In March of 1965 my dad took me to the new Hara Arena for my first hockey game as the new Dayton Gems doubled the Muskegon Zephyrs 12-6 in a battle for last place in the International Hockey League. I had a great time and was hooked on both hockey and the venue as Hara was both alive and vibrant on that Sunday afternoon in front of about 3000 fans.
I would return hundreds of times in the next half-century not only for hockey but also pro wrestling, roller derby, basketball, concerts, and toughman contests. Hara also hosted boxing (both live and pay-per-view closed circuit), circus, stunt cars, indoor football and soccer, trade shows, and conventions. Neighboring buildings were also utilized in some of these efforts.
Many big names performed there including Wayne Gretzky, Andre The Giant, Mick Jagger, Sugar Ray Leonard, Guy Lombardo, and Brian Grant. A future Xavier and NBA star, Grant played for Georgetown against the Houston Wildcats in a 1990 district title game at Hara as the Shelby Countians moved on toward the regional finals.
While I occupied one of the 5000+ seats on many visits, I was also a frequent pressbox visitor where the view was awesome. I broadcast many high school tournament basketball games from there and it was my favorite place to work, a rare combination of elevation and proximity that I really enjoyed. It was also a great place to watch Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka jump off the wrestling ring’s top turnbuckle to land on a helpless opponent.
Numerous hockey teams took to the Hara ice but none matched the success or popularity of those early Dayton Gems teams which were contending and winning by their second year. The hockey was very entertaining, enhanced by many visiting characters and “goons” like “Dirty Dino” Mascotto and “Ivan The Terrible” Prediger. In a strange twist, Ivan later became the Gems coach and I got to interview him as he drank a Stroh’s beer from the two case supply he’d just delivered to the home locker room following a victorious showing. Stroh’s, the Gems, and Hara Arena were all quite popular in the mid-1970’s.
The Gems also had some characters along with fine players. I got to know one who combined both elements, center Bob Bailey, a great puck handler and scorer who prolonged his career in Dayton after playing in the National Hockey League and elsewhere. Most of these guys had other jobs to supplement their hockey incomes. Bailey sold sand to foundries for his father-in-law’s business, and Sidney’s Ross Aluminum was one of his accounts. My brother and I were Bob’s guests when he became a charter member of the Dayton Hockey Hall of Fame in 1970.
One regrettable venture came in March 1968 when the San Francisco Bay Area Bombers skated into a sold out arena against the International Roller Derby League All-Stars. My parents, grandfather, and I had seen roller derby on TV and looked forward to exciting legitimate competition but instead got a poorly scripted staged exhibition that caused us to depart at halftime along with much of the crowd. It seemed appropriate when we then smelled a skunk on I-70 not far from Hara.
I followed professional wrestling at Hara every step of the way from Big Time Wrestling (run by champion The Sheik and his father-in-law) to Georgia Championship Wrestling to WWF/WWE to World Championship Wrestling to Extreme Championship Wrestling along with some independent groups. Many of these promotions shot TV shows there because the place was usually packed and loud, leading the wrestlers to a higher performance level, a fact confirmed by several conversations with wrestling company employees.
I was at Hara the first time Hulk Hogan appeared. Decibels reached new levels and the arena shook as he entered to wrestle “Mister Wonderful” Paul Orndorff. I’ll never forget it.
I have a ton of stories from many trips to the Toughman Contests. While the brawling in the ring by both genders was worth the trip, it sometimes paled in comparison to other activity in the building on fight night.
One evening I was in the hospitality room during an intermission when arena manager Johnny Walker’s walkie-talkie got very active. We made eye contact as he began to depart. The former Dayton TV personality indicated that while the ring area was quiet, there were six separate fights elsewhere in the facility including one in a women’s restroom. “That’s where I’m headed. Should be interesting,” he told me.
My final trek to Hara was for hockey in early 2015. Amid gradual continuing deterioration, the end was nearing. The place was filthy, many seats were broken, most ceiling tiles were gone, and birds were chirping in the rafters. I left after the first period but took some fabulous memories with me.
The official closing date was August 27, 2016.
Next Friday: The first time I saw Johnny Bench.
Sports Extra appears each Friday. Dave Ross joined the local sports media in 1975. His columns have won statewide recognition the past three years by the Associated Press.