Lively Tales About Dead Teams

1988-2010 Johnstown Chiefs

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Steve Carlson JohnstownAll-American Hockey League (1988)
East Coast Hockey League (1988-2010)

Born: December 1987 – AAHL expansion franchise.
Died: February 15, 2010- The Chiefs announced they will relocate to Greenville, SC.

Arena: Cambria County War Memorial (4,045)

Team Colors:

  • 1988-89: Black, White & Gold
  • 1998-99: Black, Gold, Red & White

Owners:

 

Johnstown, Pennsylvania holds a special place in the hearts of minor league hockey fans.  The small city 70 miles east of Pittsburgh has a hard luck history, which includes three devastating floods, the decline of the steel, iron and coal mills that fueled the local economy, and the reduction by half of Johnstown’s population since 1970.

1991-92 Johnstown ChiefsIn 1976, director George Roy Hill filmed the Paul Newman hockey comedy ‘Slap Shot’ in Johnstown.  The films fictional ‘Charlestown Chiefs’ were based loosely on the long-running Johnstown Jets (1950-1977) of the bruising North American Hockey League.  Screenwriter Nancy Dowd based the story on tales from her brother Ned Dowd, who played for the Jets for two seasons in the mid-1970′s.  (Ned Dowd also played infamous goon Ogie Ogilthorpe in the film).  ‘Slap Shot’ was released in February 1977, but unlike ‘Bull Durham’, the minor league baseball comedy featuring North Carolina’s Durham Bulls released a decade later, ‘Slap Shot’ did not inspire an economic windfall for the home team.  Instead, the Flood of 1977 hit Johnstown five months later and ruined the ice making equipment at the Cambria County War Memorial.  The Jets were out of business after 27 seasons.

Flash forward a decade and a Virginia oil man named Henry Brabham needed a city to prop up the staggering All-American Hockey League and quick.  In December 1987, the AAHL was down a team in midseason and needed a replacement.  Brabham visited Johnstown, liked what he saw, and launched the team on two weeks notice.  Long-time Johnstown Tribune-Democrat sports writer Mike Mastovich credits then War Memorial board President and marketing director Dennis Grenell with suggesting the ‘Chiefs’ nickname to Brabham, in honor of ‘Slap Shot’.  Thus the Johnstown Chiefs were born in January 1988 as an emergency plug in the leaking All-American Hockey League.

After the 1987-88 season, Brabham pulled his clubs out of the AAHL and merged them with a couple of teams from another low-level circuit, the Atlantic Coast Hockey League.  The resulting new league was dubbed the East Coast Hockey League and had five members clubs for the 1988-89 season, three of which were owned by Brabham.  The Chiefs’ opponents for their first full season of play were Erie, Knoxville, Virginia and Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

For the 1988-89 season, the Chiefs hired Steve Carlson as their new Head Coach.  Carlson’s hiring further the city and team’s tribute to ‘Slap Shot’, as he played one of the beloved Hanson Brothers in the 1977 film.  The Chiefs would enjoy some of their finest seasons under Carlson, including their only visit to the ECHL’s Riley Cup finals series in 1989.  In the championship, Johnstown outscored the Carolina Thunderbirds 14-2 in the series’ first two games en route to a commanding 2-0 series lead, but they would ultimately lose the Riley Cup to Carolina in seven games.

1998-99 Johnstown ChiefsCarlson’s tenure came to an end in 1992 and Henry Brabham sold the Chiefs to local investors a year later.  The Chiefs then struggled for a long-stretch of the 1990′s, failing to make the playoffs four straight years from 1996 until 1999.  Johnstown struggled to compete as the ECHL grew from its modest mid-Atlantic roots to a sprawling, nationwide league with more than two dozen clubs.  The team’s on-ice fortunes eventually rebounded in the early 2000′s, with several deep playoff runs under Head Coach Scott Allen.

Off the ice was a tougher story.  The Chiefs ran six-figure operating losses virtually every season and went through multiple ownership groups over the years.  None of them ever figured out how to make the Chiefs sustainable, but all displayed an admirable commitment to try to keep pro hockey in Johnstown.  In 2003, for instance, then owners Richard & Connie Mayer sold the club to former New York Rangers General Manager Neil Smith for a single dollar in return for Smith’s commitment to keep the team in Johnstown.  (The Chiefs previously sold for $600,000 in 1995).

Despite the red ink, Smith kept to the club running in Johnstown for nearly a decade with a variety of partners.  Chiefs attendance continued to rank near the bottom of the ECHL, however, which now included big city teams as far away as Anchorage, Las Vegas and Fresno.  In February 2010, Smith’s group bowed to the inevitable and announced the Chiefs would move to Greenville, South Carolina at the conclusion of the 2009-10 season, the club’s 22nd campaign in the ECHL.

