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#52 Muskegon Zephyrs / Mohawks / Lumberjacks

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Pro hockey arrived in Muskegon, Michigan on the Eastern shore of Lake Michigan in the fall of 1960, along with the opening of the 5,100-seat L.C. Walker Arena.  Jerry Delise of New Haven, Connecticut secured Muskegon’s International Hockey League expansion franchise, dubbed the ‘Zephyrs’, at league meetings on June 5th, 1960.

The IHL was a classic Midwestern bus league – think Slap Shot – that initially operated in Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Milwaukee in the decades after World War II.  Muskegon’s club played under the Zephyrs name for five seasons (1960-1965), before Delise re-branded the club as the Muskegon Mohawks prior to the 1965-66 season.

In 1967-68 the Mohawks signed the iconoclastic 29-year old NHL refugee Carl Brewer.  Brewer was perhaps one of the greatest defensemen of the 1960’s and was certainly the most gifted player to ever suit up for the Mohawks.  As a young man, Brewer anchored the defense for three straight Stanley Cup champion teams for the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1962 to 1964 and earned three NHL All-Star selections.  But his remarkable career was punctuated by disputes with authority and serial retirements during his prime years.  Among other dissatisfactions with NHL life, Brewer loathed air travel.  In the winter of 1967-68, his wanderings brought him to Muskegon as a player-coach.  He spent a single season of self-imposed exile in the IHL, earning all-league honors.  According to a 1970 Sports Illustrated profile,  Brewer relished the long bus rides through the icy Midwest, which allowed him time to read.  Following the season, the Detroit Red Wings offered a contract to return to the NHL.  In typical fashion, Brewer spurned the offer to go play & coach in Finland…which he travelled to by boat.

Between 1967 and 1976, the Mohawks posted nine consecutive winning seasons, highlighted by a Turner Cup championship during Carl Brewer’s season in 1968.  While Brewer drifted through for only one winter, the iron men of the Mohawks throughout the Golden Era of the 1960’s and early 70’s were player-coach Moose Lallo and right winter Bryan McLay.

Both men arrived in Muskegon along with the Zephyrs in the fall of 1960.  Lallo was on the tail end of a 20-year playing career, and served double-duty as the team’s Head Coach.  He led the Zephyrs to a Turner Cup championship in their second season in 1961-62.  Lallo retired as a player in 1965 and continued as Head Coach and General Manager until the late 1970’s.  McLay played thirteen seasons with the Zephyrs and Mohawks from 1960 to 1973, scoring exactly 500 goals in 932 games.  Like Lallo, McLay stayed with the Mohawks in the front office after his retirement and, also like Lallo, he never played a minute in the NHL.

Like any great minor league team of that era, the Mohawks also had a classic tough guy named Lynn Margarit.  Margarit played eight seasons for the Mohawks.  During the final season of his career in the winter of 1975-76, Margarit became the all-time penalty minutes leader in the IHL with 2,156.  The enforcer had a particularly fierce rivalry with the players (and fans) of the Toledo Goaldiggers.  In 1968, a 20-year old Toledo fan filed assault and battery charges against Margarit, claiming the big defenseman bludgeoned and kicked him with his skates in the stands of the Toledo Sports Arena.  In 1975, the Goaldiggers’ Ken Wright attacked Margarit in a game at Toledo, beating him so badly he had to be removed from the ice on a stretcher and hospitalized.

The Mohawks fell on hard times after 1976.  They never again had a winning season under the Mohawks name.  Lallo resigned his Head Coach and General Manager post in March 1978, ending eighteen years with the organization.  McLay replaced him, but quit himself less than a year later when the ‘Hawks got off to an historically bad start, going 3-32-3 to start the 1978-79 season.

The Mohawks’ struggles worsened as the 1980’s dawned.  The city threatened the Mohawks with eviction over back rent in December 1981 and the team nearly folded in August 1982.  The Mohawks hung in for two more losing winters, bottoming out in 1983-84 with a 19-58-5 record, the second worst performance in the IHL’s 24-year history in Muskegon.

