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Columbus Hockey History

The Columbus Checkers: Columbus' First Professional Hockey Team


The Columbus Checkers were the city's first-ever-professional hockey team as a member of the now defunct International Hockey League (IHL). They competed in the city's first professional hockey game at the Ohio Expo Fairgrounds Coliseum on October 12, 1966 when the Chicago Blackhawks, of the National Hockey League, came to town for an exhibition game versus the expansion Checkers.

To say the franchise got off to an ominous start would be an understatement. One week before the event, the Checkers advertised that the game would feature Blackhawks stars Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull. However, the day of the game both Mikita and Hull threatened not to play due to poor ice conditions. Apparently Fairgrounds Operations manager Jerry Kaltenbach and his crew worked feverishly all night trying to get the ice ready but were unsuccessful, putting the game literally on "thin ice." Fortunately Mikita and Hull relented and played one period before calling it quits for the evening. It was with that dubious distinction; pro hockey was born in Columbus, Ohio.

The first-year Checkers finished last in their inaugural campaign posting a 23-48-1 record. The season was highlighted by the team's star player and head coach Moe Bartoli. Known as a tenacious personality, Bartoli led the club in scoring with 31 goals and 72 assists for 103 points, while tacking on 252 penalty minutes. During that season Bartoli surrounded himself with a cast of headstrong, feisty players who carried the Columbus banner to such IHL cities as Saginaw, Dayton, Toledo and Lansing. Players like 6'6", 230-pound defenseman Jack Turner and Columbus hockey mainstay Bill Bond (the only player to play for the Checkers, Seals and Owls) helped make Columbus a feared and respected team.

In just their second season (1967-68) the Checkers finished the year in third place (32-30-10, 74 pts) earning their first playoff berth. In spite of being swept in the first round of the postseason by eventual champion Muskegon Mohawks, the season was considered a success. Forwards Bert Fizzell and Bartoli combined for one of the IHL's most lethal combinations that year as Bartoli racked up 35 goals and 55 assists for 90 points while Fizzell led the team's offense with 40 goals and 56 assists for 96 points. Over the span of the franchise's four seasons, Fizzell would dominate the Checkers records books in most offensive categories amassing 153 goals and 245 assists for 398 points. He was the IHL's second most productive offensive player in the 1960s behind the Dayton Gems' Don Westbrooke (194-211-405).

In the next two years (1968-70) Jack Turner took over the team as player/coach after Bartoli left in a dispute with the Cleveland-based owners Schmeltzer brothers. Columbus would fail to make the playoffs both years slumping to sixth place (26-37-9, 61 pts) in 1968-69 and last in 1969-70 (24-36-12, 60 pts). Fizzell was the teams only highlight those years recording back to back 100-plus point seasons with 37-67-104 and 39-78-117, respectively.

In the spring of 1970, due to low attendance, the Checkers folded. The Schmeltzer brothers (Jerry, Ray and Larry) tried to sell the team to a group of Chicago investors but the deal eventually fell through and the Schmeltzers left town. To cover costs incurred by the franchise a public auction was held for the property of the Checkers. Kaltenbach purchased the equipment for the Fairgrounds with the hope that another franchise would replace the Checkers.