The New York Times sent a reporter to the Chiefs’ final game at Cambria County War Memorial on April 3, 2010.  Minority owner Ned Nakles noted to The Times that Johnstown outlasted 48 other cities that lost their ECHL franchises during Johnstown’s 22 years in the league.  Johnstown was also the last survivor of the original five cities that formed the league in 1988.

 

 

==Johnstown Chiefs Games on Fun While It Lasted==

Season Date Opponent Score Program Other
1988-89 12/17/1988 vs. Virginia Lancers W 9-6 Program
1991-92 3/8/1992 vs. Hampton Roads Admirals L 4-2 Program
1992-93 3/15/1993 vs. Birmingham Bulls W 5-2 Program
1994-95 10/21/1994 @ Toledo Storm L 6-5 (OT) Program
1995-1996 11/22/1995 vs. Wheeling Thunderbirds L 5-3 Program
2007-08 10/18/2007 vs. Wheeling Nailers L 4-2 Program
2007-08 1/18/2008 vs. Dayton Bombers W 5-1 Program
2008-09 10/18/2008 vs. Wheeling Nailers L 4-2 Program

 

==YouTube==

Johnstown’s Brian Ferreira hurls a puck at ECHL Commissioner Pat Kelly before storming the press box during a playoff game against the Cincinnati Cyclones. March 20, 1992.

WJAC-TV coverage of the Johnstown Chiefs’ final game in April 2010.

 

==Links==

Chiefs, Inspired by ‘Slap Shot’, Are Leaving Johnstown“, Sean D. Hamill, The New York Times, April 4, 2010

East Coast Hockey League Media Guides

East Coast Hockey League Programs

##

1974-1975 Memphis Southmen

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Larry Csonka Memphis SouthmenWorld Football League (1974-1975)

Born: May 8, 1974 - The Toronto Northmen relocate to Memphis, TN.
Died: October 22, 1975 – The WFL ceases operations in midseason.

Stadium: Memphis Memorial Stadium (50,164)

Team Colors: Burnt Orange & Brown

Owner: John Bassett et al.

 

The Memphis Southmen (AKA Grizzlies) began life 1,000 miles to the north in late 1973 as a planned pro football franchise known as the Toronto Northmen.  The lead investor of the Northmen was Toronto media scion John Bassett, Jr., whose burgeoning sports empire at the time also included the Toronto Toros of the World Hockey Association and the Buffalo-Toronto Royals of World Team Tennis.  Bassett’s father, John Sr., was a Toronto newspaper and television station baron who owned part of the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs before losing it to Harold Ballard in an early 1970′s power struggle.

The Northmen were to be members of the upstart World Football League, which planned to begin play in July 1974 and combat the NFL head-to-head for top collegiate & pro talent.  The formation of the WFL brought (briefly) a form of limited free agency to pro football.  Free agent movement was virtually unheard of in the NFL at the time thanks to the chilling effects of the “Rozelle Rule” reserve clause.  But with the arrival of the WFL in 1974, NFL players were no longer indentured solely to their current teams.  They could jump to the rival league for a bigger paycheck – or at least use that threat to gain some rare negotiating leverage.  The new league pursued NFL talent aggressively, signing stars such as L.C. Greenwood, Calvin Hill, Craig Morton and Ken Stabler to futures contracts to jump leagues once their current NFL deals expired.  Ultimately, no team would make a bigger splash in the NFL-WFL player battle than Bassett’s franchise.

Memphis SouthmenOn March 31, 1974, the Toronto Northmen held a press conference to announce the signings of Miami Dolphins’ stars Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield.  All three were heroes of Miami’s legendary 1972 undefeated Super Bowl championship squad.  Bassett and his General Manager, Leo Cahill, flew the trio to Toronto and floored them with an offer that Dolphins owner Joe Robbie couldn’t or wouldn’t match.  $1.5 million over 3 years for Csonka, the MVP of Super Bowl XIII just two months earlier.  $1.0 million over three years for Warfield.  And $900,000 over the years for Csonka’s fellow running back Jim Kiick.  It was a shocking coup for the World Football League and a gut punch to one of the NFL’s elite franchises.  The Dolphins stars still had a year to run on their NFL contracts.  The plan was for Csonka, Kiick and Warfield to join Toronto for the WFL’s second season starting in the summer of 1975.

