By Arnold Bailey
A new set of 30 hockey trading cards will commemorate the team that had “the greatest minor league season of all time.”
The team is the 1955-56 Rhode Island Reds, who won the Calder Cup as champions of the American Hockey League that season in an amazing worst-to-first turnaround.
The card set is being created by the R.I. Reds Heritage Society, a non-profit formed 16 years ago to preserve the 51-year history of the Providence hockey franchise and promote the game of hockey.
The Reds had finished a distant last in the 1954-55 AHL season, 17 points behind fifth-place Hershey and 22 points off the pace of regular season champion Pittsburgh in the six-team league.
A year later, things changed quickly and dramatically. Strengthened by a working agreement with the N.Y. Rangers of the National Hockey League, the Reds put together a powerhouse that dominated the regular season, the playoffs and the AHL’s individual statistics.
That was enough for the Society for International Hockey Research (SIHR) to judge the Reds’ 1955-56 year as the greatest minor league hockey season ever. Founded in 1991, SIHR is a network of writers, collectors, statisticians, broadcasters, academics and fans. Among its objectives are promoting the study of the game of hockey and the establishment of accurate historical accounts of the sport.
The card set project was undertaken by the Reds Heritage Society to focus on the 1955-56 team during the 60th-year anniversary of that championship season, according to Buster Clegg, a former Reds general manager who is the founding president of the Reds Heritage Society. He said the cards will be unveiled publicly during the Society’s 16th annual reunion celebration, a three-day event scheduled for Aug. 5-7.
The set was designed by Mike Bailey, a member of the society’s Board of Directors and a senior graphic designer at a regional corporation. He said black-and-white photos were used throughout because they were keeping with what was available in the media in the 1950s. However, his design does use the team’s red color for the cards’ borders and for contrast in some backgrounds.
There are 21 players presented on individual cards. Others cards picture team owner (Louis A. R. Pieri), general manager (Terry Reardon), head coach (Jack Crawford), trainer (George Army), broadcaster (George Patrick Duffy) and stick boy (Tom McDonough). Interestingly, McDonough now is a founding director of the Reds heritage group.
The set also features a team photo card, a card picturing the R.I. Auditorium where the Reds played their home games and a header card that provides background on the Heritage Society and the Reds hockey franchise. Randomly inserted are a limited number of autographed cards. (The complete 30-card checklist is found below.)
The team’s two goalies are portrayed on cards number 1 and 1A. Johnny Bower, a future Hockey Hall of Famer, wore jersey No. 1 for the Reds that year. The number was symbolic because the great goaltender was named the AHL’s Most Valuable Player for that magical season. Bower’s back-up was Harvey Bennett, a future AHL Hall of Famer who wore number 18 that year, but had worn No. 1 in nine previous seasons as the Reds’ top goaltender.
That Reds team was a collection of high-scoring sharpshooters. The first line – right wing Zellio Toppazzini, left wing Camille Henry and center Paul Larivee – dominated the league’s goals and assists stats. “Topper” led the AHL in points (113) and assists (71) while scoring 42 goals, third highest in the league. Henry, nicknamed “The Eel” because he was so elusive around the net, led the AHL with 50 goals, and his 91 points placed him third. (Henry added 10 more goals in the nine playoff games.) Larivee chipped in with 27 goals and 53 assists for 80 points, sixth highest total in the league.
Right wing Bruce Cline finished fourth on the team in scoring with 27 goals and 30 assists (plus three more of each in the playoffs) and earned the AHL’s Rookie of the Year honors. Earlier this year, Cline was inducted into the AHL Hall of Fame. Colorful left wing Jim Bartlett added 28 goals and 19 assists, while his all-out style of play accumulated 110 minutes in the penalty box.
Leading the team’s other forwards was speedy Ray Ross, who was a fan favorite at the old auditorium who scored four playoff goals including two game-winners in the Reds sweep over Cleveland for the championship. Others were Ken Davies, Dusty Blair, Red Johansen, Bill McCreary, Ron Attwell and Don Raleigh. The latter had come to Providence after nine seasons with the NHL’s Rangers.
Leading the defense were team captain Andy Branigan, George McAvoy (who led the Reds in penalty minutes with 131), Bob Robertson (second with 123 penalty minutes), Aldo Guidolin, Camille Bedard, Ivan Irwin and Bill Folk.
