The IHL’s posthumous 75th anniversary: New shows in town

by Al Daniel

As a minor league in predominantly major league markets in the 1990s, the IHL struck a balance between extravagant experiences and wallet-friendly prices.

By joining the Pistons at the six-year-old Palace of Auburn Hills in 1994, the Detroit Vipers continued a new normal their old Salt Lake City incarnation started 10 years earlier in conjunction with Milwaukee. For much of the 1990s, IHL teams sharing an arena and ownership with an NBA franchise was commonplace.

The phenomenon peaked with eight examples in 1995-96, which also saw 15 teams bear the same dateline as an MLB, NBA, or NFL team. That scenario held true for the majority of the league from 1990 to 2001.

Some non-NBA IHL arenas had a high-end college hoops tenant. Kansas City’s Kemper Arena, which homed the NHL’s Scouts in the mid-’70s, was an exception. The Royals and Chiefs were the local sports scene’s glue, and with their 1990 arrival, the IHL’s Blades filled winter’s black hole when Bo Jackson’s games hibernated.

And like their peers in the other major-league markets, they did so at a minor-league price. This gave middle-class metropolitan families a more realistic chance to see an event at a mainstream venue. More sports-hungry schoolchildren could tell their peers they were at the Omni, Palace, or Summit. Better yet, they could say they would see each other there.

For Blades fan Zack Fisch, now the AHL Hershey Bears play-by-play announcer, there were times when all Kemper ticketholders saw him. As youth players, he and his brother skated in intermission mini-games. When their season ended, they went to the pros’ mansion for a banquet and autograph session.

At one 1996 contest, Fisch was the Jr. Blades representative tasked with leading the towering namesakes out for introductions. For a brief, literally shining moment, he had the pond to himself while spotlights danced and “Sirius” dinned.

Photo via Zack Fisch

“I was so small, I probably just looked like a little ant out on the ice,” Fisch said. “The players couldn’t have been nicer to me once they took the ice, and I didn’t fall. Somewhere my parents have a VHS of the whole thing, and I’m hoping they haven’t thrown it out.”

Other teams arose in more medium-sized markets, but found or erected pristine palaces to blend in with the bigwigs.

“There was an expression that new urban arenas were the ‘cathedrals’ of the 21st century,” then-IHL commissioner Bob Ufer said. “They were structures that reflected the local community and its sense of pride and accomplishment. We were able to take advantage of that, and go into a brand new arena in Grand Rapids as the anchor tenant.”

With the Griffins starting at Van Andel Arena in 1996, the Vipers had a second intrastate rival. The other one, based in tiny Kalamazoo, rebranded in 1995 as the Michigan K-Wings for better name recognition.

The Griffins spelled the (unintended) end of a seven-year expansion spree. Under Bill Beagan, Bud Poile, Thomas Berry, and finally Ufer, the IHL had pounced on loose pucks from the NHL and WHA.

A fifth attempt at the Phoenix Roadrunners — previously of the WHA plus three minor leagues — launched in 1989. San Diego’s Gulls followed a year later.

In 1992, the Cincinnati Cyclones moved from Double-A to the same level as the bygone Central League’s Tigers. Meanwhile, the Atlanta Knights filled the Flames’ void at the Omni. And the Muskegon Lumberjacks transferred from southwest Michigan to Cleveland, one-time home of the AHL’s Barons, WHA’s Crusaders, and NHL’s Barons.

Two years later, the Houston Aeros restored hockey to The Summit and relaunched a brand made famous by Howe and his sons.

In all, seven cities took a chance on the IHL after lacking high-end hockey for a decade or longer. Others, like Las Vegas, had never had a team at this level.

“A lot of the people in those areas did not grow up with hockey,” Ufer said. “So they didn’t necessarily know what the difference between the NHL and IHL may have been.”

But concomitant with Houston, the mutated Triple-A league tested established markets as well. While the Vipers settled into Detroit’s suburbs, the Chicago Wolves found a den that had never hosted hockey despite being conceived for the WHA’s Cougars.