Meanwhile, Bassett found an antagonist back in Toronto who proved a much more formidable adversary than Joe Robbie.  Canadian federal minister of health and welfare set out to force Bassett out of Toronto, believing the arrival of the U.S.-based World Football League posed an existential threat to the Canadian Football League and its Toronto Argonauts franchise.  Lalonde filed the Canadian Football Act with Parliament in April 1974.  The act sought to protect the Canadian Football League and Canadian-born football players by keeping U.S.-based pro leagues out of Canada.  Although the legislation never passed, the debate created enough uncertainty and antagonism that Bassett picked up his franchise and moved to Memphis, Tennessee on May 8, 1974, barely two months before opening night of the first WFL season.

In Tennessee, the franchise would officially be known as the “Memphis Southmen”.  But locals didn’t cotton to the name too well, and colloquially the team was known as the “Grizzlies”.  (You can see the duality of the team’s identity on the first season media guide cover at left).

Although Csonka, Kiick and Warfield weren’t due to arrive in town for another year yet, the Southmen/Grizzlies still had arguably the best team in the WFL during the league’s debut season in 1974.  Head Coach John McVay ran a ball control offense for the most part, with 1964 Heisman Trophy winning quarterback John Huarte at the helm.  A trio of running backs – rookie draft pick J.J. Jennings out of Rutgers, along with John Harvey and Willie Spencer – combined for 3,197 yards and 32 rushing touchdowns.  Rookie quarterback/punter Danny White - who would later succeed Roger Staubach as starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys – saw considerable late-game action behind center in a platoon role with Huarte.

The Southmen finished 17-3 and were undeated (10-0) at Memphis Memorial Stadium.  But on November 29, 1974, they were upset at home by the Florida Blazers 18-15 in the playoff semi-final.  The Blazers were an insolvent franchise at the time.  Their players hadn’t been paid in months and within months team owner Rommie Loudd would be charged with both tax fraud and cocaine distribution charges.  The chaos surrounding the Blazers was only slightly more extreme than the turmoil enveloping the entire league.  Founder Gary Davidson was expelled from the league by disgruntle owners late in the season.   Several clubs relocated in midseason or simply folded without completing their schedules.  Amidst it all, the Southmen were a beacon of stability.  The team paid its bills and Bassett reportedly had to bail out other owners on several occasions.

At the end of the season, halfback J.J. Jennings (1,524 rushing yards, 13 touchdowns) was named Rookie-of-the-Year and one of the WFL’s ‘Tri-MVPs” for the 1974 season.

Ed Marshall Memphis SouthmenThe World Football League was all but dead by December 1974.  Many of the teams that survived the 1974 season now faced tax liens, property seizures and myriad lawsuits.  The Southmen’s arch rivals, the Birmingham Americans, defeated the Blazers to win World Bowl I, only to see sheriff’s deputies interrupt their post-game celebration to confiscate the team’s equipment.  But Hawaiians owner Christopher Hemmeter took the lead to re-organize the league under a new corporation and recruit new investors.  Bassett was one of only a handful of original investors who returned for the second season.

The WFL returned for a second season in July 1975 and that meant that Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield were headed to Memphis, Tennessee.  To make room the Csonka and Kiick in the already crowded backfield, the team’s 1974 sensation J.J. Jennings was shipped out to play for the WFL’s Philadelphia Bell franchise.  The trio of ex-Dolphins earned a cover shoot on the July 28, 1975 edition of Sports Illustrated in their Grizzlies uniforms- the first and only time that the WFL would be so honored by the nation’s premiere sports periodical.

Despite the arrival of the big stars, the Southmen seemed to take a step back during the first half of the 1975 season.  Csonka battled nagging injuries and missed games.  He would score only two touchdowns during his time in Memphis.  Kiick had the biggest impact, scoring 10 touchdowns, but Memphis’ leading rusher was the unheralded 1974 holdover Willie Spencer.  No one replaced the production of the departed J.J. Jennings.

At quarterback, 2nd year pro Danny White took over the primary role from Huarte, who accepted back-up status.  White showed flashes of the promise that would make him a started in the NFL for much of the 1980′s but was still very much a developing player.  By late October, the Southmen had a record of 7-4 and sat in 2nd place in their division behind arch rival Birmingham.  As with the first season, the rest of the league was in chaos.  The new Chicago franchise had already folded up shop after just five games.  On October 22, 1975, the league owners voted to shutdown the league immediately rather than complete the 1975 season.

Csonka, Kiick and Warfield returned to the NFL.  John McVay was hired as an assistant coach by the New York Giants in 1976 and brought several ex-Southmen with him, including Csonka, defensive back Larry Mallory, wide receiver Ed Marshall, offensive lineman Ron Mikolajczyk and tight end Gary Shirk.

