Last year we wrote a piece that looked at what type of towns the FHL and SPHL should be targeting for future expansion teams, noting that for the FHL they should probably never look at a town of less than 25,000 people.
Well 36 years ago, a tiny mountain town of just over 2,000 people became the most unlikely home of a pro hockey team ever, and to this day remains this smallest town in the United States to ever host pro hockey.
This is the story of the Pinebridge Bucks, who lasted two season in the Atlantic Coast Hockey League, and played in an arena that had a capacity more than twice the size of the town they played in.
Spruce Pine, North Carolina was founded in 1907 basically because the railroad decided to come through the area, and because it was a good area for logging certain trees, and for digging minerals out of the earth. The town sits at an elevation of nearly 2,600 feet and is roughly 50 miles from any town anyone outside of North Carolina has ever heard of. As of 2016, its population sits at 2,103 people, peaking at just over 2,500 back in the 1960s.
And in 1983, professional hockey in the form of the ACHL and the Pinebridge Bucks came to town, because as their owner put it, there was nothing to do in town. And really, he just wanted a way to give back to the town and give them something to use.
A man named Robert Bailey, who made millions as the founder of Buck Stoves, a wood-burning stove company that to this day remains headquartered in Spruce Pine, saw that the town’s old school property, sitting on a hilltop overlooking the town below, came up for sale, so he bought it with the idea to turn it into something that the community could use.
So Bailey decided to build a Coliseum, which featured the state’s largest ice rink, the largest in the state at the time, a fitness center, pool, and other things that the people of the town could use, all at cost of a mere $15 million.
The rink had a capacity of 5,000 people.
Again, the town had just over 2,000 people in it, and the county Spruce Pine is in has a little over 15,000 people total in it. Not exactly a metropolis. And yet they had a coliseum with 5,000 seats in it.
Oh, and as if having a population of only 15,000 people in the area to draw from wasn’t problem enough, the county was a dry county, so the team couldn’t even sell beer at its home games. Honestly, it’s amazing it lasted two seasons.
Even after spending $15 million on the facility, there were no plans to have a hockey team. Before a hockey team was ever thought of, Bailey actually wanted to have a hockey camp.
According to this article from The Athletic (Subscription required), longtime NHL executive Rick Dudley, who got his start running the ACHL and coaching one of its teams, the Carolina Thunderbirds (not at all related to the current FHL Thunderbirds), was asked to run a hockey school at the rink.
“I had to explain that I was coach, GM, owner of the Thunderbirds and ran the league, so I didn’t have a lot of free time to run a hockey school,” Dudley said. “Nevertheless, the guy begged for me to come, so I drove to Spruce Pine, a town of 2,000 people in the middle of nowhere, a beautiful, remote area. I turn the corner in my car, and there’s this great, big, brand new ice rink on top of a mountain, really.
“I left there without running the hockey school, but he decided to put a team there – the most unusual professional hockey team in the history of the world.”
So in the fall of 1983, the Pinebridge Bucks took the ice in the ACHL for the grand total of $5,000 dollars, and were led by head coach Don Luce
The Atlantic Coast Hockey League was, by all accounts we’ve read, not exactly the most organized hockey league in the world. It was a precursor to the ECHL (more on this later), and played with anywhere from five to seven teams, ranging from as far north as Utica, New York, all the way down to Birmingham, Alabama, and saw a number of teams fold mid-season over its existence.
And in their first season, the Bucks were bad, going 25-47-0 over the 72 game schedule, finishing fifth in the six-team league, 16 points out of the playoffs. They would have finished last, but the Birmingham Bulls (again, no relation to the current SPHL Bulls) folded after playing just three games. They gave up 422 goals in those 72 games, a whopping 5.86 goals per game.
On the ice, the Bucks were led by Rob Clavette, a forward from Quebec who racked up a whopping 131 points playing for Pinebridge and Erie that season, and forward Dave MacQueen of Woodstock, Ontario, who netted 108 points in 63 games between Pinebridge and Utica.
One of the more notable stories from the first year, was that the Carolina Thunderbirds were set to come to town for a game…but stopped at the bottom of Highway 226, one of the most dangerous and scenic roads in the state, and had to call for help, forcing the Bucks to drive to the bottom of the mountain and drive their bus up for them.
But despite that, Bailey claimed that on a few occassions the crowds were around 4,000 people on some nights…but as you would expect in a town of 2,000 people, there were nights where he said the crowds were as thin as 200 people.
But according to The Athletic and Rick Dudley, after one season Bailey already wanted out of the league, facing both a small fan-base, and a league that he didn’t see eye-to-eye with. That forced Dudley to do all he could to talk Bailey into keeping the Bucks around for another season, because according to Dudley, had the Bucks left, another team would have left, and it would have been the end of the league.
“I spent from 10 a.m. to 4 a.m. one night convincing him to spend another year in the league because if he backed out, Utica (Mohawk Valley) would want out because they didn’t want to be in a four-team league,” Dudley said. “And we couldn’t have a three-team league. I convinced him to spend another year in the league, and he did it more for me than anything else.
So the Bucks came back! It was even plastered on the program for that year.
And in the 1984-85 season, the Bucks showed major improvement on the ice, posting a record of 33-25-0-6, finishing third in the five-team league, and qualifying for the ACHL playoffs.
Again the team was led by Clavette, who scored 114 points in just 59 games, as well as forward Scott Robins, who put up 110 points in 64 games.
While those were the stars on that season’s team, the man who went on to become the most famous player to ever suit-up for the Bucks was in goal, rookie Ray LeBlanc, who would go on to star for Team USA at the 1992 Olympics. LeBlanc appeared in 40 games for the Bucks that season, posting an 18-21 record to go with a 4.13 GAA and .891 Sv%, fairly decent numbers in the 80s, and especially in the high-scoring ACHL. After his time with the Bucks, LeBlanc played one more year in the ACHL for Carolina, then spent the majority of his career in the IHL, and even appeared in one game in the NHL during the 1991-92 season for the Chicago Blackhawks.
But the Bucks run on the season and as a franchise came to an end at the hand of the Erie Golden Blades in the opening round of the ACHL playoffs, falling 4-2 in the series, and losing a 5-4 decision at the Pinebridge Coliseum on April 5, 1985 to put an end to the franchise.
But again, lagging attendance and not agreeing with everything the league’s owners were doing, Bailey ended the team after the 84-85 season, bringing an end to the smallest town to ever host pro hockey’s run.
The team finished with a final overall record of 58-72-0-6.
Even with the Bucks folding following the season, Dudley gave them credit for keeping the league going for that last season by agreeing to play, and even gave them a hand in helping form what would become the ECHL.
“The truth is, if that doesn’t happen, there would be no East Coast Hockey League … ever because the Atlantic Coast Hockey League would have ceased to exist in 1985.
“From there, all of a sudden, we got in good markets and the Atlantic Coast League eventually became the ECHL (in 1988). So many times that league could have gone one way or the other and somehow we managed to pull it together.”
Today, the Pinebridge Coliseum mainly sits empty hosting occassional events and hosting numerous things for a local community college, and is currently in the midst of a renovation that would update the roof, outside facade, and a few things on the inside.
It hasn’t hosted hockey of any sort in years.
And that’s how a town with just over 2,000 people in it got to have a pro hockey team. It was just a local man who wanted to something nice for his town, and that something nice just happened to be a pro hockey team in the most unlikely of places.