With one continuous franchise since 2002, and hockey played in the city dating back to 1997, Fayetteville, North Carolina kind of skims under the radar when it comes to hockey south, despite being a model of consistency.
I’ve lived in Fayetteville for nearly five months now, working for the current iteration of the 16 year franchise, the Fayetteville Marksmen – renamed so by veteran-owner Chuck Norris (no, not that Chuck Norris) after being stationed at Fort Bragg (mere miles away) for a number of years.
The rich history of hockey in Fayetteville is one that sadly seems to go unknown, and with a transient population like that of Fayetteville – with soldiers like Chuck, and their families, being stationed all around the globe at nearly a moments notice – is becoming less known by the new and locals every year.
Did you know that it was Fayetteville, not Greensboro, that was initially considered to be the temporary home of the now-neighboring Carolina Hurricanes? During the finalization of construction of our beautiful home, the Crown Coliseum, in ’96-97, the then-Whalers were still without a home in the Tarheel State. The All-American City was mentioned as a plausible home, but Minor League Hockey executive/ECHL/ACHL founder and eventual-Fayetteville Force owner Bill Coffey blocked this idea after signing an exclusivity lease agreement with the arena for his Force (Hockey Night in Dixie, Jon C. Scott).
The Force were the first tenants of the new state-of-the-art Cumberland County Crown Coliseum in ’97, and their remnants are still felt in every game. Literally.
The Crown still operates with the same chillers, boards, and glass from the days of the Force. That changes in Summer 2019 when everything will be replaced, hopefully to last another strong 20 years.
Just this last summer, the arena replaced the original scoreboard above center ice with a massive, HD LED video board that is the biggest of any hockey team in the state.
The Force – often considered the pinnacle of exciting hockey in Fayetteville – were not the first consideration of hockey in the city though. While the mid-late ’90s seems still relatively early for minor-league hockey south. Entrepreneur Bill Raue was so intrigued by the idea of a hockey team that he wanted to put a team there – the Fayetteville Arsenal – in 1974! Over 20 YEARS prior to the first team to hit the ice.
I was able to talk to retired Fayetteville Observer writer Earl Vaughan on the phone – the only person in Fayetteville who would seemingly know anything about the team and its short-lived existence.
The story of the Arsenal is that Raue – originally from Wisconsin – was a local Advertising guy in Fayetteville, and thought the city was a good place for hockey. Alongside a “small, not incredibly wealthy” group of owners, they were approved a Southern Hockey League expansion to be housed in the Memorial Arena – now the Crown Arena – in Fayetteville. The Memorial Arena still stands next to the Crown Coliseum, where hockey has been home in Fayetteville for two decades.
The Arena would’ve been a really tight fit, with next to no room for fans, and would’ve been one of the smallest arenas in all of hockey. Since-renovated, the Arena now seats 4,500 and is home to the Rogue Rollergirls Roller Derby team.
There was another issue – it didn’t have ice making abilities. Raue had a few ideas of how to remedy this situation, from ripping up the floor and installing the pipes necessary to make it an ice arena, to putting down the pipes on the floor, and putting sand over the pipes and floor over the sand to operate a makeshift, temporary ice surface – though the latter was ultimately deemed to be too complicated by Raue.
Allegedly, there had been a joke column written in the Observer of flooding the roof of the old Observer building on Hay Street (downtown Fayetteville), freezing the water, and playing up there. Making light of the situation, despite the comedic nature, was not well-received in the community!
Not to mention, two of the important parties whose support was needed – the Arena Manager, and the County Commissioners – weren’t exactly crazy about the idea of putting ice hockey in the building. Arena Manager Jack Shands had worked a career in Waste Management, and wasn’t too familiar with the work of managing an arena. What he did know, was that he didn’t want hockey in his arena.
Support for the team was small, but Raue – working in advertising – pushed promotion for the team hard, despite what seemed like a losing effort. Over the process of the year/year-and-a-half of drumming up support and excitement for the team, and getting everything in order, Raue was dedicated to making this work – and working his tail off.
The question that I had the most leading up to the investigation of this piece was a classic one – was a logo made? According to Vaughan, one of the owners in the group was a local commercial artist – the same who allegedly designed the flag of Cumberland County, where Fayetteville sits. Rather than base the logo design off of the old Arsenal building in Fayetteville, where the name truly derives from, she had designed it more in the way of a Stylized-A. Vaughan was disheartened to inform me that while he owned a rendition of the logo, he’d misplaced it sometime ago and cannot fully visualize its design. Jerseys and Merchandise were never officially made for the Arsenal.
Raue held a lightly-attended (seriously, half-a-dozen reported fans) press conference months before the SHL season was to begin, announcing the signing of the Arsenal’s first-ever Head Coach – career minor-leaguer and future Toronto Maple Leafs Head Coach, John Brophy.
The same John Brophy that arguably-inspired Paul Newman’s character in Slapshot. Brophy was a true-blue Old School Hockey kind of guy, and made that clear in his press conference.
As the season quickly approached, and County Commissioners continued to push back without a clear answer for Raue, the hope was quickly burning out. Mere days were remaining until the SHL season would get underway for 1974-1975, and it was evident that there would not be hockey in the All-American City.
With some luck, and a little haste, there was an open arena with ice making abilities in Hampton Roads, Virginia – following the relocation of their previous tenant just days prior – and thus conceived the Hampton Gulls. The Gulls had a four-season run between the SHL and AHL, winning a championship in the ’76-77 season. Brophy was their coach during each season, and eventually found his way to the show. Hamptons’ impact was more than just a championship, as professional hockey would stay in this region of Virginia – between multiple franchises – returning in the Hampton Roads Gulls, and eventually to the Norfolk Admirals, who still exist in the ECHL today.
