The Carolina Thunderbirds were one of five teams that played during the inaugural season of East Coast Hockey League. In an effort to protect the league's image, ECHL commissioner Pat Kelly had suspended several of the Thunderbirds' players and, as a result, the Thunderbirds were forced to face the Johnstown Chiefs for the seventh and deciding game in the league's finals with just 11 skaters. In spite of this hardship, the Carolina Thunderbirds won the first ever league championship, and were awarded the Riley Cup for the 1988-89 ECHL season. John Torchetti, who would go on to become the head coach of the NHL'sFlorida Panthers, was a member of that championship squad.
The team changed its name to the Winston-Salem Thunderbirds before the start of 1989–90 season, and the team remained in the ECHL until after the end of the 1991–92 season when it was announced that the Winston-Salem club would be moving to West Virginia to play as the Wheeling Thunderbirds.