By Mike Miccoli
Bruce Landon only wanted to save hockey in Springfield.
At the conclusion of the 1993-94 season, the longtime AHL franchise Springfield Indians closed up shop in Western Massachusetts, relocating 50 miles east to Worcester. The move marked the end of hockey in Springfield after 39 straight seasons in the AHL. The new owners of the franchise renamed the team the Worcester IceCats, and Springfield was left with no minor league hockey team.
Not for long.
Landon, a former goaltender for Springfield and then-Indians general manager, partnered with Wayne LaChance, a local rink owner, to ensure that hockey would stay in the city. What was born the following season was the Springfield Falcons organization.
Hockey never missed a beat in Springfield, and Landon was the reason why.
Now, 20 years after the Falcons’ first season in the AHL, Landon announced in early February that he was stepping down as president and minority owner of the team.
“It has been a passion,” said Landon at a Falcons press conference in February at the MassMutual Center. “It has been a labor of love, and there hasn’t been one moment that I haven’t enjoyed my time in the American Hockey League and the time, most of all, running the Springfield Falcons franchise.”
Landon will remain with the team as director of hockey operations. The position will be, as Landon calls it, “behind the scenes,” since the Falcons’ NHL affiliate Columbus Blue Jackets are exclusively in control of player movement and franchise decisions.
Landon, who describes himself as a workaholic, said he came to the decision after hitting a brick wall in the past few months, causing his work ethic to slow down a bit. “If I couldn’t give it 100 percent all of the time, then it’s time for me to step back,” Landon said.
An emotional Landon told the media at his press conference that he worried about everything around the organization, from fans to attendance to weather reports for two weeks out. It was clear that for a man who gave everything he had to Springfield, it was time for him to step back.
“I have not lost my belief, my passion, my commitment to the city of Springfield, (or) the franchise here in Springfield,” he said. “It’s important to me that it continues for many years.”
The city’s hockey roots are deep, dating back to 1926 when the Springfield Indians organization was one of five initial clubs in the Canadian-American Hockey League. The Can-Am League later became the AHL, with Springfield winning the most championships (three) in the league’s history. After a brief stint in Syracuse from 1951-54, the organization, alternating between the Indians and Kings name, played regularly every AHL season since 1954-55, winning seven titles in the process.
Landon was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in the fourth round of the 1969 NHL amateur draft and played the following three seasons with Springfield.
Though he never played in the NHL, Landon finished his career nine years later in Springfield after an injury-plagued campaign. It was then when his new role with Springfield came to fruition.
“Back in December of 1977 when I was playing for the Springfield Indians, George Leary, after I had suffered another major injury, gave me an opportunity to go into the front office,” Landon said. “As George led me to my desk and handed me a legal pad, I remember looking him in the eye and saying, ‘George, there will be many people that will outsmart me, but I promise you, nobody will outwork me.’ “I know now, 37 years later, I can look in the mirror and feel very proud of myself that I have fulfilled that promise to George.”
The Falcons’ initial NHL partnership was split between the Hartford Whalers and Winnipeg Jets. Once the Whalers moved to Carolina, the Falcons’ affiliation was solely with the now-Phoenix Coyotes. They later were connected with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Edmonton Oilers before the present-day, parent- club affiliation of the Blue Jackets.
Throughout Landon’s time with the Falcons, Springfield has yet to reach the Calder Cup Finals. In fact, the Falcons had made the playoffs only seven times in 19 seasons, including a nine-year postseason drought. But Landon’s contributions to the city of Springfield can’t be denied.
“He successfully navigated several different changes in ownership where each time it looked like the team might have to leave, culminating in the sale to Mr. (Charlie) Pompea,” said longtime Falcons fan Chris Gorski of Suffield, Conn.
The sale to Pompea in December 2010 was another big chapter in Landon’s legacy in Springfield. Landon spoke about how it was one of his most trying moments, another one of many in keeping hockey in Springfield.
This December, Columbus and Springfield announced they will be exercising the option for their affiliation for next season.
Pompea said a search will begin for a new president, but in the meantime, his daughter Sarah will be assuming the role.
At the AHL All-Star Break, the Springfield Falcons had the second-best record in the AHL at 31-13-1-4. The development of younger players in the Blue Jackets system has helped to give Springfield a team-first mentality and some much-needed success that hasn’t been present in the past few seasons.
“I am most thankful to Charlie Pompea for his support and accepting the challenge of making this franchise viable,” said Landon in a blog post on MassLive.com. “I also want to publicly thank all of the great fans who have supported this franchise since its inception in 1994.
“I have been fortunate to be in a game I love for almost 45 years and have so many fond and wonderful memories and have met so many outstanding people. I am stepping back, but not out of sight.”