Longtime pro hockey exec Larry Gordon purchased the Mohawks in June 1984 for the reported price of $1.  Gordon was a former World Hockey Association executive and the ex-General Manager of the Edmonton Oilers.  In 1980, Gordon used his Oilers connections to purchase an expansion club in the Central Hockey League, which he operated in Wichita, Kansas and later Billings, Montana from 1980 to 1984.   The CHL gasped its last breath in June of 1984 and Gordon turned his attention to Muskegon.

Gordon re-branded the club, dropping the ‘Mohawks’ moniker in favor of the ‘Lumberjacks’ for the 1984-85 campaign.  Over the next two years, Gordon assembled the pieces that would make the Lumberjacks the dominant IHL club of the late 1980’s.  Holdover Scott Gruhl was one of the few bright spots from the listless 1983-84 squad, scoring 40 goals in just 56 games for the Mohawks.  Jock Callander arrived in the fall of 1984 after spending the previous season with Gordon’s Montana Magic club.

Jock Callander

After winning just 19 games in 1983-84, the Lumberjacks went 50-29-3 in 1984-85, posting the first 50-win season in Muskegon’s 25-year history.  Callander dished out 68 assists, many of them to Gruhl who scored 62 goals en route to IHL MVP honors.  Muskegon advanced to the Turner Cup finals, losing to the Peoria Rivermen four games to three.

The Lumberjacks added the final piece of the puzzle in 1985, signing Callander’s former junior hockey teammate Dave Michayluk.  Michayluk, Gruhl and Callander combined for 150 goals in 1985-86 as Muskegon recorded a second straight 50-win season.  This time the Lumberjacks finished the job, sweeping the Fort Wayne Komets in the finals to earn Muskegon’s first Turner Cup since 1968.

In 1987, Gordon further boosted Muskegon’s fortunes by signing an affiliation deal with the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins, which made Muskegon the top farm club for the Pens.  Pittsburgh would now provide upwards of 16 players per season to augment the roster led by Callander, Gruhl and Michayluk.

The Lumberjacks returned to the Turner Cup finals again in 1987, 1989, 1990 and 1992, losing three times and winning one more title (1989).  Perhaps the best Lumberjacks club of the era – the 1987-88 team coached by former NHL star Rick Ley – failed to make the finals after setting a league record with 58 regular season wins.  Gruhl departed after the 1989-90 season, but the Callander-Michayluk combo stayed intact through all five championship series appearances from 1986 to 1992.

“<Dave> was such a great player and natural scorer.  I got a lot of assists because of his scoring ability,” recalled Callander in 2011.  “We had so much confidence playing together and knowing where the other one was going to be.  We loved the game. I know for sure my career would not have been anywhere near as successful without him as a line mate.”

When Larry Gordon bought into the league in 1984 for $1, it was a Midwestern bus league.  Muskegon was a typical IHL city, with a population of just under 40,000.  In the early 1990’s, IHL franchises began to trade in the millions of dollars, as NBA owners and other well-heeled investors brought franchises to major cities like Detroit and Salt Lake City.  Despite Muskegon’s dominant play, the small city only produced average attendance of about 2,600 in 1991, a figure now well below the league’s purported average of 5,700.  In early 1992, Gordon orchestrated a move to Cleveland for the 1992-93 season.

In May of 1992, as the franchise prepared to move to Cleveland, the Muskegon Lumberjacks had perhaps their finest hour.  Their Pittsburgh Penguins parent club, riddled with injuries to key players, promoted “The Muskegon Line” of Callander, Michayluk and Mike Needham to skate as a unit in the playoffs.  None of the men had played in the NHL during the regular season.  Michayluk hadn’t seen action in an NHL game in nine years.  All three players scored a playoff goal during the Penguins playoff run.  Their names are inscribed on the Stanley Cup today as 1992 NHL champions.

