Carolina Thunderbirds (Head Coach)
OT Losses: 1
Sign up for the newsletter and never miss a new release.
The History of Pro Hockey in North Carolina
A Storm In Carolina
Rick Dudley's Unsung Impact on Hockey in North Carolina
By Jeb Bohn
Rick Dudley is best-known to most hockey fans in North Carolina for his time spent as a Senior Vice President of Hockey Operations with the Carolina Hurricanes.
What many aren’t aware of is Dudley’s extensive time serving many roles in minor-league hockey in the state.
Retirement? What Retirement?
After appearing in 309 NHL games across seven seasons, Rick Dudley retired as a player in 1981. While some might spend their newfound free time fishing or indulging in hobbies, Dudley would see his leisure time cut short.
In February 1982, he received a call from Dave Gusky, a friend dating back to Dudley’s time playing in the AHL. Gusky had a problem: he owned the Winston-Salem Thunderbirds, a hockey team that couldn’t win or turn a profit.
Indeed, Gusky was losing money and looking for any help he could muster. Dudley agreed to spend some time with the team and evaluate the situation. While that was the plan, he soon realized that if he simply gave feedback and moved on, the team would fold.
The pair had a conversation during which Dudley pledged to help his friend find a buyer for the team. Failing that, Dudley himself would purchase the team. When no serious buyer stepped forward, Dudley kept his word and bought the team from Gusky.
One of Dudley’s first moves came as selling stock in the team for ten bucks per share, a way to build a community and bring in some much-needed cash to the struggling team. This was especially important given that the terms of the sale included Dudley taking over the debt accumulated by the franchise.
Things were so severe that—on more than one occasion—Dudley covered payroll with personal checks. To save money, he filled any role he could, including that of the team bus driver.
Ahead of the 1982-83 season, he replaced Curry Whitaker as head coach. He also rebranded the team, dropping the city from the team’s name in favor of a regional moniker: the Carolina Thunderbirds.
Now, when I said the team couldn’t win, I meant it. During their inaugural season, the Thunderbirds posted a woeful 14-33-3 record. In Dudley’s first season as owner and coach, their record shot to a league-leading 51-10-7. Their 111 points bested the previous season by a whopping 80 points; the second-best team in the league sat 28 points behind.
It was a remarkable turnaround, capped off with a league championship.
Over the next three years, Dudley coached the Thunderbirds to 145 wins and two more league titles. Prior to the 1986-87 season, Dudley sold his interest in the team and departed to coach in the International Hockey League.
This, however, isn’t the whole story.
Blue Ridge Diversion
The small Mitchell County town of Spruce Pine sits nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, 13 miles south of the North Carolina/Tennessee border. Surrounded by natural beauty, the one-time railroad hub became an unlikely home to pro hockey.
Area native Robert Bailey—founder of Buck Stoves—wanted to give something to his community and provide the people with something to do. When it came to his attention that an old school property was coming up for sale, Bailey (along with business partner Alvin Barier) jumped at the opportunity.
Their plan was an extensive renovation to the property, including an inn, a restaurant, and the largest indoor ice rink in the state. The property was christened the Pinebridge Coliseum, its name coming from the bridge that connected the facility to the town.
Despite the presence of a rink, the Coliseum wasn’t originally intended to house a hockey team. Instead, Bailey wanted to host a hockey school and reached out to Dudley to see if he would be interested in running it.
Birth of a New Team
Dudley, serving as owner/coach/GM of the Thunderbirds, had enough on his plate, but he agreed to visit the facility. Upon touring the Coliseum, Dudley realized it would make a suitable home for an ACHL team.
With Bailey on board, the Pinebridge Bucks were born.
Due to his other obligations, Dudley didn’t serve in any official capacity with the Bucks. He did, however, bring in Don Luce—a teammate of his with the Buffalo Sabres—as Pinebridge’s head coach.
The Bucks struggled, only save from a last-place finish by the folding of the Birmingham Bulls in October 1983. Bailey, unhappy with a handful of league owners, decided to pull the plug on the team after one season; Dudley, realizing that the loss of another team would doom the league, convinced Bailey to come back for the 1984-85 ACHL season.
Their second campaign showed improvement, culminating with a berth in the playoffs. The defending champion Erie Golden Blades defeated the Bucks in six games. After the season, Bailey did indeed pull the plug, ending a short yet incredibly interesting chapter in North Carolina’s hockey history.
Rick Dudley: His Legacy in North Carolina
Let’s start with his time in Winston-Salem.
After the city’s first team, the SHL’s Polar Twins, ceased operation, the market had no team for four years. The Thunderbirds came in and stumbled badly, only to be resuscitated by Dudley. The franchise survived through three leagues before folding in 1992.
For 36 of the past 49 years, Winston-Salem has been the home to some form of professional hockey, including the current iteration of the Thunderbirds, who are active in the FHL. Without Dudley’s dedication and determination, who knows what the Twin City’s hockey landscape would look like?
Then there’s the Bucks. Yes, their time was short—both in time and success—but their impact cannot be understated. Had Bailey pulled out following the 1983-84 season, it likely would have spelled the end of the ACHL.
That may not sound like a big deal until you consider what came after.
The ACHL, along with the AAHL, merged to form the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL), a federation that’s been going for 34 years. Beyond that, the ECHL has hosted six teams in North Carolina.
It’s not out of the question that none of that happens if not for Rick Dudley convincing Bailey to keep the Bucks active.
Then there’s his short stint as an executive with the Carolina Hurricanes.
During his tenure, the Hurricanes drafted Andrei Svechnikov, Jack Drury, Ryan Suzuki, Pyotr Kotchetkov, and Jamieson Rees. They also acquired Dougie Hamilton, Nino Niederreiter, Dominik Bokk, Brady Skjei, and Vincent Trocheck.
There were also a series of notable free-agent acquisitions during this time, additions that played key roles for the team (like Petr Mrazek). Now, I don’t know how much of a role Dudley played in any of these moves but, considering his long-standing relationship with Hurricanes GM Don Waddell, I’m willing to bet he held some sway.
At the end of the day, it’s doubtful that North Carolina’s hockey landscape would be the same without Dudley’s contributions.
Personally, I think he should be in the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, but that’s just me.
For more North Carolina hockey history, check out my new book A Storm In Carolina: The Sometimes Odd, Always Entertaining History of Professional Hockey in the Old North State.