After the WFL folded, Bassett kept some of his key staff in place to petition for admission to the NFL as an expansion franchise.  A winter 1975-76 season ticket drive resulted in 40,000 pledges.  But the NFL turned down Bassett’s application.   Bassett responded with an anti-trust suit against the league – Mid-South Grizzlies v. National Football Leaguedragged on until 1983.  By that time, Bassett was back in pro football as owner of the Tampa Bay Bandits of the springtime  United States Football League.  Memphis would get a USFL expansion franchise the following year – the Showboats – to finally replace the Southmen/Grizzlies after nearly a decade’s absence.

 

==Memphis Southmen Games on Fun While It Lasted==

Year Date Opponent Score Program Other
1974 8/7/1974 @ Philadelphia Bell L 46-15 Program
1974 8/14/1974 @ Detroit Wheels W 37-7 Program
1975 7/14/1975 @ Southern California Sun (exh.) L 47-16 Program
1975 7/26/1975 @ Shreveport Steamer (exh.) W 14-7 Program
1975 8/2/1975 vs. Jacksonville Express W 27-26 Program
1975 9/7/1975 vs. The Hawaiians W 37-17 Program
1975 9/14/1975 vs. Shreveport Steamer W 34-23 Program
1975 9/28/1975 @ San Antonio Wings L 25-17 Program
1975 10/12/1975 vs. Birmingham Vulcans L 18-14 Program

 

==Downloads==

1975 WFL Standard Player Contract

 

==Links==

They’re Grinning and Bearing“, Robert F. Jones, Sports Illustrated, July 28, 1975

World Football League Media Guides

World Football League Game Programs

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1981-1988 Fredericton Express

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Fredericton ExpressAmerican Hockey League (1981-1988)

Born: 1981 – AHL expansion franchise.
Died: June1988 – The Express relocate to Halifax, Noa Scotia.

Arena: Aitken Centre

Team Colors:

Owner:

 

The Fredericton Express was an American Hockey League team in the Canadian Maritime province of New Brunswick.  The club was founded as an expansion team in 1981 to serve as a farm club to the NHL’s Quebec Nordiques.  In 1982, the Vancouver Canucks entered a partnership with the Nordiques to jointly operate and provide prospects to the club, although Quebec continued in the lead role, including appointing the Fredericton President and the farm team’s Head Coach.

Fredericton ExpressStrains in the arrangement between the two NHL clubs came out in the open after the Canucks hired Brian Burke as Vice President and Director of Hockey Operations in 1987.  Burke visited Fredericton for the first time in October of that year.  The previous season the Express had the 2nd worst record in the AHL and the team’s top five scorers were all sent down by the Canucks.  Burke made clear to the local press that the Canucks were unhappy with the partnership and with Quebec’s track record in contributing worthy coaches and players to the farm club.

Despite the management turmoil, the Express had their finest season in 1987-88.  The team advanced to the Calder Cup championship series for the first and only time, where they were swept in four games by the Hershey Bears.  The losses to Hershey in the Finals series turned out to be the final games ever played by the Express.  The following month, Vancouver, as expected, bought out the final year of its agreement with Quebec.  The Canucks set up their own farm team at Milwaukee in the International League to replace Fredericton.  The Nordiques, meanwhile, moved the former Express franchise to Halifax, Nova Scotia in June of 1988, where team was re-branded as the Halifax Citadels prior to the 1988-89 season.

After a two-year absence, the AHL returned to Fredericton in 1990 with the arrival of the Fredericton Canadiens (1990-1999).

 

==Fredericton Express Games on Fun While It Lasted==

Season Date Opponent Score Program Other
1982-83 1/11/1983 vs. Baltimore Skipjacks ?? Program
1984-85 1/26/1985 vs. Nova Scotia Oilers ?? Program
1986-87 3/19/1987 vs. Springfield Indians ?? Program
1986-87 3/29/1987 @ Maine Mariners ?? Program
1987-88 12/27/1987 @ Maine Mariners ?? Program
1987-88 3/6/1988 @ Binghamton Whalers Program
1987-88 4/24/1988 @ Maine Mariners ?? Program

 

==Links==

American Hockey League Media Guides

American Hockey League Programs

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Written by andycrossley

July 19th, 2014 at 2:59 am

1977-1981 San Jose Missions

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San Jose MIssionsPacific Coast League (1977-1978)
California League (1979-1981)

Born: October 1976 - The Sacramento Solons relocate to San Jose, CA.
Died:
1982 -Affiliation change to San Jose Expos.