“The Stanley Cup was a dream come true. I wasn’t even sure if I was going to play another NHL game,” said Callander.  “When I got the call I had not played <in the NHL> for over a year. We all got called up in the playoffs when the Lumberjacks were getting ready to start the <IHL> finals. The next six weeks were unbelievable it was a whirlwind of excitement and a roller coaster of emotions. I really felt bad for our teammates in Muskegon because I believe we would have won another Turner Cup. Our team was playing at a very high level at the time we all got called up. But at the same time I was living out a dream that I had since childhood and it was something I will never forget.”

##

The Lumberjacks played in Cleveland from 1992 to 2001, when the International Hockey League folded.

Dave Michayluk never played in the NHL again after helping the Penguins win the 1992 Stanley Cup.  He returned to Cleveland and played five more seasons alongside his friend Jock Callander.

Callander played briefly for the Tampa Bay Lightning in the NHL before returning to the Cleveland Lumberjacks in 1993.  He retired in 2000 as the IHL’s all-time leading point scorer, a feat he attributes to playing alongside Michayluk, and today works in the front office of the American Hockey League’s Lake Erie Monsters, based in Cleveland.

The Muskegon Lumberjacks name is back in use today by an amateur team in the United States Hockey League, which plays at L.C. Walker Arena.

Downloads:

2011 Jock Callander Interview
Muskegon Lumberjacks Sources

Written by andycrossley

November 4, 2011 at 10:14 am

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#41 Portland Rage

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Tim Conyard wanted to keep playing roller hockey.   The 27-year old represented Team Canada in 1992 (after failing to make the U.S. squad).  In the early 1990’s the sport was booming, thanks to the Rollerblading fad, and Dennis Murphy, the serial league promoter behind the American Basketball Association and the World Hockey Association of the 1970’s was putting together a professional league to begin play in July 1993.  Conyard prevailed upon his father Bill Conyard, owner of Conyard’s Sport & Hockey in Portland, to purchase a franchise in Murphy’s Roller Hockey International.

“At the time I was not really excited,” the elder Conyard told the Portland Business Journal one week before the Rage made their debut in July 1993.  He did not go on to clarify whether his enthusiasm ever intensified.

The Rage were a classic mom-and-pop operation in a rather goofy start-up league where ownership ranged from deep-pocketed Major Leaguers like the Buss family in L.A. to an unwanted, league-run club promoted by city employees at Connecticut’s New Haven Coliseum.  Bill Conyard’s brother-in-law, a doctor in L.A., signed on as co-owner of the Rage. Tim, of course, would play for the Rage as planned.  Bill Conyard’s other son Joe served as the team’s Assistant GM.

Roller Hockey International sought to capitalize on the surge of interest in inline skating – often known at the time by the brandnomer Rollerblading – with a summertime league stocked with moonlighting minor league hockey players.  RHI rules varied somewhat from ice hockey. Games were divided into four 12-minute quarters rather than three 20-minute periods.  Teams played five-v-five with only one defenseman on a Sport Court (concrete) surface.  Fighting was prohibited, punishable by a one-game suspension.  The various rule changes all supported a higher-scoring, more fluid game.  During the league’s inaugural season, RHI games averaged nearly 17 goals per game.

As RHI’s July 1993 debut approached, the Conyards’ lack of sports management experience showed.  With a roster drawn largely from local junior players from the amateur Portland Winter Hawks ice hockey team and fellow alumni from Tim Conyard’s alma mater of St. John’s (MN) University, the Rage found themselves outclassed against bigger, more experienced players in a pre-season tune-up against the Vancouver Voodoo.  Off the court, the Rage sold only about 100 season tickets for the 10,000-seat Memorial Coliseum, according to the Portland Business Journal.  By contrast, RHI’s Anaheim Bullfrogs club pre-sold 10,000 tickets for their inaugural game the same week.

The Rage finished the 1993 season with a 4-10 record under Head Coach Blake Wesley, a former Winter Hawk and NHL vet, and out of the playoff hunt.

John Black took over the Head Coaching duties for the 1994 season, as RHI expanded from 12 to 24 franchises and the season lengthened from 14 to 22 games.  The 1994 Rage eeked into the playoffs with an 11-10-1 record and then went on an upset run to the RHI Championship Series, where they lost in a two-game sweep to the Buffalo Stampede (15-3-4).

