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To get to Spruce Pine, you have to really want to get there.

There are two choices, actually: You can drive straight up the mountain that guards the lower entrance to Spruce Pine, or you can drop from the clouds that shroud the upper entrance.There is no airport in Spruce Pine. No bus terminal. No Amtrak station.

There is just a town, mainly. A mountain town with a post office, a fire station a few schools and a coliseum.

A 5,000-seat coliseum.

The Pinebridge Coliseum looks strangely right at home in this tiny mountain town. From its parking lot overlooking the railyard below, you can see the town's two main roads: Upper Street and Lower Street.

Along the streets, people walk to and from Spear's Restaurant, which serves its own smoked barbecue.

There is not much to do in Spruce Pine. Not now anyway. Not since the hockey team left town.

In 1985, the Pinebridge Bucks joined the Atlantic Coast Hockey League and moved into the 5,000-seat Pinebridge Coliseum. In the ACHL, the Bucks joined teams from Winston-Salem; Erie, Pa.; Roanoke, Va.; Utica, N.Y.; Birmingham, Ala., and Nashville.

``That's really all there was to it,' said Robert Bailey, the founder of Buck Stoves, and the principal owner of the Pinebridge Bucks. ``The old school property came up for sale, and they asked us if we wanted to buy it. We did. We wanted to build something for the community.

``Also, the fact that there was nothing to do around here had a lot to do with it.'

In 1983, construction began on the coliseum, which would house an ice rink - the largest in North Carolina - a fitness center, a pool and other recreational facilities. It cost Bailey $15 million.

There was no mention of a hockey team. That came later.

The ACHL was not the most organized league in the world. Tenuous franchises threatened to disappear and shady owners threatened to undermine the league itself. The National Hockey League barely knew the ACHL existed.

The league needed new blood - new owners, new franchises. A group of investors from Winston-Salem, who had heard of the new coliseum springing up in Spruce Pine, called Bailey and asked him to join the ACHL.

``We went to Winston-Salem for a league meeting (in 1984) and they awarded us with a franchise,' Bailey said. ``It cost $5,000. All we had to do was get players, and that wasn't so hard.'

With the help of the league, players began coming to Spruce Pine, winding up state highway 226, one of the most dangerous and scenic roads in the eastern United States. The road would come into play more than once before the franchise closed shop after its second season.

Spruce Pine is located in Mitchell County about 140 miles west of Greensboro, about 40 miles southeast of the Tennessee border and about 19 miles down the road from Loafers Glory.

The town is 50 miles north of Asheville and 50 miles south of Boone.

``The population of Spruce Pine is 2,010, and the population of Mitchell County is 14,615,' said Elaine Buchanan of the Mitchell County Chamber of Commerce. ``The elevation is 2,250 feet.'

Early in the century the town was a source for white oak, chestnut and poplar in addition to the feldspar in abundance in the surrounding mountains. The resources continue to attract loggers and miners, who have stripped the surrounding mountains of much of their beauty.

Spruce Pine is a working town. The largest employer was Henredon Furniture, though recent layoffs have cut into the Mitchell County work force. Buck Stoves, owned by Bailey, also employs many local people.

The coliseum, which Bailey has now leased to the city, does not.

``The lease runs out next year,' Buchanan said. ``We don't know what's going to happen with the coliseum then. We need to attract some events, but it's hard to get them up here.'

In 1984, the Carolina Thunderbirds drove their bus from Winston-Salem to the bottom of state highway 226. They stopped there and called for help, however.

``They wouldn't come up the mountain,' Bailey said. ``I think it was the first time they'd ever tried to come up here for a game. They parked at the foot of the hill and we had to go down there and drive the bus up for them.'

The Thunderbirds did make it to the brand new arena, and the rest is Spruce Pine history.

``A lot of people came and went,' said Bailey. ``We drew some pretty big crowds here, and had a pretty good hockey team. Some nights we would have 4,000 people here. Some nights only 200.'

The team included mostly marginal players in a mostly marginal league. Yes, Ray LeBlanc played there, and suddenly that has become the team's legacy. LeBlanc recently led the United States Olympic team to a fourth-place finish and was signed to an NHL contract with the Chicago Blackhawks.

``Ray wasn't the greatest thing since sliced bread, but he was a hard worker,' Bailey said. ``He wasn't a party boy like them others.

``You've got to realize that there wasn't much for them to do. The rest of the players mostly just laid around drunk. It was such a culture shock to the players and the people here, too.'

But many of the citizens took the players in.

``They were really good people,' said Don Waldroup, an avid fan of the old Bucks. ``They were well thought of. Very gracious. Very congenial.'

The team lost a lot more than it won the first year, but in the second year the Bucks made the ACHL playoffs. Poor attendance, however, had doomed them. And the shady owners that coaxed Bailey into the league eventually alienated him.

Embittered, Bailey pulled the plug on the Bucks, ending an era in Spruce Pine and leaving behind a lot of memories.

``Most of them good,' said Rick Bacon, the editor of the local paper. ``We had a lot of fun.'

The coliseum sits on the edge of a hill in Spruce Pine now, overlooking the city that once boasted of a professional hockey team.

``Who would have ever thought that Spruce Pine would have its own hockey team,' said George Parker, a vice president of the local bank. ``But we did, and people came from all over to see it.'

Now, people driving through Spruce Pine can see Bailey's $15 million experiment. But no one is judgmental. At least he tried.

``He's a hero,' said Parker.


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