Stadium: San Jose Municipal Stadium

Team Colors:

  • 1977: Green & Gold

Owners:

 

The San Jose Missions baseball teams of 1977 to 1981 were actual two separate franchises, but we’ve consolidated them into one FWiL entry for simplicity’s sake.  The original Missions of the Class AAA Pacific Coast League arrived in the fall of 1976.  The club was the former Sacramento Solons (1974-1976) of the PCL, who had a nice following in the capital city but didn’t have a regulation baseball stadium.  The Solons played at Hughes Stadium,  a 22,000-seat football stadium with a left field wall only 250 feet away from home plate.  (In 1974 the Solons had two right-handed hitters belt over 50 home runs).  Solons owner Bob Piccinini made arrangements to lease his club to Joe Gagliardi, a part-owner of the Class A San Jose Bees (1962-1976) of the California League who dreamed of bringing triple-A baseball to the Bay Area.   Once the deal was struck in October 1976 the Bees cleared out to make room for the Pacific Coast League club, now re-named the San Jose Missions.

San Jose MissionsThe Missions were an Oakland A’s farm club in 1977 and a Seattle Mariners affiliate in 1978.  Despite the organizational shift, Rene Lachemann managed the team for both seasons, both of which saw the Missions finish in last place.

At the end of the 1978 season Piccinini unloaded the Missions for a reported $175,000 to a truck driver from Utah named Dennis Job.  The Pacific Coast League team moved to Ogden, Utah for the 1979 season and became an Oakland farm club once again, nicknamed the Ogden A’s.

The single-A California League, which had a long relationship with San Jose dating back to the 1940′s, quickly stepped into the breach and put a new team into San Jose’s Municipal Stadium for the 1979 season.   The new ballclub retained the “Missions” name and a parent club relationship with the Seattle Mariners.  Key players that played for the Missions during the California League/Mariners era included Bud Black (1979 & 1980), Dave Henderson (1979) and the #1 overall pick in the 1979 amateur draft, Al Chambers (1980), who turned out to be a colossal bust.

Seattle withdrew its affiliation after the 1980 season, forcing the Missions to play their final season in 1981 without the benefit of prospects from a Major League organization.  Following the 1981 season the Montreal Expos took over San Jose’s California League affiliation and the ball club was re-branded as the San Jose Expos for the 1982 campaign.

As of 2014, billionaire Save Mart grocery baron and former Missions owner Bob Piccinini is part of the ownership group of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors.

 

==Links==

Pacific Coast League Media Guides

Pacific Coast League Programs

California League Programs

##

1983-1988 Watertown Pirates

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Waterbury PiratesNew York-Penn League (1983-1988)

Born: 1983
Died: 1989 - Affiliation change to Watertown Indians.

Stadium: Duffy Fairgrounds

Team Colors:

Owners:

 

The Watertown Pirates were the short season Class A farm club of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the New York-Penn League for six seasons from 1983 through 1988.

Tim Wakefield WatertownSeveral future Major League stars spent a summer in upstate New York city during the Pirates era, including Jay Buhner (1984), Moises Alou (1986 & 1987) and Tim Wakefield (1988).  Wakefield was in his first summer of pro ball after the Pirates selected him in the 8th round of the 1988 amateur draft.  He would later spend 20 years in the Majors as a knuckleball pitcher, retiring in 2011.  But Wakefield played first base for Watertown and never pitched an inning.

The Pirates played in a glum little econo-park called the Alex Duffy Fairgrounds.  At the end of the 1988 season, the Pirates moved their NY-Penn affiliate across the border to Welland, Canada and the Cleveland Indians moved into Duffy Fairgrounds.  The re-branded Watertown Indians played from 1989 through 1998 before departing for a shiny new ballpark in Staten Island.  Given the severely outdated nature of Duffy Fairgrounds, it’s unlikely that pro baseball will ever return to Watertown without a new facility.  The Fairgrounds are currently used for collegiate amateur baseball in the summer.

The Watertown Pirates are of minor note among minor league industry types as the first pro sports investment for sports psychologist Dr. Eric Margenau.  Margenau bought the team in 1986 with his partner in United Sports Ventures, Jay Acton (who was a prolific minor league operator in his own right).  Margenau would go on to own upwards of 20 different minor league baseball, hockey and Arena Football teams from the 1980′s through the 2000′s.

That’s longtime Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Ed Ott plastered all over the cover of Watertown’s 1986 yearbook (above right).  Ott, who was part of Pittsburgh’s 1979 World Series championship team, managed Watertown in 1986.

 

==Links==

New York-Penn League Media Guides

New York-Penn League Programs

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Written by andycrossley

July 15th, 2014 at 12:58 am