By Andy Piascik
Before there were the Sound Tigers, there were the Home Oilers. Before there was Webster Bank Arena, there was the Wonderland of Ice. The Wonderland of Ice is still there and now with two full skating rinks, but the Home Oilers are long gone. Long gone, yes, but not forgotten, both for the thrills they provided an admittedly small but devoted number of fans and for the small part they played in the explosion of interest in ice hockey in the city of Bridgeport, the state of Connecticut and, indeed, the United States.
In 1967, the National Hockey League consisted of a mere six teams. In both the NHL and other leagues including those made up primarily of teams based in the US, the overwhelming majority of players were from Canada. Within just a few short years, however, there were many more teams in many more leagues including in cities that had never had a hockey team before — cities like Bridgeport.
Wider exposure of the game via television was one factor. The continuing rise in leisure time and disposable income was a factor. And the appearance on the national scene in 1966 of Bobby Orr, the greatest player of all time, was another. For these and other reasons, city officials decided in the 1960’s to build a rink on Glenwood Avenue in the North End just south of Bunnell’s Pond near Beardsley Park.
When construction was completed, the city of Bridgeport lured the Norwalk Home Oilers to the Park City. The team was founded in Norwalk by W.B. Hopkins of the Norwalk Home Oil Company and played for many years in Crystal Rink which, by the 1960’s, was too small to accommodate the team’s growing number of fans. Bridgeport Mayor Hugh Curran pitched the Wonderland of Ice, which could hold 3,000 people, to Pete Correnty, the coach and general manager of the Oilers, and so it was that the Home Oilers relocated to Bridgeport for the 1968-69 season.
Virtually all of the Oiler players had played minor league hockey in Canada, the US or both. Though their dreams of making it to the NHL had passed, playing for the Oilers allowed them to continue with the game they had loved since boyhood. The pay, while decent, was not something they could live on and so they worked full-time jobs, practiced once or twice a week and played games on Saturday nights.
It was common for fans of the team to work alongside or run into the players they cheered for, as they lived in working class neighborhoods in and around Bridgeport. Two of the best Oilers, Paul Tanguay and Bobby Veilleux, lived on Bridgeport’s West End and were regulars at St. Peter Roman Catholic Church. The author recalls seeing them after mass, dissecting the previous night’s game with fellow parishioners who had either been in attendance or had read the extensive coverage in that morning’s Bridgeport Sunday Post.
In some respects, the Oilers came straight out of Hollywood casting. There was the speedy, smooth-skating Veilleux, the Oiler most likely to perform a memorable play. There were Don Newman and Clifford “Sam” Gregory, rugged, angry players who may have been in more fights than all the other Oilers combined. There was Tanguay, an undersized defenseman who possessed the hardest shot on the team. There was Dave Watts, a wide-bodied man known for his bruising body checks. And there were the unassuming but prolific John Sherban and Carl “Eno” Kraft, the two highest-scoring Oilers during the five years the team called Bridgeport home.
There were also players who were born and grew up in Connecticut. One was New Haven native Don Brassil, the team’s steady goaltender in its first three seasons in Bridgeport. Defenseman Earl Smith was from Norwalk and center Carl Marino was from Hamden.
Although none of the Oilers ever played in the NHL, many played with or against the game’s best as younger men. Kraft, for example, played against Hall of Famers Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita in an Ontario minor league in 1956 when the three were still teenagers, according to a 2013 Connecticut Post article by Chris Elsberry. Others who were born in the United States played for the US’s national team and/or Olympic team.
According to hockeydb.com, the Oilers posted a sterling 75-16-7 record in their five seasons. Two teams from Quebec, the Lachine Green Hornets and Montreal All-Stars, were among the few that were competitive, and spirited rivalries developed. One team that was not particularly competitive, the Carling Black Labels, at least had a cool name derived from the New Jersey brewery that sponsored them.
Fans loved their new team and arena but attending Oilers games was not without inconveniences. Exiting the parking lot on a night when there was a big crowd, for example, was an ordeal that sometimes seemed to last as long as a hockey game. And in its early years, Wonderland was not enclosed so the temperature inside was generally not much higher than outside. That made hardy souls of all when the temperature might be in single digits, and undoubtedly led to increased consumption of hot chocolate as well as somewhat stronger stuff.
Ironically, the tide of hockey interest the Oilers rode into Bridgeport led in part to their demise. By 1973, there were two major hockey leagues with 28 teams. Two new teams, the Raiders and Islanders, played in New York which meant, together with the long-established Rangers, there were three major league teams just sixty miles from Bridgeport. There were also two teams in Boston one of which – the New England Whalers – would soon move to Hartford. There were also apparently difficulties in negotiations in renewing the team’s use of Wonderland.
Still, as brief as the Oilers’ five-year run was, it was great fun for a core of hockey fans as well as those drawn by the novelty of the team and the Wonderland of Ice. Along with the construction of Kennedy Stadium and the formation of the Bridgeport Jets around the same time, it was a time not unlike that thirty years later with the coming of the Bluefish and Sound Tigers. And who knows, the next time you’re in line at Stop and Shop, that somewhat older man behind you may have once played for the Home Oilers.
Bridgeport native Andy Piascik is an award-winning author who writes for many publications and websites.