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Retro Baltimore: Remember when the Clippers ruled the Civic Center?

Marc Dufour of the Clippers (left) and Ray Clearwater of Providence dig for puck in Calder Cup playoff game won by Baltimore, 4-2, at the Civic Center on April 16, 1971. The Clippers' John Cunniff trails the play.
Marc Dufour of the Clippers (left) and Ray Clearwater of Providence dig for puck in Calder Cup playoff game won by Baltimore, 4-2, at the Civic Center on April 16, 1971. The Clippers' John Cunniff trails the play. (MCCARDELL/Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

It was, hands down, the most glorious year for Baltimore sports.

Half a century ago, all four of the city’s pro teams won acclaim in a rare confluence of athletic success. In October 1970, the Orioles captured the World Series; three months later, the Colts won the Super Bowl. That April, the Baltimore Bullets won their division and reached the NBA finals. And the Clippers, the city’s gritty hockey team, won their first division crown in the American Hockey League.

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Remember the Clippers? A hodgepodge of NHL hopefuls, has-beens and career minor leaguers, who played for 12 years before a hardy core of fans who cheered every body check. Formed in 1962, the Clippers christened the Civic Center (now Royal Farms Arena) that season and hit their stride years later under coach Terry Reardon, a tough little Irishman with a keen eye for talent. Reardon, who was also general manager, smoked cheap cigars and, arms raised, shouted “Yowsah!” after every goal.

The Clippers scored often in that 1970-71 campaign. They boasted the three top scorers in the eight-team league in Fred Speck, Marc Dufour and Wayne Rivers, a trio who led them to their best mark ever (40-23, with 9 ties). Speck, 23, the youngest regular, had 92 points and won both AHL Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards. Dufour had 82 points and Rivers, 75, including the winning goal against the Providence Reds in a December game during which his wife delivered a baby (in the hospital).

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The Clippers were a club laced with characters, including Andy Brown, the daredevil goalie who drove race cars in the off-season. Aggressive to a fault, he led all AHL goalies in penalty minutes and refused to wear a mask while stopping shots traveling at speeds of 100 mph. Fearless in the net, Brown registered four shutouts and made first-team all-league, allowing 2.86 goals per game.

Clippers goalie Andy Brown guards net as teammate Kerry Ketter fights for puck in a 4-1 victory over the Cleveland Barons at the Civic Center on Jan. 31, 1971.
Clippers goalie Andy Brown guards net as teammate Kerry Ketter fights for puck in a 4-1 victory over the Cleveland Barons at the Civic Center on Jan. 31, 1971. (PEARSON/Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

Larry Johnston, the team captain, was a brawling defenseman who roused crowds with his bone-rattling checks. In a midseason victory over the Hershey Bears — the Clippers’ seventh straight win — Johnston skated with particular abandon, The Sun reported, “sending Bear bodies sprawling all over the ice.” Once, he even shoved a referee and was fined $500.

At 38, Willie Marshall was one of the oldest players, though the Clippers squeezed 55 points out of the grizzled journeyman, including four goals in a win over the Rochester Americans — a game in which Marshall set the all-time AHL point record (1,341), earning a standing ovation from the home crowd of 6,645. The next season he retired, ending a rough-and-tumble 20-year career, to write Christian poetry.

The team chemistry worked. The club won its first three games and 10 of its first 13. At home, after each goal, the public address system played the team’s fight song:

Win, you Baltimore Clippers,

Win, you Clippers from Baltimore ...

Once, the recording got stuck on “win” and repeated the word over and over, to the crowd’s delight.

By midseason, the team seemed a lock for the Calder Cup playoffs. Fans agreed. On Jan. 19, two days after the Super Bowl, the Clippers won their sixth in a row beneath a homemade banner that read, “Colt today and Calder tomorrow.” A month later, they crushed the Springfield Indians, 14-0 at home — their third victory in 48 hours and the most one-sided game in AHL history.

The Clippers' Jim Bartlett circles the Hershey net with the puck during a 4-2 win over the Bears at the Civic Center on April 2, 1971.
The Clippers' Jim Bartlett circles the Hershey net with the puck during a 4-2 win over the Bears at the Civic Center on April 2, 1971. (HARRIS/Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

With four games left, they clinched the Western Division, defeating Rochester, 7-3 at the Civic Center before a crowd of 10,498, the largest in the league all year. Five times, the Clippers had made the playoffs before; only once had they advanced to round two. Certainly this time would be different.

“Sure, we’re favored,” Reardon told the media. “But this is another season entirely.”

Their first-round opponent, Providence, won just three of their 10 meetings in the regular season. Yet the Reds took the playoff series, four games to two, upsetting the Clippers and their stunned fans.

The magic, it appeared, was gone. Attendance plummeted, from an average of 5,213 that season to just 2,910 the next. Short of cash, the Clippers folded in midseason in 1974-75 but returned the following year before withdrawing from the AHL again to compete in lesser leagues. The team disbanded for keeps in 1981, replaced by the Skipjacks and, later, the Bandits, who abandoned the ice in 1997.

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