“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen and welcome to Long Island Arena,” said emcee Howard Steinhart, adding that he had been waiting 46 years to say those words again.
The 100 or so people in the audience were technically at Miller’s Ale House in Commack, but they all were keenly aware that they were on the property once occupied by the revered Quonset hut in which Long Island fell in love with hockey.
It was on this site that the beloved Long Island Ducks played and created a legacy so strong that it inspired a reunion Saturday for players, team employees and fans 46 years after the club went out of business. There was no special anniversary to celebrate, it just seemed like a nice thing to do. But the timing was perfect, coming two days after a municipal ruling helped clear the way for Long Island to have a full-time hockey home again.
The Ducks paved the way for the Islanders. The road to the planned Belmont arena began on Veterans Highway. “But in so doing, they led to the demise of the Ducks,” said Jeff Fisher, who was mesmerized by Commack’s Eastern Hockey League experience as an 11-year-old in 1963 that he still hosts a weekend hockey talk show on WRIV and organized the reunion.
It was no coincidence that the Islanders’ first season, 1972-73, also was the Ducks’ last. People who wanted to see hockey in the flesh chose to drive an extra half hour to watch the sport’s greatest league. Yet the Ducks, cheerfully owned by Patchogue businessman Al Baron, had not only established a foothold for the game, they boosted Long Island’s identity.
Saturday was an opportunity to remember why the Ducks were so unforgettable.
“There wasn’t much going on out here in Suffolk County. There were new families moving out here, construction going on, schools being built. Everybody got to be part of the family,” said Buzz Deschamps, who played only two seasons for the Ducks—earning a promotion to the American Hockey League after a record 57 goals in 1962-63—but still is a Long Islander and a fixture on the local hockey scene as a youth administrator and coach.
In his remarks, Deschamps paid tribute to the late Norm Ryder, a Canadian (like just about everyone who ever played on the team) who had two Ducks stints and later settled here. Ryder died last month. Deschamps held a stick once used by the late John Brophy, reportedly the model for Paul Newman’s character in the classic movie “Slap Shot.”
After Brophy was acquired from the Philadelphia Ramblers, Deschamps recalled, “He said, `I’m John Brophy. You score the goals and I’ll take care of the rest.’ The next two years, nobody laid a hand on me.”
Gregg Inkpen, another of the reunion’s organizers and author of a recent book on Brophy, read a note from former Ducks coach John Muckler, who went on to a long Stanley Cup-winning career in the NHL. It said, in part, “The Ducks were a big part of my life. I had a lot of good times there, had some success and the fans enjoyed it very much. Met lots of people, made many friends.”
Others had their own stories. Steinhart had vividly good memories of being the radio analyst in the final season, working alongside Eli Gold, now the award-winning radio voice of Alabama football.
Wayne Kitchen drove up on Saturday from his home near Atlantic City. “I haven’t been here in 50 years,” he said, still proud to have scored a hat trick in the 3-0 clincher against Clinton that sent the title-bound Ducks to the 1965 finals. He recalled the night the New Haven Blades walked off the ice in protest of the way Brophy and Don Perry used tape to make their hands more lethal for fights. “Come on, it’s hockey,” he said.
Jeff Weigers, son of the late team doctor and father of the social media coordinator for the Vegas Golden Knights, remembers his dad treating goalie Andre Daoust for a mysterious upper body pain. It turned out that when a seamstress had sewn extra padding into his jersey, she forgot to remove the needles.
Jackie Baron McCue, daughter of the late owner, was just about overwhelmed to be surrounded by such goodwill. “I’m absolutely delighted,” she said. “I know my parents are watching.”
Former defenseman Norm Schmitz, who married the daughter of Ducks fan club president Tony DeMayo Sr. and still lives in Massapequa, remembered coming from the wide-open spaces of Saskatchewan and being stunned with the traffic on Grand Central Parkway.
“I was devastated when the Arena went down. It was in perfect shape. They could have used it for something else,” he said. As a long-time Long Islander, he is convinced minor-league hockey would thrive in a proposed new building in Ronkonkoma.
It probably would have a different flavor than the old EHL, though. Tony DeMayo Jr., who was the Ducks stick boy, remembers being furious after hearing that the Ducks had been left at the mercy of fans in Nashville between periods because someone had sealed the locker room door shut with gum. The next time the Nashville Dixie Flyers came to Commack, sure enough, DeMayo and his brother jammed the visiting room’s door shut.
He was asked how the players reacted to that and said, “I don’t know. We ran away.”
The Ducks, though, are still here. A part of them is on the ice at every Islanders game. When the Belmont rink opens, they should name the place “Long Island Arena.”