Bill Conyard folded the Portland Rage after the 1994 season.  Roller Hockey International suspended play after the 1997 season, returned for one last gasp in 1999 after taking a year off, and then disbanded for good.

Sources:

1993 Portland Rage program
“All The Rage”, Lauren Haworth, Portland Business Journal, June 28, 1993

Written by andycrossley

October 1, 2011 at 7:27 pm

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#27 Wichita Wind / Montana Magic

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Former World Hockey Association executive and Edmonton Oilers General Manager Larry Gordon founded the Wichita Wind of the Central Hockey League in June of 1980.   Gordon was quite familiar with the Central League.  During the 1979-80 NHL season, Gordon managed the Oilers’ contentious relationship with the Houston Apollos, their first-year farm club in the Central League, and represented the Apollos on the CHL’s executive committee.  In March 1980, Gordon orchestrated the removal of Apollos Head Coach Al Rollins and replaced him with Garnet “Ace” Bailey, a 31-year old former Oilers player who had been languishing on the bench under Rollins.

Meanwhile, Gordon’s influence on Edmonton’s NHL hockey operations was on the wane, as Head Coach Glen Sather consolidated his authority over player personnel decisions for the Gretzky-era Oilers.  In the spring of 1980, Gordon left the Edmonton organization with a couple of years left to run on his contract in order to purchase a new Wichita, Kansas franchise in the Central League.  He brought a few things with him from Houston, including the affiliation deal with the Oilers and his hand-picked Head Coach, Ace Bailey.

The city of Wichita caught Gordon’s eye after a crowd of 8,000 turned out at the city’s Kansas Coliseum to watch a U.S. Olympic team tune-up game  prior to the 1980 Olympics at Lake Placid.  That event turned out to be something of a siren song for Gordon – his own experience in Wichita proved much different.  The Wind averaged 971 fans per game in November 1980, 1,537 in December and 1,600 in January 1981. 

I cry a lot,” Gordon joked to long-time Edmonton Oilers beat writer Jim Matheson in February 1981, “At worst I thought I might lose $150,000…but it’ll be closer to $350,000.”

The Matheson interview also indicates that Gordon, the hockey traditionalist, underestimated the competition for the entertainment dollar that he faced from the Wichita Wings of the upstart Major Indoor Soccer League, another winter time tenant at the Kansas Coliseum.  In their second season of operation in 1980-81, the Wings were the city’s hot ticket drawing close to 6,000 fans per game.

Of the seven CHL clubs that finished the 1980-81 season (two folded midway), the Wind finished in 6th place with a 32-45-3 record.  But Bailey’s club made an inspired run through the playoffs, when a fallen NHL phenom named Don Murdoch put the club on his back and carried it all the way to the Adams Cup final.  Murdoch was the first round draft choice of the New York Rangers in 1976.  The 20-year old made the club out of training camp and scored five goals in his fourth NHL game.  As a rookie, he scored 32 goals in 59 games before an ankle injury ended his season.  Drug and alcohol problems, particularly a 1977 cocaine bust that resulted in a 40-game suspension for the 1978-79 season, ensured that Murdoch never achieved the stardom he seemed destined for.  But in the 1981 CHL playoffs, the 24-year old dominated,  scoring a remarkable 17 goals and and 7 assists in 18 games to fuel Wichita’s unlikely run.

In the Adams Cup final, the Wind took the Salt Lake Golden Eagles to the limit before dropping the seventh and deciding game 5-2 on May 18, 1981.

For the 1981-82 season, long-time minor league coach John Muckler joined the Oilers organization and took over the coaching reigns in Wichita from Ace Bailey, who moved into the Oilers scouting department.  Under Muckler, the Wind finished first in the CHL’s five-team Southern Division with 44-33-3 record.  Along the way Muckler and eight of his players grabbed some Slap Shot-style national press coverage, spending the night in a Dallas jail following a scuffle at a country & western disco while on a Texas road trip.

