Rick Dudley vividly remembers driving through a small town in Ontario, Canada, several years ago. What the long-retired Cincinnati Stingers hockey player saw that day still amuses him. “It was a Dudley No. 9 Stingers jersey on a young kid walking down the sidewalk, and I was going to ask where in the hell he got it,” he says. “I parked and looked in every store window, but I never did find him. That’s amazing.”
Four decades have passed since the end of the Cincinnati Stingers era, and it’s fitting that a piece of Rick Dudley memorabilia is among the last vestiges still in circulation. From 1975 to 1979, the Stingers played in the World Hockey Association, a rival circuit to the National Hockey League. “Duds,” as he was known throughout hockey, joined the team at the beginning, an established player from the NHL with previous Cincinnati hockey roots. As such, he became the face of the franchise—the team captain, its leading scorer, and its most promotable player.
“I understood that I was the one guy who came to the Stingers with a name in hockey,” Dudley says. “I had to force myself to be a little more outgoing and a little more in front of the public.”
With 51 years invested in professional hockey, Dudley is one of the game’s most enduring figures and a top talent evaluator. He’s served as head coach, general manager, and other executive positions. A hockey lifer, as they say in the NHL.
He spent most of 2020 at his home in Lewiston, New York, waiting out the coronavirus after stepping down as senior vice president of hockey operations for the Carolina Hurricanes in June, his eighth job in senior management with an NHL club. The chance to talk about his playing days in Cincinnati is clearly appealing to him, and his sense of nostalgia is a perfect counterpoint to the intensity he brought to the game as a player. “I love talking about the Stingers,” the 71-year-old says. “It was a good time in my life.”
The Cincinnati Stingers arrived in town with only modest fanfare. They joined the WHA as an expansion team in the league’s fourth season, with a bold black-and-yellow color scheme and the logo of a bumblebee in flight forming the letter C. They made their home debut at the new Riverfront Coliseum (now Heritage Bank Arena) on October 23, 1975, one day after the Cincinnati Reds defeated the Boston Red Sox in a seven-game World Series classic. The Bengals were in the midst of a franchise-best 11–3 season. From the start, the Stingers had to fight for attention in an established pro sports town. “There was no question of that,” Dudley says with a laugh.
But hockey wasn’t entirely new in the Queen City, thanks in part to Dudley. The Cincinnati Swords, the top minor league affiliate of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres, played at Cincinnati Gardens from 1971 to 1974. After making little impact in two previous minor league seasons, Dudley embraced a fighting role with the Swords to extend his career. “I was floundering,” he says. “I didn’t know exactly what I would do with the rest of my life. I really enjoyed playing hockey and enjoyed the life of a pro hockey player. So I accepted that I had to fight.” After a modest first season, the young left wing scored 40 goals to help the Swords capture the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup in 1973.
Dudley spent the next two seasons with the Buffalo Sabres, establishing himself as a rugged goal-scoring forward. When his contract expired, however, he began drawing interest from Cincinnati’s new entry in the WHA. Buffalo made a low-ball offer to Dudley, believing he wouldn’t leave. “Every second day I was getting a call from my agent, who had talked to Cincinnati,” Dudley says. “They were offering me a five-year, no-cut, no-trade contract, which at that time was unheard of.”
The Stingers were thin on talent in their first season, relying on Dudley, who scored 43 goals, and young forward Dennis Sobchuk to fill the net. The team drew between 7,000 and 8,000 fans most nights, but a game in March 1976 was designed to give the team a lift at the turnstiles. Rick Dudley Jersey Night drew 13,215 to the Coliseum to witness a 2–1 win over 46-year-old legend Gordie Howe and the Houston Aeros. The game created some buzz for the franchise and seemed to elevate Dudley’s stature even more.
The following summer, Dudley attended a Neil Diamond concert at the Coliseum. When the singer came back on stage for his encore, he walked out with his son, sporting a Dudley jersey given to him backstage. Diamond looked at his son, then turned to the audience and asked, “Who’s Dudley?” The fans helped make the introduction. “People in the crowd knew who I was, and they started pointing at me,” says Dudley. “So there was a spotlight on Neil Diamond and a spotlight on me. There we were, waving to each other.”
