Remembering the Racers
A Q&A with author Timothy Gassen
I've been neglecting my book club duties, being a bad member by reading everything on the list and neglecting to discuss any of them.
As I noted earlier, publishers have taken to offering to send me various titles, and I'm getting all kinds of wacky hockey-related stuff. Author Timothy Gassen served up a copy of his book, A Personal History of Indianapolis Racers Hockey, last month, and not personally knowing all that much about the league or team, I was game to give it a read.
Tim was in high school when pro hockey touched down in Indy, but as you can imagine (given he wrote a book about it 28 years later), the WHA had quite an effect. His first trip to a pro game was "seeing Gordie and his sons versus the Racers."
A journalist, he now runs a media production company in Tuscon, Arizona.
I had a chance to ask Tim a few questions about the Racers and his book earlier this week:
Q: What was the impetus for writing the book? What sort of an audience did you have in mind?
TG: As I talked with younger hockey fans, it was obvious that there was little awareness of just how dramatically the game changed in the 1970s — because of the WHA — and I wanted to share that exciting time. Also, I realized there were almost no firsthand accounts of the WHA written by someone who was actually there, experiencing it. As I started research and interviews, players and fans from the WHA era became very excited that "one of their own" would finally get the facts right about a fascinating time for hockey — and how it affects us today.
Q. I really enjoyed your stories of peoples' first experiences at a pro hockey game in a non-traditional market like Indianapolis — what was your experience like, and why do you think you were so captivated by the Racers?
TG: I think it shows how far Indianapolis has fallen since the Racers folded that you refer to the city as a "non-traditional market." Remember, Indy started with minor-league hockey in the 1930s, but NHL powers wanted to keep Indy in the minor league to prevent competition (mainly) with Chicago. That's why Indy jumped to the WHA in the 1970s to finally enjoy major league hockey. Of course, the Blackhawks was one of the main WHA-haters, and when their former all-star Pat Stapleton signed with Indy, well, I would have liked to have been in the NHL boardroom when they heard that (laugh).
Indianapolis went bonkers for the Racers because under coach Jacques Demers the team took on a hardworking, blue-collar, do-or-die mentality that suited an Indiana audience perfectly. Most of the Racers were castoffs from other teams in both leagues, and they were really motivated to show they belonged in the majors. And Indy wanted to prove it belonged too. It was much more like the affection for a college team than any pro team I've ever seen, and I mean that in the best way.
There is a lot of emotion and passion in my book because there was a lot of it every night in Indy at a Racers game. Most NHL arenas today seem extremely tame and sedate in comparison to the WHA in the 1970s.
Q: Has hockey been a big part of your life since the collapse of the WHA?
TG: Yes, the Racers opened the door to a life of loving hockey, working with teams, and writing about it. I often refer to ice hockey as my religion, and I'm not joking about that! And like a first love, the Racers will always carry a special place in my heart. Following that team taught me a lot about love — and loss — which is pretty heavy stuff for a teenager.
Q: One of the arguments you make in the book is that the WHA was a much more skilled league than it's often given credit for, and I'm wondering if you can maybe speak to that a little more. Do you think the fact there were teams in places like Indiana was part of the reason traditional hockey fans were down on the league as a whole?
TG: Generally, the people who attempt to bash the WHA never saw WHA games in person, didn't follow both leagues over years, and/or had a vested financial or emotional interest in an NHL team. I was lucky: I was both a WHA and NHL fan as a teenager, and watched both very closely. By 1976, the leagues were very close in talent, and I actually preferred the Euro-influenced style of play by the best WHA teams.
And if you talk to players who played in both leagues like I have, you will hear all the positives about the WHA as it compared to the NHL. Fans forget that many players went back and forth between the two leagues over the years. The NHL had an obvious financial interest in bad-mouthing the rival league, but those of us who were there know the how exciting, entertaining and revolutionary the WHA was.
Q: What was your favourite part about doing the research and interviews that went into the project?
TG: The first thing was finding that almost all of my teenaged recollections held up to journalistic research. The facts supported what I remembered about the era! The other gratifying thing was seeing the passion come back into the players, coaches and fans of the Indy Racers when I talked to them about those times. It was a shared experience — this love affair with the WHA and the Racers in Indy — and it came flooding back into people when they talked about it.
Q: Just how big was hockey in Indy? What's the lasting legacy of the Racers? Why hasn't pro hockey returned to the city? And do you think the success of the USHL in the Midwest is an extension of hockey's popularity in a relatively untapped part of North America?
TG: Fans who want to think that Indy didn't support major-league hockey need to know this fact: in 1976, when the Indiana Pacers joined the NBA, the Indianapolis Racers of the WHA outdrew them at the gate (and led the WHA in attendance). The Indy sports scene from 1975-78 was owned by the Racers. It took a NFL championship by the Colts only last year to come close to the fan mania the Racers generated in Indy.
But — now Indy is the largest market in North America without any level of pro hockey. The reasons include the tight grip that the NBA and NFL have on the city, the very close proximity to other NHL cities (Columbus, Nashville, Chicago, St. Louis) and many years of mismanaging the hockey market in Indy. The USHL Indiana Ice has a very tough job in selling their product of amateur teenagers to a market that just won a Super Bowl. But the city needs to support the Ice, and take steps back into the hockey world consciousness.
Q: I know you mentioned to me that the promo part of doing the book has been a lot of fun. What's maybe the best WHA-related story you've encountered since writing the book?
TG: A couple weeks ago at the Racers reunion in Indy for my book, a former Racers Booster Club member came up and gave me a Racers game jersey — my "holy grail" — and I almost fainted. You can read a feature about it titled "The Blood of Gilles Marotte" at Inside Hockey.
Q: One last question — who's one Racer you think people should know about, and I'll link to his hockeydb entry below?
TG: Here are a couple: Defenseman Pat Stapleton and goaltender Michel Dion are two who really made a difference in Indy. Others who wore the jersey included Hall-of-Famers Dave Keon, Mark Messier, and some kid named Gretzky.
I certainly feel more well-informed about the WHA, now, don't you? I didn't get into the Gretzky questions all that much, as I'm personally familiar with that particular side of the WHA, but the book itself certainly gets into his brief stay with the Racers.
Thanks to Tim for some thoughtful answers. You can purchase his book online over at his website, WHAracers.com