As the Wind headed into the their third season in the fall of 1982, the complexion of the club changed dramatically.  The Edmonton Oilers, emerging as a dynasty in the NHL, departed as the parent club, replaced by the sad sack New Jersey Devils, one of the NHL’s worst teams.  After winning the CHL’s Southern Division in 1981-82 and advancing to the 1982 Adams Cup semi-final, the 1982-83 Wind dropped to a last place in the league with a 29-48-3 record.  Attendance dropped nearly 40% from approximately 3,000 per game in 1981-82 to 1,800 for the 1982-83 season.  At the end of the season, Gordon announced he would move his club out of Wichita due to lack of a practice facility and a disagreement over new lease terms at the Kansas Coliseum.

Don Murdoch

In April 1983, Gordon signed a letter of intent to move the Wind to the 8,700-seat Yellowstone Metra in Billings, Montana.  The Central League approved the transfer during annual meetings two months later in June 1983.  In line with the move, Gordon sought additional investors, selling a 40% stake in the club – now renamed the Montana Magic – to the Ermineskin Indian Band of Alberta, Canada for $400,000.

The New Jersey Devils shifted their affiliate to Portland, Maine of the American Hockey League during the summer of 1983, so Gordon struck a new working agreement with the NHL’s St. Louis Blues to help stock the Magic for the 1983-84 CHL season.  While the Blues would pay their prospects’ salaries, the Magic also signed a half dozen or so independent players – free agents that would be paid by Gordon’s local management.  Among the independents was Reggie Leach, the Canadian aboriginal sniper and Philadelphia Flyers cult hero who set an all-time NHL record with 80 goals during the 1975-76 regular season and playoffs.  In the fall of 1983, the 33-year old “Riverton Rifle” was only three years removed from his last 50-goal campaign in the NHL.  Midway throught the season, the Magic got Don Murdoch back, the can’t miss superstar turned minor league journeyman who had followed Larry Gordon from Edmonton to Wichita to Montana.

The 20-year old Central Hockey League staggered into the 1983-84 season with only five active franchises.  The league incorporated twenty Olympic warm-up matches against the U.S. and Canadian Olympic teams into the regular season standings to help round out the schedule.  NHL President John Ziegler cited the CHL’s sprawling geography – Billings was 1,200 miles from Indianapolis and 1,000 miles from Tulsa – as one of the league’s Achilles heels in a 1984 interview with Dave Molinari of The Pittsburgh Press:

“One of the problems in the Central League is the tremendous distance involved in moving teams from one place to another.  That imposes a cost burden which, in these days, has become very disproportionate to the kind of attendance dollars generated.  Now you hear of a team that may lose $750,000, $800,000 or a million dollars a year and produce from that operation – if they’re lucky – one player a year.  That player becomes a very expensive commodity.”

Pat Rabbitt - 1983/84 season

In mid-February 1984, the Tulsa Oilers ownership ran out of money and abandoned the club.  The Oilers were forced to finish the season as a travel team, playing on the road as wards of the league.  The Magic were next.  By early March, Gordon’s group could no longer fund the club’s payroll.  The Magic were forced to postpone a March 6th game against the Colorado Flames when the St. Louis Blues recalled five of their players and six unpaid independents refused to play, including Leach.  The Ermineskin Indian Band stepped up again, buying out Gordon and increasing their ownership stake in the Magic from 40% to 77.5%.  This infusion allowed the Magic to complete their 76-game season, finishing in last place with a 20-52-4 record.

On May 21st, 1984 the Central Hockey League voted to dissolve after 21 seasons, bringing the brief tenure of the CHL in Montana to an end.

##

Wind goaltender Andy Moog (1980-1982) went on to play a major role in three Stanley Cup victories for the Edmonton Oilers in 1984, 1985 and 1987.

John Muckler left the Wind after the 1981-82 season, when Edmonton dropped its affiliation with Wichita.  He served as an assistant and co-Head Coach to Glen Sather on the 1984, 1985 and 1987  Oilers Stanley Cup championship teams.  He took over head coaching reigns for the 1989-90 season and directed the Oilers to the club’s only Stanley Cup victory without Wayne Gretzky.

