The documentary by Eric Weltner premieres at the Grandview Theater on Saturday and Sunday
Growing up in Gahanna in the 1970s, before an NHL franchise like the Blue Jackets was even a dream, Eric Weltner was a huge hockey fan. He rooted for the Owls, an International Hockey League team that called Columbus home starting in the fall of 1973. On days off from school, Weltner’s mom would call the Owls' office and ask if her son and a friend could watch the team practice.
When the Owls left in 1977, Weltner was heartbroken. Later in life, he moved from Gahanna to Cincinnati for a career in advertising, but he held onto the memories of his favorite hockey team. In 2011, he started looking around for some archival photos to display, but he had a surprisingly difficult time tracking down any memorabilia. All the usual suspects (the Dispatch, Ohio History Connection, libraries) had little or nothing from the years three IHL teams — the Checkers, Golden Seals and Owls — played in Columbus.
“It was crushing,” Weltner said recently by phone. “These three professional teams were the originals in what is now a major league city. This history should not be forgotten. So I just set out to do something to resurrect it and preserve it.”
Weltner managed to find a former player, Rick Piche, still living in Columbus and listed in the phone book. Piche invited Weltner to his house and then passed along the names and numbers of other former players, who then passed along the names of others (most of whom are Canadian). Weltner made more connections and inroads, eventually hooking up with the Society for International Hockey Research.As far as hockey team names go, Owls is actually better than Blue Jackets, tbh: Sign up for our daily newsletter
Over time, he amassed enough previously forgotten photos and video footage to feature the teams in a full-length documentary. “I would call these guys, and they'd be like, ‘Oh, yeah. I think I got something up in the attic.' One guy sent me almost a hat box full of stuff that weighed 10 or 15 pounds, just stacked with photos and scrapbooks. They were so generous,” Weltner said.
At noon on Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 18 and 19, Weltner will premiere the culmination of his years-long project, “International Incidents,” at the Grandview Theater (the Saturday showing is sold out). About a dozen former IHL players and personnel are coming from all over the U.S. and Canada to attend the premiere, as well as representatives from the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.
The hockey depicted in “International Incidents” is a far cry from the NHL version of today. “The Checkers and the Owls were setting penalty minute records,” Weltner said. “The game was just so much different 40 years ago. What you got away with and what was actually considered part of the game is no longer part of the game today.”
Both the Checkers and the Owls were coached and/or managed by Moe Bartoli, and the teams tended to mirror his rough style. “He had a very physical, aggressive, hardscrabble kind of personality," Weltner said, "so they really liked to hit and put the body on people and make it difficult to play against.”
The legacy of the Golden Seals stands out from the three teams, but for reasons many would just as soon forget. “I would define their history as historically dubious, unfortunately,” Weltner said. “The league that they played in actually ceased operations in 2001, and they ushered it out with the worst record in the history of the league. And the record that they eclipsed was their own.”
Former Golden Seals players told Weltner stories of running out of hockey sticks on the road and having to borrow from the home team’s locker room or a local sporting goods store. And attendance was abysmal. At the fairgrounds, where all three teams played, the Golden Seals often drew fewer than 1,000 fans.
“The interesting wrinkle is that they were owned by a man named Charlie Finley, who at the same time owned an NHL team (the California Golden Seals), but he also owned the Oakland Athletics baseball team, and he managed to win three World Series with them,” Weltner said. “So he was really good at building baseball squads, but pretty inept in the hockey organizations.”
The Owls wrapped up the 1966-1977 era of IHL in Columbus, and in contrast to Finley, Owls owner Al Savill was beloved by the players. “He really wanted to win. He invested in the team. He got them everything they needed. He stood up for them to the league,” Weltner said, but the facilities at the fairgrounds eventually became untenable. “All of these teams had the same struggle with the fairgrounds and getting good [game] dates, because the fairgrounds would always book annual events like the horse convention and the rodeo. … Oftentimes the Columbus teams were playing their playoff games on the road, so that hurt as far as morale, and it also hurt attendance.”
Eventually, Savill got fed up and moved the Owls to Dayton and later to Michigan. But Weltner said the fond memories of those IHL teams stuck. “When the Columbus Chill came back in the ’90s, I think people really rallied around them because they recalled how fun it was to go to a minor league hockey game at that old barn,” he said.