The IHL’s posthumous 75th anniversary: A more perfect union

by Al Daniel

Nearly 20 years after their tumultuous coexistence ended, the IHL’s one-time rival, the AHL, upholds its legacy in a slew of spiritual and tangible ways.

Two of the trendsetters in the IHL’s revolutionary westward push unwittingly foreshadowed the league’s competition turned coalescence with the AHL.

In 1989, the Phoenix Roadrunners and Salt Lake Golden Eagles resumed their rivalry from the Western and Central Leagues. To intensify the feud, they were the affiliates of the NHL Smythe Division’s Kings and Flames.

Former marketing director Mike McCall remembers one matchup at Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum devolving into a line of attrition. Ejection after ejection compelled the officials to curtail the game prematurely, as each bench lacked a quorum of players.

Later that night, both teams attended a function at a Phoenix hotel ballroom. In a matter of hours, the Roadrunners and Golden Eagles went from rumbling adolescents to reminiscing alumni.

For McCall, still a relative hockey novice at the time, it was an eye-opening glimpse of the sport’s culture.

“There’s unwritten rules, you leave it on the ice in hockey,” he said. “The level of compete on the ice and the level of professionalism postgame was really a sight to see.”

A similar pattern defined the late-century IHL-AHL arm-wrestling match. Now coming off his 26th season as AHL president, Dave Andrews started his tenure in a tussle for talent, arenas, and attention. Under commissioners Bob Ufer and Douglas Moss, his league’s counterpart grew imposing enough.

But even before the smaller-market circuit formally prevailed, it was handshake time.

“I think we knew we were competitors, no question,” said Andrews. But he added, “Bob and I got along” and “Doug was great about helping us get to that point and then stepping away.”

By 2015, the AHL achieved Triple-A hockey’s version of manifest destiny. It completed its coast-to-coast spread by swapping markets with the ECHL based on size and proximity to NHL affiliates. With that said, it cannot deny where it got that idea from.

“The IHL was all part of creating that landscape,” McCall said. Moss and Ufer concur, although Andrews respectfully counters, “The AHL made itself what it is today.”

Back in Oakland County, the office of Ufer, Spaniola & Frost P.C. is a half-hour drive down I-75 from the site of the Palace. Ufer’s everyday reminders of the IHL include a comprehensive puck collection and an oil painting of the golden goalie-mask logo from the league’s 50th anniversary in 1994-95. He also enjoys catching the occasional stranger in Detroit Vipers attire and attending IHL fan reunions in other cities.

Those will soon have slimmer company as relics of the glory days. This past June, the Palace received its property-condemned notice. Its demolition follows that of Atlanta’s Omni in 1997 and Houston’s Summit’s repurposing as a megachurch.

“It served its time,” Ufer said. “I was very surprised that the new owner of the Pistons decided to go down and play in the new Little Caesars Arena downtown. But I guess it offered such a deal that it made sense to do it.”

Detroit’s NBA and NHL teams cohabitating—which Ufer grants is necessary now because “you can’t have (arenas) competing for concerts and that kind of thing”—is a relatively new mark of Michigan sports unity. A prior one tied together the state’s southeast and southwest hockey fan bases.

When they began as an independent IHL team, the Grand Rapids Griffins were Detroit’s little brother. The Vipers eclipsed them in arena and market size, tenure, and, initially, the standings and fanfare.

Now, as an AHL affiliate and Michigan’s only Triple-A team, the Griffins are Detroit’s child. At the earliest possible time in 2002, after briefly sharing Cincinnati with the Mighty Ducks, the Red Wings adopted them. (Gone, therefore, is the original five-color uniform. But as Hershey broadcaster Zack Fisch has noticed from the visiting booth, Van Andel Arena “still has an old scoreboard that is more ’90s than anything.”)

As of 2019-20, the logical arrangement has covered three quarters of the Griffins’ existence. It is a similar story in Ohio, where Cleveland’s Monsters are the state’s lone AHL franchise and started collaborating with Columbus in 2015.

On another Great Lakes shore, the Toronto Marlies replaced the Roadrunners and now hone aspiring Maple Leafs. In 2016 and 2018, respectively, the Monsters and Marlies delivered their cities’ first pro hockey championship since 1964 and 1967.

Cleveland’s clincher attracted a capacity crowd of 19,665, an all-time record for the sport in the state. Toronto’s victory happened before a standing-room-only audience.

These developments signify sports-business Darwinism coming to fruition in both former and would-be IHL markets. Seventeen of the 31 active NHL franchises have a farm base in their own state or province. Another five have their AHL partner in a bordering state whose residents are predisposed to support the parent club.

Seven AHL teams share a dateline with another sport’s Big Four franchise, although Charlotte and Milwaukee have moved out of their local NBA mansions in favor of slightly smaller, older digs. Four of those seven teams constituted the conference finalists in the 2019 playoffs.

One of those semifinalists represented San Diego, where fans are still giddy about the Gulls being back in Triple-A form. A quarter-century after the IHL Gulls pushed their league to the West Coast, the AHL Gulls helped to form the new Pacific Division. They placed second and third in attendance their first two years, then led the pack with nightly crowds north of 9,000 in 2017-18 and 2018-19.

A TV package with San Diego’s Fox network affiliate has not hurt ticket sales. For all teams, convenient online audio or paid video broadcast streaming is a booster. And while it is not Long Beach, the Ontario Reign give the Gulls a regional rival, mirroring their parent Ducks-Kings SoCal squabble.

The Reign had hospitality duties for another milestone this past January, as the AHL All-Star Classic went west for the first time.

AHL mainstays and IHL alumni alike can take pleasure in that icebreaker. For Andrews, it punctuates the 2001 absorption and 2015 migration as “two watershed moments in the league.”

As for the IHL’s longest-tenured team turned league-hopping nomads who have nonetheless stayed in place, 30-year Fort Wayne co-owner Michael Franke takes comfort in the Komets’ adaptability and built-in tradition.

He is reminded of the former every day of his team’s ECHL life. He was reminded of the latter when he visited Turner in Toronto, and read his and his colleagues’ engraved names from the 1993 championship, Fort Wayne’s fourth and final Triple-A title.

Of the continental change that moment of glory came in between, Franke said, “It was a natural progression, a stepping stone to where they’re at now.

“For the most part, it all worked out.”

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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.