Original Wind Head Coach Garnet “Ace” Bailey went on to become a highly respected scout in the Oilers and Los Angeles Kings organizations.  He was killed on September 11th, 2001 as a passenger aboard United Airlines Flight 175 that crashed into the World Trade Center.

Downloads and Further Reading:

Wichita Wind All-Time Roster at Hockeydb.com

1983-84 Montana Magic statistics at Hockeydb.com

Sources:

“Honesty Not Best Policy”, Marty Knack, The Edmonton Journal, March 8th, 1980
“Gordon Crying Down in Kansas”, Jim Matheson, The Edmonton Journal, February 17, 1981
“Red Wings don’t think Murdoch is washed up”, Barry Wilner, The Associated Press, October 14, 1981
“Oilers farm team in ruckus”, The Associated Press, March 24, 1982
“CHL’s Wind eyeing St. Joe”, Allen Seifert, St. Joseph News Press, April 23, 1983
“It’s Magic, says Montana”, Canadian Press, March 10, 1984
“One on One: John Ziegler”, Dave Molinari, The Pittsburgh Press, May 21, 1984
Larry Gordon profile on Oilersheritage.com

Written by andycrossley

June 12, 2011 at 12:39 am

#11 New England Stingers

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Roller Hockey International (RHI) was the brainchild of serial sports entrepeneur Dennis Murphy.  Murphy helped found the American Basketball Association, the World Hockey Association and World Team Tennis in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.  After a quiet decade in the 1980’s, Murphy re-emerged with RHI in 1993, co-founded with his former World Team Tennis partner Larry King.

Murphy and King sought to capitalize on the surge of interest in inline skating – often known at the time by the brandnomer Rollerblading – with a summertime league stocked with moonlighting minor league hockey players.  RHI rules varied somewhat from ice hockey. Games were divided into four 12-minute quarters rather than three 20-minute periods.  Teams played five-v-five with only one defenseman on a Sport Court (concrete) surface.  Fighting was prohibited, punishable by a one-game suspension.  The various rule changes all supported a higher-scoring, more fluid game.  During the league’s inaugural season, RHI games averaged nearly 17 goals per game.

RHI debuted with twelve franchises in 1993, mostly in major NHL and NBA markets such as Los Angeles, St. Louis and Miami.  Murphy and King attracted several major investors, including Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss, another World Team Tennis veteran.  In 1994, the league expanded rapidly, adding six new franchises, primarily in big league cities such as Minneapolis, Pittsburgh (held by NHL Penguins owner Howard Baldwin), Philadelphia and Montreal.  One exception in the 1994 expansion class was the archetypal minor league hockey market of Portland, Maine.

The New England Stingers were introduced to Portland at a news conference on March 2nd, 1994.  Experienced hockey operators Tom Ebright and Godfrey Wood owned the club, which they envisioned as a summertime extension of their Portland Pirates American Hockey League franchise.  The duo were riding a wave of enthusiasm in the city.  Ebright and Wood first came together one year earlier, partnering to move Ebright’s struggling Baltimore Skipjacks AHL club to Portland’s Cumberland County Civic Center.  When the Stingers were announced in early March, the Pirates were nearing the completion of a storybook first season in the city, one which saw the club win the Calder Cup championship.

Portland Pirates Head Coach Barry Trotz served as Head Coach and brought along his AHL assistant, Paul Gardner.   The Stingers roster included several veterans with NHL experience, including Len Hachborn and Kevin Kaminski.  University of Maine rookie Cal Ingraham signed on and would lead the Stingers in scoring with 30 goals and 32 assists. 

Photo courtesy of Gary Griffaw

The Stingers struggled to adapt to the hybrid game, dropping the first seven matches of RHI’s 22-game season.  In the front office, the challenges were just as daunting.  Stingers management faced severe pressures both on the revenue and expense sides of the business, in stark contrast to RHI co-founder Larry King’s 1993 boast to Sports Illustrated that “In this league coaches need more skill than owners need money.”

