Carolina Hurricanes: History of Hockey in NC; Carolina Thunderbirds


The Carolina Thunderbirds call Winston-Salem home today. But over the years, many teams have called the Twin City their home.

Winston-Salem, North Carolina is currently home to the reigning Federal Hockey League champion, Carolina Thunderbirds. While this Thunderbirds franchise is still very young, they are hardly the first to call the city home. The Twin City has a history of hockey spanning decades.

The first team to call Winston-Salem home was the Winston-Salem Polar Twins. The team got their start in 1973. They were members of the Southern Hockey League (SHL) alongside the Charlotte Checkers. They took the ice inside Memorial Coliseum for every season. Due to low attendance, legendary professional wrestling promoter Jim Crockett Jr, of Jim Crockett Promotions, took over control of the franchise after its first two seasons.

Sadly, while the Checkers enjoyed winning a lone SHL championship in the 1975-1976 season, the Polar Twins were swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Hampton Gulls.

After the SHL folded in 1977, Winston-Salem was without a hockey team until 1981. In step the Winston-Salem Thunderbirds of the Atlantic Coast Hockey League (ACHL). This incarnation of the Thunderbirds got off to a rocky start, posting a record of 15-33-3, and getting knocked out of the first round of the playoffs. But oh boy, did they bounce back.

Entering their second season in the ACHL, the Thunderbirds changed their name from the Winston-Salem Thunderbirds to the Carolina Thunderbirds. Now I mentioned that they bounced back from their rough first season. How, you ask? By reaching the championship finals 4 seasons in a row, and winning 3 of them.

The Thunderbirds won their first championship in the 1982-1983 season, sweeping the Mohawk Valley Stars. They lost the championship to the Erie Golden Blades the following season. But they got them back. They beat the Golden Blades the next two seasons for the championship. In the ACHL’s final season (1986-1987), the Thunderbirds were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round by the eventual champions, the Virginia Lancers.

The ACHL merged with the Continental Hockey League (CHL), now known as the Federal Hockey League (FHL), to become the All American Hockey League (AAHL). The Thunderbirds would only play 1 season (1987-1988) in the AAHL before moving to the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL).

In their first season in the ECHL, the Thunderbirds won the championship. Defeating the Johnstown Chiefs in 7 games. The team also moved their home ice from Memorial Coliseum to the Annex Arena. Following their lone championship season, the Thunderbirds changed their name again. This time they changed it back to the Winston-Salem Thunderbirds due to the Greensboro Moncarchs joining the leauge. The Moncarchs would also defeat the Thunderbirds for the championship that same season. The next two seasons did not go as well for the team; they missed the playoffs in 1990-1991 and were knocked out in the first round the following season.

Winston-Salem would be without hockey until 1995 when the Winston-Salem Mammoths of the Southern Hockey League (SHL)  arrived, though only for one season. In their lone season in Winston-Salem, the Mammoths made it to the championship finals. Sadly, they came up short.

The Winston-Salem Icehawks of the United Hockey League (UHL) called the Twin City home for 2 seasons: 1997-1998 and 1998-1999. They missed the playoffs in their first season and were eliminated in the first round the next. The team was forced to fold in 1999.

The Winston-Salem Parrots, of the Atlantic Coast Hockey League (ACHL), didn’t spend much time in North Carolina. They split the 2002-2003 season between their original home of St. Petersburg, Florida and in Winston-Salem. They suffered from very poor attendance, only averaging 400 fans in Florida, and 800 after they moved. They were also knocked out in the first round of the playoffs.

Following the 2002-2003 season, the ACHL split into 2 different leagues, one of which was the South East Hockey League (SEHL) which was home to the Winston-Salem T-Birds. They missed the playoffs in the lone SEHL season. The Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL) was formed following the 2002-2003 season.

For the inaugural season of the SPHL (2004-2005), Winston-Salem was home to the second incarnation of the Polar Twins. Sadly, the team did not have much success. The city would be without an SPHL team until 2007, when the Twin-City Cyclones arrived in the league, though only for 2 seasons. They lost in the first round of the playoffs in their first season and missed them entirely in their second. Sadly, the team folded in 2009.

That brings us to today. The current incaration of the Carolina Thunderbirds came into the Federal Hockey Leauge (FHL) in 2017. After a neutral site game between the Danville Dashers and Watertown Wolves drew a good crowd in 2014, an agreement was made in 2016 to bring hockey back to the Twin City.  The Thunderbirds set the FHL attendance record in March 2018, and took part in the longest game in league history in April 2018.

On April 27th, 2019, the Thunderbirds won their first FHL Championship in franchise history in overtime, with the game winning goal being scored with under a minute left.

Winston-Salem has had the most teams call the city home when it comes to hockey in North Carolina. But, with the Thunderbirds success in their first few seasons, as well as having good attendance, hopefully hockey will stay in the city for years to come.

Question for CC Readers: Which historical hockey team from NC would you like to see covered next?