In 23 years time, the city of Fayetteville finally warmed up to hockey, and the Force found their home at the Crown Coliseum – hardly a football field away from the Crown Arena. Raue’s fingerprints were all over the inception of hockey in Norfolk and Fayetteville, where hockey still exists today.
What came of him? Well, he is the founder of Major League Roller Hockey, based out of Alexandria, Virginia, and his passion for the sport of hockey in some aspect continues to this day.
Mr. Raue was contacted for comments, but could not be reached.
The Fayetteville Force ultimately became the first ever hockey team in the city, and they were a HIT, averaging over 3200 fans a game in each of their seasons, with nearly 4000 in their inaugural season. This was heavily-carried by northern transplants and stationed soldiers from hockey-rich communities.
The Force were most remembered for their incredible bench-clearing brawls that turned every hockey game into a gongshow in a gloriously-bloody way.
This was so notorious, that it was even a partial feature of the CHL documentary Tough Guys (scene shown below).
While the Force are romantically-remembered in Fayetteville, all was not a fairy-tale in their final seasons, as ultimately travel distance and overlying expenses forced the team to live for just four memorable seasons, including the ’99-00 Adams Cup.
However, one primarily bright spot for the team was in the turn of the millennium, as the then-three year old Crown Coliseum hosted the CHL/WCHL All-Star Game. Despite what is known by locals as “the blizzard” (eight inches of snow dropped in one day in Fayetteville, the day of the game), over 6100 fans packed the Coliseum for an exciting battle of the leagues best.
The game ended in a SHOOTOUT, with a 4-3 win for the WCHL.
This remains the last All-Star Game that the Crown ever saw, and marks one of the state’s lone All-Star Games in its growing hockey-history (Raleigh saw the NHL All-Star Game in 2011).
The Force had been owned by ECHL founder Bill Coffey.
Despite the loss of the Force, hockey was not dead in the All-American City for long.
In fact, it was just one season (2002) after the loss of the Force that a new hockey team was calling the Crown home – the Cape Fear Fire Antz of the Atlantic Coast Hockey League. This team would go from the ACHL, to the Southeast Hockey League, and finally become one of the founding charter-members of the Southern Professional Hockey League in 2004.
The Cape Fear Fire Antz, who would become the Fayetteville FireAntz upon their changing to the SPHL, were owned by a hodge-podge of local owners, who either were business owners in the community, or who were financially-able and caring enough to keep hockey going in Fayetteville.
This group included former Force General Manager Kevin MacNaught, who would continue to serve as the GM/President through most of the FireAntz run.
In 2006, the FireAntz broke an attendance record of having over 100,000 fans visit the Crown Coliseum in one season. Seemingly unbelievable numbers for a hockey city in the south, especially with Southern Hockey only just truly starting to pick up.
Behind massive crowds and a hot team, the FireAntz brought the first professional sports championship to Fayetteville in 51 years, as they rose the 2006-07 SPHL President’s Cup in a tough-series over the Jacksonville Baracuda – the only league championship in Fayetteville hockey history.
In November 2007, the FireAntz once again broke an attendance record – this time for single game. With over 9,443 fans in the Crown Coliseum, the FireAntz created a record that stands to this day – and very well might for the rest of the league’s history.
Following their regular season championship in the 2012-13 season, fan attendance took a sharp decline, falling from an average 3000+/game to barely 1600 fans a game in the final season. The passion, the drive, and the energy of hockey in the city of Fayetteville started to drop noticeably, to the point where many had assumed that the team had already left town or folded.
In early 2017, the team would be purchased by Union Pro Hockey Group, LLC., and this would be the end of the 15-year Fayetteville FireAntz team.
It was due to this decline, both in the stands and in the general feeling of the team, that former-Fort Bragg soldier and local Fayetteville business-owner Chuck Norris (living in Charlotte now) stepped up and purchased the team, with a promise to the community to bring back the days of old to Fayetteville, and make the Crown a destination again.
Halfway through season two, there is a lot that is being fixed, cleaned up, and improved every day that the general public does not see. Everyday, the Fayetteville Marksmen organization repairs a bridge that was burned, takes steps toward the longevity success and not the short, temporary ones that typically burn minor league hockey teams.
More and more each day, fans of the Marksmen are starting to realize that the improvements are happening, on and off the ice. The team is being run more like a professional sports team, from in-house organization, to game day promotions, to branding and marketing, down to the product on the ice.
There are a lot of people working tirelessly everyday at the Crown Coliseum, where the Marksmen Office sits a mere 100 feet from the ice of the north end zone. It’s taking time, but the improvements are being made for the longevity of hockey in Fayetteville. It will take time – and it is – but with a passionate owner, team, and organization, we will do our part to return Fayetteville to its former-glory every day.
To be part of such a historic organization looking to reidentify itself, this is a challenge that I feel honored to be part of, in a city that I love, with some incredibly passionate fans who want nothing more than the best for this organization.
The hockey history of the All-American City dates back to the mid-70s, and with the way that its survived and changed over the course of its over 20 year continuation, all that I can assure fans on the outside of the city, and those in the Crown every night is that the dynamic is changing, and new history for the team is being written every day.
This is only the start of the Fayetteville Marksmen, and just the beginning of what will be a continuous story of hockey in America’s Hometown.