SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – Bruce Landon is a hockey lifer.
One could also call him a Springfield lifer, as well, seeing he turned professional in 1969 as a member of the Los Angeles Kings organization that had its farm club in the city. They were known as the Springfield Kings back then, and Landon was a young goaltender trying to find his way into the show.
Like every man that sat next to him in the locker room, Landon dreamed of playing in the National Hockey League and reaching the highest level of the sport. In 1972, when the World Hockey Association (WHA) presented a new opportunity for hockey players to compete on a global stage, Landon “rebelled” and made the jump.
It was just too tempting.
He came back to Springfield five years later to play with the Indians, but a significant knee injury put his playing career in serious jeopardy. It was not his first major injury and it pained him to not be able to suit up and play in a city he cared so deeply about.
With a wife and two young children at home, Landon hung up his goalie skates in December of 1977 and opted to move into the front office with the Indians. He made his life in Springfield, raised his family there, and 35 years later, he’s still proud to call it home.
He has been the architect of the Falcons for parts of four decades and now holds the title of president and general manager.
“I started in the office doing a bit of marketing and public relations just to get my feet wet,” Landon told BlueJackets.com. “I will admit I didn’t know a lot about what I was doing, but at that time, you were given the opportunity to learn by experience.
“I had to look after my family, and it was hard to stop playing hockey, but I found myself enjoying my work.”
Landon, now 63 years old, ascended quickly. He was named the club’s general manager in 1982 and served in that capacity for 12 years. The ownership group then decided to sell, and the Indians relocated to Worcester – threatening the existence of hockey in Springfield.
There was only one thing to do that felt right, and Landon put an ownership group together rather quickly and bought an expansion franchise from the American Hockey League. The new team was named the Falcons “for a variety of reasons,” Landon said, and it ensured hockey would be part of the community for a long time.
“Hockey has a rich tradition here, and it goes back all the way to 1936,” Landon said. “We’re the second-oldest franchise in the AHL next to the Hershey Bears, so there’s a tremendous history of the game here in Springfield. Like a lot of teams in every league, we’ve had some good years and bad years.
“There are challenges now, certainly, in building the fan base up. I don’t think it was ever a question, and I think it was always a given that we would have hockey in Springfield but the fan base around here is starting to realize that nothing is certain in this game.”
|Bruce Landon speaks at a press conference regarding an affliliation agreement with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Photo credit: masslive.com |
Part of the uncertainty is the nature of NHL affiliation deals. The life of an AHL club is fixated in flux because of the ever-changing landscape with parent clubs, and injuries/suspensions/personnel decisions are just a few of the many things that affect how AHL teams operate.
The Falcons have been one of the most active AHL franchises in terms of affiliates, rarely seeing partnerships extend longer than a couple of years. But there’s something different about Springfield’s relationship with the Blue Jackets, and familiarity has a lot to do with it.
Blue Jackets head coach Todd Richards won a Calder Cup with the Springfield Indians in 1991 and Landon was his GM. Scott Howson also played for the Indians for parts of two seasons when they were affiliated with the New York Islanders.
Relationships are an integral part of making the affiliation work, and Landon is thrilled to have a good one with Columbus.
“Communication is also a very important part of this,” Landon said. “You hope that your NHL partner understands some of the trials and tribulations that you go through at this level, and I have that with the Blue Jackets. Our communication has been exceptional with Columbus. Over all my years in hockey I’ve been associated with a number of affiliation deals, I’ve worked with a lot of teams, and this situation has been tremendous.
“You have to understand everyone’s process and the budget Columbus has to work with in their minor-league framework. At the same time, it’s important we have a competitive team on the ice to win back our fans and make the playoffs, then compete for our ultimate goal which is the Calder Cup.”
The Falcons have opened a new chapter in their 19-year history, and there is a shared feeling of optimism between both the Blue Jackets and the Springfield organization. They have installed 35-year-old former NHLer Brad Larsen as head coach, and just weeks into his tenure, he has sold the players on the importance of details and doing things the right way.
While they want to play an entertaining brand of hockey, the Falcons want to be a responsible group, as well. A pair of convincing wins over the weekend have the Falcons off to their first 2-0-0 start since the 2005-06 season, but Larsen’s not the type of coach to allow for resting on laurels.
“We’re excited because we’re building off last year with a lot of returning players who are now healthy,” Landon said. “Guys like Nick Holden, Cody Bass, Nick Drazenovic…these players were here last year and were big parts of our team. Chris MacFarland has done a real nice job in the offseason in adding character guys like Ryan Craig, who has been a captain before and played here earlier in his career.
“What encourages me is that we have a strong returning group of guys, and we’ve also added some players due to the misfortune of the lockout who may have been in Columbus. We have what should be a healthy lineup and when we had a full group last year, we were a really competitive team.”
Landon hopes this could be the start of a successful and historic period in the franchise’s history. Their most memorable playoff experience came in 1997, when the Falcons finished second in the New England division and advanced to the Calder Cup semifinals.
They were eliminated in a thrilling seven-game series by Hershey, but years later, it’s a fond memory for Landon – and something he hopes to see again very soon.
It’s about his home and his passion, something he has generously shared with the Springfield community for a long time.
“I’m 63 but I have no immediate plans to retire,” Landon said. “My primary goal is to get this franchise healthy and profitable where ownership wants to continue. We want to make sure the club is on solid ground going forward, so we can sign long-term deals with NHL affiliates and with our lease to make sure we’re here for a long time.
“Certainly we worry about the short term, but my mission is definitely going to be about taking care of the long-term future of hockey here in Springfield.”
(Main photo credit: masslive.com)