Just 40 miles West of the city of Boston, Massachusetts, sits a city called Worcester. From colleges and universities to junior teams and the pros, one can throw a football in any direction, and it is sure to land not far from one of the region’s many hockey teams. One of those teams may be the ECHL’s Worcester Railers.
Warriors and Cats
Since 2016, the Railers have laid claim to their own slice of hockey in New England. However, the Railers weren’t the first team to set up shop just outside of Beantown. In the early days of hockey in Worcester, there was the Worcester Warriors – a team that played in the Eastern Hockey League from 1954 to 1956. The Warriors were a short-lived organization, only playing in 20 games in their inaugural season before switching leagues and failing to get a team on the ice. It was a far cry from the longevity the sport has seen in the city since.
40 years later, Worcester would see its second professional hockey team take to the ice, the Worcester IceCats. An AHL team, the IceCats played 11 seasons in Worcester from 1994 to 2005. Originally known as the Springfield Indians, the team was bought by New York Islanders owner Roy Boe and moved to Worcester in the summer of 1994. Playing their games in the Worcester Centrum, the IceCats posted a record of 403-335-104-35-3 during their time in the American Hockey League. Their 11 years in Worcester were bookended by seasons when the team went without a postseason run, making a playoff appearance every season from 1995 to 2004. Acting as the minor league affiliate of the St. Louis Blues, it was in 2000 that then-owner Roy Boe decided to sell the IceCats to the NHL club. The IceCats would remain in Worcester for a bit longer before Blues ownership sold the team to their ECHL affiliate, the Peoria Rivermen, in 2004. Once sold, the IceCats were then relocated to Peoria to serve as the Blues’ AHL affiliate, leaving Worcester without a team of its own.
For fans in Worcester, the absence of hockey was not going to cut it. Upon the exit of the IceCats in 2005, fans in the city began making a case for a new hockey team. Their demands were met in 2006 When the San Jose Sharks announced they would be moving their AHL affiliate team, the Cleveland Barons, to Worcester. On October 14th, 2006, in front of a sell-out crowd, the Worcester Sharks took to the ice for the first time.
From 2006 to 2015, the Worcester Sharks of the AHL called the DCU Center in Worcester, Massachusetts home. The Sharks, coached by Roy Sommer, played 704 games over the span of nine seasons in Worcester, posting an all-time record of 339-286-0-32-47. The team made the playoffs in four of nine seasons with Sommer at the helm, finishing first in the Atlantic division in the 2009-10 season. Coach Sommer, most recently with the San Diego Gulls of the AHL, became the fourth coach in league history to win 400 games, doing so on November 1st, 2009. Although the team saw success, the news broke in January of 2015 that the Sharks’ NHL affiliate in San Jose would relocate the franchise to California, renaming the team the San Jose Barracuda. Worcester would once again lose the hockey team in their city, but like the IceCats, a successor soon followed.
On February 8th, 2016, the ECHL announced that an expansion team would be joining the league in the Worcester market, set to begin play in the 2017-18 season. The Worcester Railers would be the first ECHL franchise to call Massachusetts home. At the closure of the 2016-17 season, the organization announced that the NHL’s New York Islanders and the AHL’s Bridgeport Islanders would serve as the team’s affiliate franchises.
On October 14th, 2017, the Worcester Railers played their first game, with a packed house of 12,135 folks watching the team earn its first win, a 4-3 victory of the Manchester Monarchs. In the 2017-18 inaugural season, the Railers went 37-27-4-4 under Head Coach Jamie Russell, making it to the Kelly Cup Playoffs. Although the team would experience a first-round exit at the hands of the Adirondack Thunder. To date, the 2018 postseason appearance is the only one in Railers history. After finishing in last place in the ECHL’s North Division during the 2018-19 season, then subsequently only winning four of the first 15 games of the 2019-20 season, Head Coach Jamie Russell was let go from his position. Russell’s exit prompted David Cunnif to take over as the new bench boss. Cunnif would lead the team for 61 games through the 2019-20 season, posting a record of 21-36-4 before the season was cut short due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Consequently, the team opted not to play during the 2020-21 season.
Finishing the year 32-32-7 when they returned to the ice in the 2021-22 season, the Railers would decide to make another change at the coaching position. Jordan Lavallee-Smotherman was the one chosen to take over for the Railers, with the recent 2022-23 season being his first at the helm. The Railers posted an even .500 win percentage last year with Smotherman behind the bench, finishing the season with a 34-34-4 record. The back-to-back .500 seasons also marked four consecutive years the team has missed the playoffs.
It may perhaps not be the immediate improvement the Railers would like to see, but the foundation is set to bring a competitive hockey team back to Worcester. The team recently announced that they have extended their affiliate partnership with the New York and Bridgeport Islanders for two more years. During the off-season, the team has stayed busy signing key players like scoring threat Anthony Repaci and young gun Adam Goodsir, as well as tweaking the defense with additions like Keegan Howdeshell. The Railers will need to continue upgrading the defensive side of the puck, as the team allowed 242 shots to get across the goalline last season. If the team can make the required adjustments, they could be a team to watch in the ECHL North.