Pro Ice Hockey Celebrates 50th Anniversary In Roanoke Valley

The 73-74 Roanoke Valley Rebels went 53-19-0 under head coach Gregg Pilling, who had vowed a year earlier to return and bring a championship to Roanoke. Pilling and a roster dominated by French-Canadians delivered.

It’s time for a sports celebration in the Roanoke Valley.

On October 24, 1967, professional ice hockey had its birth at the Salem Civic Center when a group of investors brought the game to this area for its inaugural season.

Ice hockey was a sport that was more popular in the Northeast and Canada in that era, and the Salem Roanoke Valley Civic Center had just opened earlier that year. Sports fans, including yours truly, flocked to the frozen ice in Salem that night to witness what it was all about.

It was like an atmosphere of mystique. Few people in the crowd knew the rules of the game. They watched with curiosity as the teams skated onto the ice rink which was surrounded with metal pipe conduit that framed chicken wire.

Players, including the goalies, didn’t wear helmets and the three referees, before the evening was over, would have probably looked to many as being more in place separating the participants of tag-team wrestling.

With names like Jim Jago and Bob Zuban, the home team Salem Rebels took hold. That night, Salem won 3-1 over the Jacksonville Rockets, obviously a good way to start a fan base and popularize the sport.

Since that time, it wouldn’t be hard to argue that hockey has gone through its ups and downs.

The team remained exclusively in Salem until the Roanoke Civic Center (now the Berglund Center) opened in 1971, the team then became the Roanoke Valley Rebels, splitting home games in both civic centers. After the 1975-76 season the team moved to Tallahassee, Florida, but hockey continued at the Salem Roanoke Valley Civic Center with a new name, the Salem Raiders.

The early days were a time when there were “Rebel Girls,” a quartet of young ladies who heralded the players as they came onto the ice and, a time when both the American and Canadian National Anthems were played. Most players lived in “Rebel Village,” a mobile home park across the creek from the popular Lakeside Amusement Park. Likewise, with chicken wire as the barrier, fans harassed the players and it wasn’t at all uncommon to have a skater scale the boards and go after a fan in the stands.

Claude Piche was the MVP of the Southern Hockey League and First-Team All-Star for the 73-74 Roanoke Valley Rebels, the only Roanoke-based championship team in 50 years of pro ice hockey.

The 1972-73 and 73-74 teams also had the greatest success and drew the largest crowds into the Roanoke Civic Center. The 73 playoff finals against the Syracuse Blazers turned into a virtual brawl and sprawl event. The civic center was overflowing with standing-room-only fans demanding to be admitted. Punches were thrown, cheap shots by the Blazers were the norm, and reported bounties to knock Roanoke players out of commission made hockey the talk of the town before Syracuse prevailed in game six to win the best-of-seven series, including an outlandish 17-1 Blazer win in game-2.

But, the best was yet to come when Rebel head coach Gregg Pilling vowed to return for the 73-74 season and put together a team dominated by 11 French Canadian players. Roanoke won the Southern Hockey League regular season with a 53-19 record, six points clear of a scrappy and talented Charlotte Checker team.

Roanoke made a dramatic comeback to win the playoff semifinals over the Winston-Salem Polar Twins after falling behind 3-games-to-1 in the best-of-seven format. Then, in the exciting finals, Roanoke kinged the Checkers in game-7 to win the only professional ice hockey championship for a Roanoke-based team.

Names from that team like Claude Piche, Pierre Paiement, Jack Chipchase and the enforcer, Serge Beaudoin, are cemented in Roanoke hockey history. Piche was named Most Valuable Player by the team, MVP of the Southern Hockey League and First-Team All-Star of the SHL, while being the team’s leading scorer with 44 goals and 50 assists.

Paiement added 24 goals and 26 assists, with goal leader Camille LaPierre putting 48 goals into the net and Beaudoin enforcing the action on the pond with 179 penalty minutes, albeit not nearly as many as an earlier Rebel, Dave “The Hammer” Schultz’s 356. Pilling was named SHL Coach of the Year. Today, Piche and Paiement still live in Roanoke.

“It was an unbelievable season,” Piche noted of that 73-74 championship in a recent interview. “The quality of hockey was great. We had five guys from that team that moved up to the World Hockey League or the NHL the following season. Unheard of. It was a very special team. I was in the Boston Bruin organization and I asked Boston GM Tom Johnson to let me come play in Roanoke.”

Hockey moved to Vinton in 1983 and remained there until 1993, playing in the 3,400 seat Vinton Sports Complex, also known as the LancerLot. While based in Vinton, the team played in an assortment of leagues including the Atlantic Coast Hockey League (83-87), where the Vinton-based team won the league championship in the 86-87 season, the All-American Hockey League (87-88) and as a new member of the East Coast Hockey League beginning in 1988.

Although the team remained in Vinton, the name was changed to the Roanoke Valley Rebels for two seasons, before changing to the Roanoke Valley Rampage for the 92-93 season.

The Rampage put together what is considered to be one of the worst seasons in ECHL history, recording only 14 wins and .227 winning percentage, 29 road losses including 26 in a row, and an average attendance of 1,483. But, it was weather that eventually played the biggest factor into the Rampage only lasting one season.

On March 13, 1993, the Rampage were down 6-2 to Richmond late in the second period when a beam supporting the arena started to buckle due to 16 inches of snow on the roof and 40 mph winds. All 63 fans in attendance, players, refs, coaches and arena employees were told to leave. Later that night, the roof collapsed completely.

With one game left in the season and their equipment buried in the rubble of the LancerLot, the Rampage bussed to Norfolk for a final game using borrowed equipment and borrowed players including a car salesman.

Hockey made its return to the Roanoke Civic Center in 1993 where the ECHL Roanoke Express became very popular with their hard-nosed style of play that reflected their coach, Frank Anzalone. The style of play in the ECHL had improved significantly and with players like Daniel Berthiaume, Dave Gagnon, Mike Peron, Duncan Dalmao, and Vern Fiddler, along with subsequent coaches Scott Gordon and Perry Florio, the Express were typically near the top of the standings.

However, by the early 2000s, the novelty of hockey in the Roanoke Civic Center had worn off and the team’s inability to advance deep into the playoffs led to a disenchanted fan base and sagging attendance. Turmoil in management, bad press, less effective marketing and the huge expenses of running a team, alienated advertisers and led to the team folding after the 2003-2004 season.

After a one year hiatus, hockey returned to the Civic Center with the Roanoke Valley Vipers of the United Hockey League. With a lower level of play versus the ECHL, the Vipers were unsuccessful on and off the ice. High ticket prices, no rivalries, horrible marketing and a losing record forced the team to fold in May, 2006.

That led to a 10-year absence of pro hockey. Finally, in October, 2016 a new ownership group with plenty of energy and determination to succeed, brought hockey back with the Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs, a member of the Southern Professional Hockey League. Last year’s effort, although coming up short of a playoff berth, put a good product on the ice and drew an average attendance of 3,136. The team looks to improve on the ice this season and management has new ideas to grow and keep fans engaged in the action. The opening home game is October 20.

“We plan on recognizing several of the old players on opening night,” Rail Yard Dawgs Marketing Director Alexandra Martin says. “The 50th anniversary of hockey. This is a huge date for the Valley.”

Fifty years since the puck first dropped, but hockey still has its interest in Roanoke.

Bill Turner