Chicago, Detroit, and Houston averaged more than 10,000 nightly fans in 1994-95, aided only in part by an NHL lockout. Meanwhile, at the Saint Paul Civic Center, former home of the Minnesota Fighting Saints, the Moose healed the departed North Stars’ forlorn fans.

In 1995, the Gulls shuffled to Los Angeles (later Long Beach) and became the Ice Dogs. Then when the NHL’s Jets left Winnipeg for Phoenix, the Moose moved to Manitoba. One year after the Nordiques vanished, the Knights became the Quebec Rafales.

In terms of replacing relocated WHA-to-NHL transfers, Ufer sought a hat trick in 1997. With the Whalers leaving the Hartford Civic Center, he visited with the mayor and governor to pitch his league.

“I thought at the time, if they were going to hope to continue to draw large crowds, they were going to do it through us,” said Ufer.

The IHL thus looked to enter New England for the first time. Its proposed destination was a half-hour drive south of the AHL’s headquarters in Springfield, Massachusetts, all the more reason for the rival league’s third-year president Dave Andrews and his associates to guard Connecticut.

What Ufer categorized as the “political influences” of the aptly named New England and Empire State Divisions kept him from crossing the long-happenstance property line somewhere near Lake Erie.

“I don’t think either one of us were going after those markets because they were in the other league’s territory,” said a diplomatic Andrews.

Indeed, all was fair geographically for both Triple-A leagues. Andrews noted that, upon Van Andel Arena’s construction in 1995, he had lost a footrace for Grand Rapids to Ufer.

Still, given Hartford’s location in “the heart of our league,” he allowed, “it was a pretty important market for us to have.”

Hartford was Ufer’s second major expansion setback. During his first season as commissioner, the IHL openly contemplated an overseas division. Representatives from the league and franchises across Europe even met in Manchester, England, which would soon inaugurate NYNEX Arena and the British League’s Storm.

“With the benefit of hindsight, we may very well have been overly ambitious and trying to undertake too many initiatives,” Ufer said.

But at least with Manitoba and Quebec, after 32 years of only U.S. franchises, the IHL was binational again. In terms of its padded personnel, it was already international following the Iron Curtain’s erosion.

Part of the hunger for an overseas presence came from games against Russian barnstormers in 1993-94 and 1994-95. Meanwhile, Eastern bloc imports donned full-time IHL uniforms under unique circumstances.

From 1991 to 1993, the NHL resumed expansion, and four of the five new franchises chose IHL development bases. Through the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Knights dressed goaltender Manon Rheaume as the first woman in a high-end professional regular-season hockey game.

But as the IHL continued its own growth, its newest teams remained unaffiliated. This was inviting to underage Europeans looking to adapt to the North American game, boost their NHL draft stock, and make more than the miniscule stipend Canada’s major junior ranks offered.

Between 1994 and 1999, this tactic helped future major-league mainstays Radek Bonk, Sergei Samsonov, Patrik Stefan, and Petr Sykora secure first-round selections. Getting those prodigies to come stateside early, despite protests from their homelands, was one global bidding battle Ufer won.

“Part of the excitement they brought to our game was the fact that, over the course of literally months, you could witness significant improvement in their game, and they could do things with a puck that our audiences hadn’t seen before,” Ufer said.

This phenomenon also added a sliver of the AHL’s hallmark. The IHL, Ufer said, was now another place “to see tomorrow’s superstars, and this certainly helped us bring more butts into the seats.”

Or, alternatively, draw more eyes to the small screen, and sell more merchandise.

Photography credit: Ross Dettman

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Al Daniel is a freelance writer with a portfolio in sports, pop culture (especially '90s nostalgia), the intersection of sports and culture, education and general human interest stories. He was previously the NCAA editor for Along the Boards and held similar duties for its successor site, Pucks and Recreation.