The Reds introduced pro hockey to Rhode Island and the region in 1926, playing in the Canadian-American League. The team won the Fontaine Cup championship three times before the league folded after the 1936 season. Then the Reds joined the American Hockey League with a team that featured a trio of talented players who would all go on to Hockey Hall of Fame careers. It was with the Reds that those three stars – Milt Schmidt, Bobby Bauer and Woody Dumart – would be dubbed “The Kraut Line.” The Reds competed in the AHL through 1977, winning the Calder Cup four times. Then the franchise moved to Binghamton, N.Y., and the Reds name disappeared.
The 1955-56 championship came at a time when the NHL consisted of just a half-dozen teams, now known affectionately as “The Original Six.” As a result, the level of talent in the American Hockey League was very high. As an example, the Reds’ Camille Henry was the AHL’s top goal scorer in 1956, two years after he had been honored as the NHL’s top rookie while skating for the Rangers. He’d return to the Rangers midway through the 1956-57 season.
Two years ago, the Reds Heritage Society produced a trading card picturing Zellio Toppazzini, the team’s “Player of the Century” and an AHL Hall of Fame inductee. The card commemorated the retirement of his No. 15 jersey. But this is the group’s first full card set.
The Society has grown to about 700 members, including about 125 former players. Many of the players have taken an active role in the organization.
For the past 16 years the Society has organized an annual three-day reunion for which tickets sell out quickly. Its “Host A Hockey Hero” program provides support to enable former players to return for the event. During the past several years a special bus – dubbed “The Bower Bus” in honor of the famed goaltender – carried a full load of ex-players and fans to Rhode Island from the Toronto area.
The Society has created a four-kiosk historical exhibit at The Dunkin’ Donuts Center, which replaced the old R.I. Auditorium as the state’s primary sports and entertainment facility. In addition, there is a smaller exhibit in the main terminal of the state airport in Warwick. All of those exhibits also were designed by Mike Bailey.
The Society also has sponsored an Emmy-winning film titled When the Reds Ruled The Roost, and produced a book that documents the team’s history, plus a cook book that features favorite recipes of former players and directors of the Society. In addition, the Society dedicated a plaque at the site of the old R.I. Auditorium, which was demolished in 1989.
Young hockey players have become one of the Society’s primary interests. The group operates a series of “skills tests,” in conjunction with the AHL, for boys and girls in youth hockey programs throughout the state. The Society also honors the “Unsung Heroes” of interscholastic hockey in the state each year, with awards going to both boys and girls who play defense, the goal or the forward positions. The awards are named for three former players – goalie Gil Mayer, defenseman Ferny Flaman and forward Chuck Scherza, all fan favorites who had been very active with the Heritage group.
Additional information about the Society is available at www.rireds.org.
The 30 cards in the Reds hockey set will be packaged in special plastic holders and are priced at $10 per set (plus $3 postage and handling for phone and mail orders). Orders can be made after Aug. 7 and additional information is available by contacting Bill Connell, Society treasurer, by phone (401-487-5647), email ( firstname.lastname@example.org) or via mail at Mr. William Connell, 537 Mendon Rd., North Smithfield, RI 02896.
R.I. REDS HERITAGE SOCIETY 1955-56 CHAMPIONSHIP TEAM CARD SET
Card # Player/Subject Position, etc.
1 Johnny Bower Goalie (AHL MVP)
1A Harvey Bennett Goalie
2 Aldo Guidolin Defenseman
3 Andy Branigan Defenseman (Team captain)
4 Ron Attwell Center
5 Bob Robertson Defenseman
6 Camille Bedard Defenseman
7 Jim Bartlett Left Wing
8 Paul Larivee Center
9 Bruce Cline Right Wing (Rookie of Year)
10 Ken Davies Left Wing
11 Ivan Irwin Defenseman
12 George McAvoy Defenseman
13 Bill Folk Defenseman
14 Dusty Blair Center
15 Zellio Toppazzini Right Wing (Scoring Leader)
16 Camille Henry Left Wing (Goals Leader)
17 Red Johansen Center
18 Bill McCreary Left Wing
19 Ray Ross Right Wing
20 Don Raleigh Center
21 Louis A. R. Pieri Owner
22 Terry Reardon General Manager
23 Jack Crawford Coach
24 George Army Trainer
25 George Patrick Duffy Broadcaster
26 Tom McDonough Stick Boy
27 R.I. Auditorium Front Exterior
28 Team Card Photo of the Team
29 Header RIRHS sponsorship
Addendum: Bennett’s card is numbered 1A because he wore the number 1 during most of his long career with Reds, although Bower wore it during the 1955-56 season.
Arnold Bailey is a freelance contributor to SCD and a founding director and vice president of the R.I. Reds Heritage Society. Bailey can be reached at email@example.com.