“We had no idea how difficult it would be to convince Mainers that they should watch an indoor sport when they have waited so long for summer, boating, golf and beaches!  Frankly, even giving away tickets – that got used – was hard,” recalled Godfrey Wood in 2011.  “It was extremely expensive to travel the team, particularly given summer airfares.  Sponsorship was moderate, and I was concerned we were cannibalizing the (ice) hockey team’s sponsors.”

The Stingers announced several larger crowds at the Cumberland County Civic Center as the season wound down, including successive attendace highs of 4,677 and 4,691 at the club’s final two home games in August 1994.  Nevertheless, the Stingers finished the season with an estimated $300,000 operating loss and with average announced attendance of 2,850, 5th worst in the 18-team league.  Adding insult to injury, the Stingers finished in last place with a record of 5-17.

Ebright and Wood formally withdrew from Roller Hockey International in March of 1995, under the guise of a one-year hiatus. 

“This may be the fastest growing sport in the country, but maybe it’s a participatory sport, not a viewer’s sport,” Wood told The Portland Press Herald in announcing the shutdown.

##

The Nashville Predators chose Barry Trotz as their head coach when the expansion club debuted in 1998.  He has held the position for the last thirteen seasons.

Portland Pirates and New England Stingers owner Tom Ebright passed away in 1997.

Stingers co-owner Godfrey Wood continues to live and work in Portland, where he has served as CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce since 1998.

Roller Hockey International continued to play through the end of the 1997 season.  Reduced to only three teams, the league took a year off in 1998 to re-organize, then returned to play one final season in the summer of 1999.  The league folded permanently after the 1999 season.

Downloads

2011 Interview with Stingers Owner Godfrey Wood

Sources:

“Summer Stock”, Kelli Anderson, Sports Illustrated, August 16th, 1993
“Roller Hockey; Players Making the Switch from Ice to Cement”, The New York Times, July 22, 1994
“Portland’s Roller Hockey Team Goes On Hiatus” Mike Lowe, The Portland Press Herald, March 17, 1995

Written by andycrossley

April 27, 2011 at 9:49 am

Posted in Hockey

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#9 Columbus Golden Seals & Columbus / Dayton / Grand Rapids Owls

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Charles O. Finley purchased the Columbus, Ohio franchise in the International Hockey League on May 11, 1971 for a fee of $50,000.  The Columbus Golden Seals would serve as a farm club for Finley’s California Golden Seals NHL franchise.  This would be the Midwest-based IHL’s second go around in Columbus, following the Columbus Checkers (1966-1970), who had ceased operations one year earlier.

Loaded with raw young players by their California parent club, the Seals won only once in the first 25 games, at one point enduring a 21-game winless streak.  Columbus hockey fans responded accordingly, with only one 1971 Golden Seals game attracting an announced crowd of over 2,000 fans and several drawing less than 1,000 spectators.  The Golden Seals finished the 1971-72 campaign with a league-worst record of 15-55-2.  Incredibly, the 1972-73 Golden Seals were worse, finishing 10-62-2 while opponents outscored them 393-177.

The spring and summer of 1973 saw Finley attempting to divest himself of many of his money-losing sports properties, including the NHL Golden Seals and the Memphis Tams of the American Basketball Association.  Finley sold his IHL franchise to Indianapolis-based mortgage banker Al Savill on April 18, 1973.  Savill had owned the minor league Indianapolis Capitals of the Continental Football League in the late 1960’s and gained minor notoriety in 1969 when he offered Heisman Trophy winner O.J. Simpson a $400,000 contract to play for the Caps while the rookie running back reached a salary impasse with the American Football League’s Buffalo Bills.

Savill renamed his club the Columbus Owls for the 1973-74 IHL season.  Freed of the dregs of the California Golden Seals farm system, the Owls signed an affiliation agreement with the St. Louis Blues and put together a competitive team that finished 40-34-2, good for second place and a playoff appearance.  Remarkably, the turn around occurred under the same Head Coach – Moe Bartoli – who had suffered through the previous year’s 10-62-2 nightmate.  Bartoli was the face of hockey in Columbus, having also served as a player/coach for the Checkers in the late 1960’s.

