The impressive three movable independent units of the Rhode Island Reds Heritage Society’s exhibit that is a special tribute to Rhode Island’s first professional hockey team and is on display inside the Dunkin Donuts Center, recently took on an even more exciting meaning.
One section of the triangular-shaped kiosks, which is entitled “When the Reds Ruled the Roost,” features an action photograph of the late Zelio Toppazzini, who is considered by many to be the greatest player in the long history of professional hockey in Rhode Island.
That’s because Toppazzini was recently elected to the prestigious American Hockey League Hall of Fame.
“The Topper,” as the high-scoring Toppazzini was nicknamed during his distinguished career in Providence, will join three other former AHL greats who make up the AHL Hall of Fame’s 2012. Those players, who are members of the seventh induction class, are Joe Crozier, Jack Gordon and John Stevens.
Buster Clegg, president of the Rhode Island Reds Heritage Society, announced that Toppazzini and the three other AHL electees will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame on Monday, Jan. 30 at Circus Maximus Theatre at Caesar’s in Atlantic City, N.J.
“Toppazzini’s induction brings to 11 the number of former Reds who are now in the AHL Hall of Fame,” said Clegg.
The previous inductees have been Harry Pidhirney, Larry Wilson, Johnny Bower, Fred “Bun” Cook, Willie Marshall, Steve Kraftcheck, Gil Mayer, Marcel Paille, Bill Sweeney and Louis A.R. Pieri.
Any hockey fan who would like to attend the AHL Hall of Fame induction ceremony should call Clegg at (401) 247-2666.
Toppazzini, who was a prolific offensive talent during over 15 AHL seasons, passed away in 2001 at the age of 71. He ranks 13th on the AHL’s all-time scoring list with 786 points in 785 games.
He broke into the pro ranks with the Hershey Bears in 1948-49 and split his first three seasons between Hershey and the Boston Bruins. After beginning the 1951-52 season with the AHL’s Cincinnati Mohawks, the right winger was traded to the Providence Reds, thus setting the stage for a legend to be born.
Toppazzini, who was a native of Copper Creek, Ontario, found a new home in Providence. He scored 45 points in 33 games with the Reds after the trade and helped his new team reach the Calder Cup finals. A year later, he led Providence in goals and points and his 74 points in 62 games earned him second-team AHL All-Star honors in 1954-55 despite the Reds’ last-place finish.
“Topper was at the heart of one of the most impressive seasons by any team in AHL history,” Clegg said. “It was a season that helped cement his place in Reds lore. Topper was named a first team AHL All-Star. He led the league with 71 assists and 113 points in 64 games.”
It was the play of Toppazzini, back then, as the Reds completed a worst-to-first turnaround, rolling to a league best 45-17-2 record.
But neither he nor the Reds stopped there. He added seven goals and 13 assists in just nine playoffs contests, thus becoming the first AHL player ever with 20 points in a single postseason, as the Reds went on to win the Calder Cup.
The championship, though, would be the franchise’s last, but Toppazzini remained one of the elite players in the AHL for several more seasons. He recorded 53 points in 44 games while also seeing action with the Chicago Blackhawks in 1956-57 and after sitting out the 1959-60 season he returned to the Reds and led the team with 31 goals during the 1960-61 campaign.
Toppazzini’s connection to Providence continued beyond his retirement in 1964. He made Rhode Island home for he and his family, and later coached at Providence College. In 2000, the Rhode Island Reds Heritage Society selected Toppazzini as the team’s “Player of the Century.”
Said Clegg: “That was an honor befitting the franchise’s all-time leader in goals (279), assists (448), points (727) and games played (650).”
The Rhode Island Reds Heritage Society continues to restore and preserve the fabled 51-year history of the old RI Reds of the AHL, a team that played from 1926-27 to 1976-77. Memberships to the Society are always being accepted and cost only $20 per year.