When it comes to professional sports, we know the Tourists reign supreme in WNC — but did you know Asheville was once home to a professional ice hockey team? The Asheville Smoke, our minor league team, played in the United Hockey League from 1998-2002 and garnered a fan base that’s still active today.
Before relocating to Asheville in 1998, the team was known as the Brantford Smoke and played in Brantford, Ontario, from 1991–92 until 1997–98. Once the team relocated, home games were played on the ice skating rink (RIP) at what’s now known as Harrah’s Cherokee Center – Asheville.
So what happened to the Smoke? Despite starting off strong — averaging over 3,000 fans during its first two seasons and having Wayne Gretzky’s brother, Keith, as their coach from 1998-2000 — the team was active here for less than five years.
A key issue was the Civic Center, which was considered outdated at the time. Issues like power failures contributed to games routinely being postponed. To add insult to injury, the team was required to give concession revenues to the city, instead of being allowed to keep them like other teams using the facility were.
On top of that, the team’s closest rival, The Knoxville Speed, went bankrupt in 2002, leaving the team with no one nearby to play. In order to finish the season, the team devised the “Save Our Smoke” fundraiser. In 2004, another hockey team, the Asheville Aces, was created, but it only lasted a year before disbanding.
All that’s to say, if you need to get your professional ice hockey fix, you’re gonna have to hit the road to see the Charlotte Checkers, the Greenville Swamp Rabbits (hi, GVLtoday) or the Carolina Hurricanes (’sup, RALtoday).