You might first think of a team that missed the post season or possibly one that had some problems whether they stemmed from injuries or transactions or something in between.
The 1980-81 Adirondack Red Wings were the exception to what you might think. As a veteran laden Red Wings roster entered the 1981 Calder Cup Playoffs, the records were wiped clean and what remained was a motivated team with as much talent as any team in the AHL.
“When we all got here we said that we might as well make the best of it and see what we can do, see if we can make a playoff run,” defenseman Greg Joly said. “Once we got in the playoffs we were pretty well the team to beat.”
The Red Wings were a team that had underachieved all season but were hot entering the playoffs with eight wins from their final 13 games. The AHL of 1981 had only nine teams and eight clinched playoff spots, allowing a Red Wings team that was five games under .500 to earn home ice advantage in the opening round.
Despite four teams having more regular season wins than Adirondack, the Red Wings were not your typical underdog team. Led by veterans Peter Mahovlich, George Lyle and Dennis Polonich, who were sent down from Detroit at midseason, the team entered the playoffs with loads of experience.
“You had NHL caliber guys, guys who should be up there come down,” defenseman Dave Hanson said. “Instead of coming down with a chip on their shoulder that could have been detrimental, they came down and embraced it. Everybody came together as a group and everyone contributed to win the cup.”
Combined with young stars Jody Gage and Ted Nolan, along with solid defensemen in Joly and Hanson, the Red Wings were a force to be reckoned with in postseason play.
“It was a testament to that veteran leadership to help bring us young players along,” Gage said. “Having a guy like Peter Mahovlich, who played on my line, was great for my career and for the team.”
Despite losing Game 1 on home ice, the Red Wings stormed past the Binghamton Whalers four games to two in the first round of the playoffs, setting up a Division Final Matchup with the powerful Hershey Bears who had bested Adirondack in the Southern Division by 28 points in the regular season.
The two teams went back and forth through four games with each winning once on the other’s home ice, leading into a pivotal Game 5 in Hershey. With a massive crowd behind the Bears, the game entered the third period knotted at one but behind a five-goal effort in the final 20 minutes, the Wings took a 3-2 series lead back to Glens Falls. Adirondack would turn around another 6-3 victory in Game 6 on home ice in front of a standing room only crowd at the Glens Falls Civic Center to book their place in the Calder Cup Finals.
“We brought our level up for that series,” Joly said. “They were more intimidated by us then we were of them. They had a good team but we played good hockey and on paper there wasn’t a team that could match us. Overall, talent just won out in that series.”
Standing in the way of the area’s first championship were the Maine Mariners and their standout netimnder Pelle Lindburgh, who would go on to win a Vezina Trophy in 1985 with the Philadelphia Flyers. The Mariners were the regular season and playoff champions of the Northern Division with 97 points and eight playoff wins.
“Maine was a pretty darn good hockey team,” Hanson said. “They had an all-star goaltender who went on to be an NHL All-Star with Philadelphia. But as we went on in the playoffs our confidence just grew and grew and grew.
Unlike series past, Adirondack jumped out to a two games to one series lead before a Game 4 at the Glens Falls Civic Center that saw Maine silence the house with a 10-1 road victory.
Maine seemingly had all of the momentum headed back to home ice for Game 5 but the Red Wings used resilience and bounced back with a 6-4 win in Game 5, setting the stage for pandemonium at the Civic Center for Game 6.
“The veteran leaders on the team did a great job of helping us put [Game 4] behind us,” Gage said. “A loss like that could have felt like a knockout blow but it wasn’t. I remember Dave Hanson recreating that scene from Meatballs and got us believing that ‘it just doesn’t matter’ as we went onto the ice for Game 5 in Maine.”
With well over 6,000 people in the Civic Center for the historic night, Adirondack rode two goals from Rick Vasko and tallies from Jean-Paul LeBlanc, Lyle and Nolan to a 5-2 victory and the first championship in Adirondack Hockey History. Gage described the level of fan support as a “unbelievable feeling” playing in front of the overflowing building.
“It felt like the entire city was packed into the building that night,” Gage said.
“It was like hockey bedlam,” Joly added. “The atmosphere was just perfect.”
Despite not being the top seeded team entering the playoffs, the Red Wings triumphed as the most talented team in the league won their first ever championship.
“You had a group of guys that pulled together, really unified and did what was necessary to have the ingredients of not only talent but desire to win a championship, come together in that room,” Hanson said. “By the time we got through the playoffs and won it, for some guys it was redemption that they should have been in Detroit. For other guys like myself it was justification of being a championship player.”
The celebration was an emphatic time for the Glens Falls community and became the first of four Calder Cup championships that the Red Wings would win.
“The front office staff did a great job of being aggressive in the local community and getting the fans out to the rink to support us,” Gage said. “It was an incredible community and getting those fans behind us. Would we have done it without that kind of support? You just don’t know.”
“It was a feeling of euphoria to have won something that meant so much to so many people, to the entire Adirondack community,” Hanson said. “Everybody embraced it. When we threw that parade together, it was just reinforced when the streets were packed together in such a small town.”
The most recent championship for an Adirondack professional team is now closing in on 25 years ago but the memories of that first title, now over 35 years prior, are ones that the members of that team will never forget.