When Roy Boe brought an NHL franchise to Long Island in 1972, it wasn’t the first professional hockey franchise on the island.
In the Sixties, Al Baron put a team called the Long Island Ducks to the arean, nesting them in a building that was more of a warehouse than an arena in Commack.
The Commack Arena, which was small and cold, eventually became a flea market in the 1980s. But in the 1960s, it was a loud hockey barn when John Muckler ran the franchise. Muckler, of course, was part of five Stanley Cup championship teams in Edmonton as an assistant coach and head coach, but he started his coaching career in the old Eastern Hockey League in Commack in 1964-65 after an 8-year career with the Baltimore-Charlotte franchise.
The NHL may have brought Muckler money, fame and championship rings over the years, but the Long Island Ducks laid the foundation for a successful coaching career. The EHL was a league that featured tough customers like John Brophy and Don Perry, who eventually both made it to the NHL as coaches. Muckler was a defenseman nearing the end of his career when Baron tapped him to go behind the bench.
"We had some very good years. When we started off, we were a last-place club; we couldn't get out of our way," Muckler recalled. "We had some great crowds and on Sunday afternoons, you couldn't get into the building. It sat maybe 3,800 seats or 4,000 seats, but they would be sold out and it was great family entertainment. We would get a lot of kids, mothers and fathers. It turned into a very lucrative business."
In typical EHL fashion, becoming too successful became a problem. Baron was notified by local fire officials that there were too many people in the building on Sunday afternoons and that his team was violating fire laws.
"Well, I probably didn't pay attention to the fire laws," said Muckler. "I really didn't know what they were at the time. I didn't think we really violated the fire laws. We were always being supervised by the fire department. We didn’t even have a Zamboni at the time; we used to flood the ice by a hose and scrape it, guys pushed the scrapper across the ice. (It took) quite a while -- quite a while. Of course we enjoyed that too because the concessions stayed open longer. We needed all the income we could get there."
The conditions in the dressing rooms were just as spartan.
"Just put a nail in the wall (for clothes)," Muckler said. "The dressing room was very small and the rubbing (trainer's) table was in the middle of the dressing room, one shower maybe, two showers at the most."
The EHL was a low-level league that was maybe a shade better than the International Hockey League. But it was where Muckler learned the business of hockey.
"They were good days," said Muckler, who spent four years at the Commack Arena. "I had a lot of fun in those days. It was a great experience being in the Eastern Hockey League for the simple reason that you did not have a staff. You were the general manager, the coach. You used to sell the program advertising and all of that. You had a secretary, ticket sellers and ticket takers -- that would be about the height of your staff. No marketing department.
"When I first got into the business, one of the reasons you liked being in the Eastern Hockey League, you developed these skills by doing everything yourself. It was kind of a trial-and-error situation. You really got a first-hand education and you made your mistakes."
"I had a lot of fun in those days. It was a great experience being in the Eastern Hockey League for the simple reason that you did not have a staff." -- John Muckler
Muckler moved up the hockey ladder and coached the Minnesota North Stars' Central Hockey League affiliate -- the Memphis South Stars -- in 1967-68. The long-time EHL vet was named Minnesota coach in 1968-69, but went just 6-23-6. Muckler would go back to the minor leagues and was hired by Glen Sather
as an assistant coach in 1982. He would not go back behind an NHL bench as a head coach until 1989-90 and won a Stanley Cup in Edmonton. Muckler signed on as Buffalo coach/GM in 1991 and coached the New York Rangers
between 1997 and 2000. He was Ottawa's GM between 2002 and 2007.
The Long Island Ducks lasted until 1973 when the Eastern Hockey League folded. The Commack Arena last hosted a hockey team in 1974 and was knocked down in 1996. It was replaced by a shopping center.