The Stingers gained a bit of the hockey spotlight in their second season. Newly acquired forwards Blaine Stoughton and Richie Leduc each scored 52 goals. Dudley was named team captain and scored 41 goals, while young Stingers fans collected more of Duds’s duds, this time on Rick Dudley Headband Night. All the while, the 25-year-old Canadian star remained a reluctant focal point. “I was fairly young, and we had a group of very young people,” he says.
One of those players was Dale Smedsmo, known as “Smo” to Stingers fans. He roomed with Dudley on the road and handled most of the team’s on-ice enforcer duties. He knew the Stingers captain still played with the heart of a rugged player and didn’t welcome the attention of leading the team. “I don’t think he enjoyed being captain,” Smedsmo says. “He didn’t like the limelight.”
Still, Dudley delivered in every role he was asked to play. “Duds was what you would call a poor man’s superstar,” says Smedsmo, who lives in Lake of the Woods, Minnesota. “He put a lot of pressure on himself. You had to try to keep him toned down a little bit because we wanted him for his scoring and the power play. We didn’t need him to be a tough guy, and when he got mad he could go the other way.”
The Stingers continued to acquire talented players in their final two seasons, including goaltender Mike Liut. After stepping off the Bowling Green University campus and into Cincinnati’s goal crease at the start of the 1977–1978 season, the rookie goalie quickly found himself leaning on Dudley. They remain friends today. “There was an integrity to his game and how he treated people,” Liut says. “He had a seriously profound effect on my career.”
The same season, the Stingers brought in center Robbie Ftorek—“perhaps the best player I ever played with,” Dudley says—who scored a Stingers-record 59 goals. Barry Melrose, now ESPN’s main hockey analyst, was on the team as well. A season later, Hockey Hall of Fame players Mark Messier and Mike Gartner launched their professional careers as teenagers in Cincinnati.
As the 1978–1979 season unfolded, the Stingers’ future became cloudy. The NHL agreed to absorb four of the six WHA teams in a negotiated merger, not including the Stingers and the Birmingham Bulls. Dudley was traded back to Buffalo in the middle of the season. “Once I understood that Cincinnati would not be part of the NHL, I wanted to go back to Buffalo,” he says. “Even if I had played for the Stingers for the rest of the season, that was going to be the end anyway.”
Dudley played three more NHL seasons, but his four years with the Stingers were the most productive of his career.
The Stingers qualified for the playoffs for the second time in their four-year history, but after losing a three-game series to the New England Whalers, the curtain fell on Cincinnati’s only major league hockey franchise. Dudley played three more NHL seasons, but his four years with the Stingers were the most productive of his career.
“I don’t think people accepted the WHA as being anywhere near on a par with the National Hockey League,” he says. “But the Stingers were a very good team. They evolved in the talent evaluation process and had become pretty sharp. They brought in some staggeringly good kids.”
After retiring as a player, Dudley embarked on a coaching career that also took shape from humble beginnings. He bought a low-level minor league team in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and won three championships in four seasons. It was the start of a successful decade coaching in the minors and later a three-year stint behind the Sabres’ bench in the NHL.
Dudley moved into management in 1998, and he’s served as general manager for four franchises. He’s widely credited with helping build Stanley Cup championship teams for the Chicago Blackhawks (2010, 2013, 2015) and the Tampa Bay Lightning (2004). “I’ve moved around because I always like a new challenge,” says Dudley. “When it ceases to be as much of a challenge, I look for another. I like to think the reason I get hired is I’ve never been political. It’s important that I feel my contribution helps and that I’m appreciated.”
Dudley has passed through Cincinnati on scouting trips over the years. The fans still recognize him, and that rekindles memories that are both warm and bittersweet. “Some of the people I think back on so fondly in Cincinnati, I say, I’m going to call him, and I never do,” he says. “And it’s just wrong.”
But every so often he enjoys a uniquely Cincinnati hockey moment, courtesy of a yellow and black jersey with DUDLEY on the nameplate. “A woman in Carolina sent me one of those jerseys,” he says. “It had belonged to her parents, and she thought I would appreciate it more than her kids would. That was touching.”