line changes and all other things coaches have to do before a major encounter with the enemy.

“The Flyers contingent said they’d be evaluating my coaching debut,” Baldwin remembers, “and I was a mess. My guys are getting dressed and I’m thinkin’ where’s Vic when I need him? So, here’s the punchline: An hour before the anthem, Vic shows up and we win the game, 6-2!”

Now it’s the homestretch of the EHL season and there’s a short break in the schedule. Stasiuk, once a Detroit teammate of the immortal Gordie Howe, tells Howard that the Red Wings will be at Madison Square Garden and Mister Hockey, Howe, has left him a pair of tickets.

They were to drive up to MSG but Howard’s car was being fixed and Vic had no wheels so they decided to take the Devils’ team bus which actually was a decrepit hand-me-down used to take kids to and from kindergarten class. But Vic and Howard had no choice.

They managed to drive the ancient team bus all the way to 49th Street in Manhattan, across from the Garden. There was the majestic Belvedere Hotel, where the Red Wings would stay overnight. 

Stasiuk and Baldwin had to figure where to stash their coach. The issue was parking but Vic said he knew the hotel’s bell captain; Which he did. That issue was solved when Vic gave the bellhop a twenty, plus bus keys. The pair crossed 49th and entered MSG.

“Vic was in awe of Gordie Howe,” Baldwin remembers, “but then again who wasn’t? For me, meeting him was going to be the thrill of a lifetime. After the game we met the Babe Ruth of Hockey in the Detroit room .

“After me getting my thrill being there with the great Gordie, we decided to go across the street to the Belvedere’s Sports Bar for some refreshment. Meantime, all this time Gordie had thought we’d been driven up from Cherry Hill in a limo.”

After the trio enjoyed their beers, Gordie said he had to hit the sack and they got ready to say their good-byes. They trio walked to the curb when, suddenly, the bellman popped up and gave Vic the bus keys. Then Vic gave the bellhop back, a truly paralyzing look. He didn’t want Gordie Howe to know they had driven up in a two-bit school bus. 

“Gordie,” Baldwin goes on, “winking and blinking in his usual style, then sees the bus sitting in front of the Belvedere and says, ‘What’s that piece of crap doing here?’ He looked at me, winked again. Then he turned to Vic — and with a huge grin — says: ‘Vic nice bus!'”

The vagabonds returned to Cherry Hill where the Devils finished a solid season but failed to win the EHL championship. They also failed to return for 1967-68 because the Eastern League folded and Cherry Hill’s Devils went down with it.

As for Howard Baldwin, New Jersey’s minor league team proved to be the first rung on his ladder to fame. A season later he was working for the NHL Flyers who never felt any shame showing off their spanking new bus!

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