In July 1975, Savill purchased the Pittsburgh Penguins out of receivership for a reported $3.8 million.  Reportedly, the sale germinated from a casual conversation between Savill and Marc Boileau, the Penguins Head Coach who came to know Savill during his days as an IHL coach.  Savill and his partner Otto Frenzel would own the Penguins for only three years, losing a considerably sum of money in the process.  But their purchase of the club in the summer of 1975 at a time when the IRS has padlocked the doors of the team offices likely saved NHL hockey for Pittsburgh.

Towards the end of the 1975-76 season, Savill asked the IHL Board of Directors for permission to move the Owls to Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Savill cited tepid attendance as the franchise’s main problem, noting that the club averaged only 2,568 fans per game at the 5,000-seat Fairgrounds Coliseum through 38 games of the 1975-76 schedule.  He pegged financial losses at approximately $100,000 per year during his first two seasons owning the Owls and expected to exceed that number for the 1975-76 campaign.  However, in June 1976, Savill announced that the Owls would stay put in Columbus for one more season.

Attendance was just one challenge the Owls faced in Columbus.  The other was the building itself.  The Owls’ Fairgrounds Coliseum lease de-prioritized the team in the spring, meaning the team frequently had to host playoff games in Troy, Ohio.  During the bitterly cold winter of 1977, the United States faced a severe natural gas shortage that closed 4,000 factories and idled over 400,000 workers.  The Midwestern industrial communities that played host to the IHL were especially hard hit.  In January 1977 the Fairgrounds Coliseum nearly expended its natural gas allotment for the winter, prompting Owls general manager Moe Bartoli – now bumped from the bench to the front office – to ponder cancellation of the remainder of the season.

In June 1977, Savill announced he would not return to Columbus for the 1977-78 season, citing an inability to secure home playoff dates at the Coliseum after March 20th, 1978.  In August 1977, the IHL approved plans for Savill to move the club to Indianapolis.  However, prior to the start of the 1977-78 IHL season in October, Savill instead moved the Owls to Hara Arena in Dayton, Ohio.   The Owls arrived in Dayton on the heels of the Dayton Gems, who had shut down operations over the summer after suffering their own problems with declining attendance in the mid-seventies.

In early December 1977, with the season barely 20 games old, the Owls announced plans to either disband or relocate the team immediately.  The Owls averaged only 1,500 per games at Hara Arena and Savill expected to lose close to $300,000 if he remained in Dayton for the remainder of the season.  The IHL quickly convened and approved a mid-season move to Grand Rapids, Savill’s original preference of 18 months earlier.

Although the Owls unhappy stay in Dayton lasted less than two months, they stuck around long enough to play a role in a classic piece of 1970’s hockey goonism that seemed straight out of the hockey classic Slap Shot, released in theatres the same year.  During an October 29, 1977 game against the Port Huron Flags, Owls enforcer Willie Trognitz swung his stick into the skull of Flags player Archie Henderson during a bench clearing brawl, putting Henderson in the hospital.

“Maybe I shouldn’t have hit him with my stick, but I was too tired to fight,” Trognitz told The Associated Press “I already had been in two fights.”

Commissioner Bill Beagan suspended Trognitz from the IHL for life…which proved to be just the sort of publicity boost the career minor leaguer needed.  Four days later, the goon-deficient Cincinnati Stingers of the major league World Hockey Association signed Trognitz to a contract.

In August 1979, Al Savill’s six-year associated with the Owls came to an end.  A group of local Grand Rapids minority partners led by Michael Knapp and David Baines bought out Savill’s majority share for a reported $100,000 plus assumption of the team’s debt.  Two weeks later, the team was served with an eviction notice from Stadium Arena over $12,366 for back rent and other fees.

Owls owner Michael Knapp disbanded the club once and for all on June 6th, 1980.

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Written by andycrossley

April 21, 2011 at 8:01 pm

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