This 2004 interview was the official beginning of the efforts that eventually became a book on the WHA Indianapolis Racers — and then helped to gather the support to create the WHA Hall of Fame.
Jim Park is one of the perfect former Indianapolis Racers to discuss the team’s rise and fall, joining the franchise after the first team camp in 1974 and playing through the 1977-78 season.
He and fellow Racers goaltender Michel Dion were sent together to the minor league Mohawk Valley Comets of the North American Hockey League, and would both come back up in 1975 to help bring the Racers franchise to its greatest moments. Park battled on, through injury and a revolving door of other Racers goaltenders and was released only before the team’s last partial season – though his career in Indianapolis was not over, as you will see.
Now the head of the Jim Park Goalie School near Toronto, Park has both a son and daughter playing his position: goaltender. Jim Park talked with author Timothy Gassen in December 2004.
Timothy Gassen: You spent the 1974-75 season at Mohawk Valley getting ready for major league hockey. What was that experience like?
Jim Park: It was the minor team for both the Racers and (WHA) Toronto Toros, and it was a lot of fun. It was a wild experience, because that was the “Slapshot” league. [The NAHL was used as a basis for the 1977 comedy film “Slapshot.”] There was always wild stuff going on – they called it a “hatchet league” – and if they looked at it today they would say we were all insane. That was the time of the [Philadelphia Flyers’] “Broad Street Bullies,” that’s the way the game was played. That was also the time of bench clearing brawls and all that.
I didn’t look at it as a punitive experience. I was still very young, and I was looking forward to the opportunity and developing for what was to come. You have to have patience and believe in your ability and develop a positive attitude – that’s how you get to the big leagues.
TG: Can you describe your role during the Racers’ heroic rise to Eastern Division Champions the next year, 1975-76? [Park recorded two playoff shut outs, too.]
JP: I was only up for the last couple of months of the season. Actually, I had been released by the Racers – there was a bunch of contracts they released, and I signed on to stay with Mohawk Valley – then Andy Brown hurt his back. So then I had an opportunity – because they needed me – and I wanted to go back up and show them that they were wrong to release me in the first place.
TG: All players compete for ice time – what was your relationship with the other goaltenders on the club?
JP: Michel Dion and I had already played together for a few years, so we were already friends. We always competed with each other, pushing each other – we both wanted to play, but we were friends and we wanted each of us to be successful. I was lucky, I got along with all the goalies that I played with.
TG: In 1976-77 you played the second most games for a Racers goalie (31), winning 14. Why did the team acquire new goalie Paul Hoganson?
JP: I had injury problems toward the end of the year, so I think that’s why Paul Hoganson was brought in. And that’s what happened when you get hurt, it can be hard to get back in the lineup, and we got in the playoffs and Hoagie got hot. He came over from Cincinnati, so he wanted to show them what he could do when we faced them in the playoffs.
TG: Even though the team had played wonderfully in the 1977 playoffs, was there a feeling on the team that you should have gone further?
JP: You always want to believe you can go further. But that was a tough Quebec team with a lot of talent, so it’s hard to say you should have won a series when you go down four games to one!
TG: In 1977, with new coach Ron Ingram, you only play 12 games, splitting time with Ed Mio, Gary Inness and also Peter McDuff. Why was there less opportunity for you?
JP: Ron Ingram and I never got along, I can tell you that. Gary Inness was going to be his guy, and I wasn’t. He was brought in from the NHL to be the #1 guy, and Eddie Mio, too, so that’s the way it is with goalies. It was just a big mess.
I played the very last game of the year, and I remember that the guys didn’t want to win that last home game because it would put Cincinnati into the playoffs. [Indianapolis was in last place, but Cincinnati and Birmingham were dueling for the last playoff spot. The 9-7 win by Birmingham at Indy secured the last playoff spot for the Bulls instead of the Stingers.] You can tell your time with a team was coming to a close at that point, and I wasn’t getting played.
TG: Even though you had left the team, were you suspicious about the whole Skalbania and Gretzky affair in Indianapolis?
JP: It never made any sense to me! There’s a whole conspiracy story there, and that never gets any play, I never hear people talking about it!
TG: After the Racers, you played in the Pacific League for Los Angeles and Phoenix in 1978-79, then – surprise – you’re back in Indianapolis with the minor league Checkers from 1979-1981. What was that like for you to return?
JP: It was great. There were still great fans there, and it was a very enjoyable time, absolutely. I thought after that I might get another break in the majors.
TG: Then you play a career-high 53 games for Fort Wayne in the International Hockey League for the 1981-82 season…
JP: I ended up signing back with the [NHL] New York Islanders, but you have to look at who is in front of you [in the organization], and there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for me at that point. I wanted to play for 10 years, and that last year in Fort Wayne was my 10th year.
TG: Are you surprised that a city the size of Indianapolis now has no professional hockey?
JP: I really am surprised that Indianapolis doesn’t have a pro hockey team. I always felt it was a good hockey town. Market Square Arena was a wonderful place to play and had a wonderful atmosphere, all the sound stayed in the building and the sightlines were great – they don’t have that now with the old Fairgrounds arena.
TG: Was your experience with the Racers satisfying?
JP: It sure was but it would have been great if it lasted longer! But during that playoff run you couldn’t ask for anything more exciting. The town was behind us, we had great fans, and the yelling and screaming they would do would make your hair stand up on the back of your neck sometimes. It taught me a lot about what a team is all about, because that truly was a team and we couldn’t have achieved success any other way.
TG: Are you also surprised that the Racers are still remembered so fondly all these years later?
JP: Yes, I suppose it’s surprising, but I can remember times following the Maple Leafs when I was young, and they seem like yesterday. So I can understand it. It’s a magic time when you’re young like that, and it was a new game that was brought to town, so the fans were learning a great new game from Canada brought to basketball country.
TG: The WHA is finally starting to get some well-earned respect…
JP: You have voices speaking up for the WHA now, players and people who were involved in the WHA speaking very highly about how competitive and exciting the WHA was. And that goes against what the NHL would have liked you to believe back then, and even now they still won’t let their grudge go.
But it was an exciting time, especially in Indianapolis...