Mark of the Beast

N ew Haven was a hockey town for 76 years, with few interruptions, from 1926, when the New Haven Eagles first took to the ice at the New Haven Arena, until 2002, when the New Haven Knights finished their second and final season at the New Haven Coliseum.

During that time, only two teams enjoyed long and successful runs. The New Haven Blades, of the Eastern Hockey League, played 18 seasons and won three division titles as well as the Elm City’s only professional hockey championship during its “golden era” of hockey from 1954 to 1972. And the New Haven Nighthawks, of the American Hockey League, reached the AHL finals four times during their run from 1972 to 1992, though they never brought home the Calder Cup.

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But as the less successful Eagles, Knights and others attest, New Haven has been home to a slew of shorter-lived teams that nevertheless captured the hearts of its hardcore hockey fans. Among them was the Beast of New Haven. “They’re almost the forgotten part of New Haven hockey history which was unfair,” writes fan Dave LeGates on a Facebook forum dedicated to the Coliseum. “They were a decent team without a doubt. After a few years of being left without hockey from the Nighthawks/Senators loss, having The Beast was like being saved.”

The Beast first took to their home ice at the Coliseum on October 24, 1997. About 8,000 fans turned out to see local professional hockey again and root for a team that had landed in New Haven following a strange game of musical chairs. The popular Hartford Whalers had moved to North Carolina, becoming the Carolina Hurricanes. While waiting for their new stadium to be completed, the Hurricanes displaced an AHL team called the Monarchs from a coliseum in Greensboro. The Monarchs then flew to Connecticut and became the Beast. “With Connecticut still mourning the loss of the Whalers, New Haven seemed like an ideal location for [president and general manager Dave] Gregory to unleash the Beast,” Mike Commito wrote in a 2018 VICE Magazine article.

Eileen Mulqueen Ludington of North Haven remembers a big crowd at that first home game. “In between periods, everyone would flock down to the bar that was located on the ground level of the Coliseum for a quick drink and then head back up for the start of the next period,” she recalled in an email. “When the next period started the bar would empty out and just a few of the fans would linger. There was [closed-circuit] TV of the game at the bar, so my girlfriends and I stayed.” That turned out to be a fateful decision. A group of guys stuck around, too, and Ludington met the man who would later become her husband.

That night the Beast took down the Worcester IceCats with a 2-1 win. It was the start of an exciting season under coaches Kevin McCarthy and Joe Paterson that led to the playoffs. But in their first postseason matchup, the Beast dropped a 3-0 lead in the third period and lost to fellow newcomers the Hartford Wolfpack, 7-4.

It was pretty much downhill from there. The 1998-99 season opened with a 6-3 loss to Hartford at the Coliseum. The Beast played their final game on April 18, 1999, taking a 4-1 win at home over the Springfield Falcons. They lost their NHL affiliations with the Carolina Hurricanes and the Florida Panthers, and the team was disbanded at the end of that second season. They were followed briefly by the city’s last professional hockey team, the New Haven Knights, which folded in the spring of 2002.

A total of 54 athletes played for the Beast, including many who would rise to or had already played for NHL teams. Fans recall some favorites: Tripp Tracy, Shane Willis, Bates Battaglia, Byron Ritchie, Chad Cabana. “My favorite memory goes like this: ‘Pete! Pete! Pete! Pete!’” writes fan Mark Douglass, referring to crowds chanting for Pete Worrell, a forward who went on to play in the NHL for the Florida Panthers and the Colorado Avalanche.

There was less enthusiasm for the team’s navy blue and lime green jersey variant and for what that VICE article called “the most haunting sports logo in history”—a gargoyle like those atop the ledges of several Yale University buildings, peering over a brick ledge, with glowing red eyes, sharp teeth and claws, and huge pointed ears emphasized by a full moon.

Mascot Buddy the Beast was “hatched” from a giant stone egg at that first home game and promptly slipped on the ice. In fairness, the costume itself was a beast, according to New Haven Register reporter Michael Foley, who stepped in as a substitute one night in December of 1998 and, despite years of skating with ease, found himself terrified at the entrance to the rink. “I’d never skated with gigantic foam boots attached to my skates and a huge, 10-pound hard plastic helmet shaped like a gargoyle on my head,” Foley wrote in the Register the following day. “Making matters worse, I could barely see where I was going.” That gig ended well, Foley had a blast and the kids reportedly were happy to meet Buddy.

Though many longtime Nighthawks fans didn’t gravitate toward the Beast, the most committed hockey lovers continued to turn out. Scott Corcoran, a fan who scored an internship with the Beast’s public relations arm and kept stats during the games, credits the fans of the Coliseum’s infamous Section 14, aka “The Jungle,” for their devotion. Known for throwing not only shade at the opposing team but also pucks, cups of beer and even the armrests which detached from the seats, Section 14 “stuck by [New Haven] teams through thick and thin,” Corcoran recalls. “Those people lived, ate and breathed New Haven pro hockey, and they were always there for them.” The problem, he says, was trying to engage other locals “who maybe went to one, two games per year. What do you do to bring those people back?”

Jeff Russell, who served as the Beast’s vice president and was himself a college hockey player (and son of one of the owners of the Blades), sees the problem as twofold. “There were less expansion teams before 1972, and there were no cable stations,” Russell says, “so the competition for the entertainment dollar wasn’t as great” for New Haven’s earlier teams. And the Coliseum itself didn’t help matters, he says. The smaller New Haven Arena, where the Blades played, was “very fan-friendly,” he says. “Everybody had a great view of the ice.” In contrast, the Coliseum’s size made it hard for fans to feel they were all at the same game together.

The Coliseum, like New Haven pro hockey, is gone now. In 2005, with the building roped off in preparation for demolition, Mark Ludington proposed to Eileen Mulqueen as close as he could get to their original meeting place at the Coliseum bar: the corner of Orange and George Streets. In 2007, the Coliseum was imploded with about 20,000 people looking on—many more than ever attended a Beast game.

Still, some New Haven pro hockey fans can’t be deterred. They’ve found a new home with the Danbury Hat Tricks, says former Section 14 season ticketholder Anthony Nyg. If you go to a game, you can find them cheering mightily from their new home, in Section 102.

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image, featuring detail of a Beast of New Haven game jersey, provided courtesy of Jeff Russell.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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