The Macon Mayhem's first game Friday at Macon Coliseum brought back memories of the city's first foray into the professional hockey world more than 40 years ago. Featuring one of the top sports team names of all time, the Macon Whoopees made their debut Oct. 12, 1973 as expansion members of the Southern Professional Hockey League against the Suncoast Suns at the Coliseum.
Friday nights in Georgia generally are reserved for high school football, and there were more than 13,000 fans on hand for the Warner Robins-Northside game that night (won by the Demons 17-14), yet some 3,000 fans turned out for the hockey game, and the majority knew little or nothing about sport. For many, the only thing they knew about icing was that it was something that you put on a birthday cake.
The one thing the fans did know about was "rasslin'," and as it turned out, they got an opportunity to see plenty of that sandwiched around the hockey game in that opener. There were seven fights, with the first coming less than a minute after the faceoff, that resulted in 148 minutes of penalties. The fights were probably by design since "rasslin'" was such a big draw back in the 1970s, and hopefully, those fans would embrace hockey because of the sport's physicality. The following night against the Suns, the two teams combined for just 16 minutes worth of penalties.
The Whoopees won their opener 5-4 in a 10-minute sudden-death overtime period. The winning goal came with just 54 seconds remaining in the extra period. Less than 1,000 fans were around to witness the end of the game. Proving that Middle Georgia is football country, most of those in attendance had no idea there were three periods of play in ice hockey. At the end of the second period, many got up and left, thinking the "second half" had ended, ending the game. Until they picked up the sports section the following morning, they had no idea they had missed both the third period of play plus the exciting overtime win.
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The first edition of the Whoopees had a short shelf life, running from the announcement of the team's entrance into the league on July 4. 1973 until Feb. 14, 1974. That was the date the team was shut down by the Internal Revenue Service for failure to pay taxes. The IRS was just one of many entities owed money by the Whoopees, including the players whose checks had been bouncing like rubber balls since December.
The Whoopees had been underfunded since day one. Owner Jerry Pinkerton got the franchise on borrowed money and never had the capital to sustain the club's operation. But between Independence Day and Valentines Day, the team provided some life-long memories. I saw most of their games that season, and how could I ever forget "Pinky," "KeKe," "Billy The Kid" or "Chief" -- all integral members of the Whoopees organization?
Pinky was, of course, Pinkerton, an Atlanta stockbroker who always wanted to own a hockey team, and he had a great love for the song "Makin' Whoopee" by Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson. I am sure you get the connection. KeKe was the nickname of the colorful Cleland Lindsay Mortson, the player-coach and general manager of the team. Billy the Kid, as he was affectionately called by Mortson, was Bill Buckley, who was the Whoopees' business manager and assistant general manager. The job was Buckley's first full-time position at age 22, right out of Guilford College in North Carolina.
Mike Penasse, or Chief, was one of the team's most popular players. He was a full blooded Ojibway Indian who was from the tribe's reservation near North Bay, Ontario, the home of Mortson.
After the original franchise was shutdown, Macon was without hockey until 1996 when the second edition of the Whoopee (no 's' in the name this time) emerged as a member of the Central Hockey League, playing in that league until 2001, when they changed to the East Coast Hockey League.
In 2002, Macon's hockey team became known as the Trax, playing for three seasons, one year in the Atlantic Coast League, the next in the World Hockey Association and finally in the SPHL.
Ironically, the Mayhem are playing in the SPHL, the same league the Macon Whoopees called home back in 1973.
Contact Bobby Pope at email@example.com