International Hockey League (1985-1990)
Born: August 6, 1985 – IHL expansion franchise
Moved: July 11, 1990 (Fort Wayne Komets)
Arena: IMA Sports Arena
Turner Cup Championships: None
In July 1985, the city of Flint, Michigan lost its long-time International Hockey League club, the Flint Generals (1969-1985). After several years of six-figure losses, the Generals moved 40 miles north to Saginaw. A local couple, Laraine and Carl Lamb, scrambled to save hockey for the city. Less than four weeks after the Generals’ departure, the IHL awarded an expansion franchise to the Lambs on August 6th, 1985. The novice sports investors had less than two months to build and organization and get a team onto the ice for the 1985-86 IHL season.
The Lambs ran their Flint Spirits hockey team as the ultimate mom-and-pop operation. The couple was unable to attract additional investors. The Spirits era in Flint (1985-1990) coincided with the grim period of civic history depicted by filmmaker Michael Moore in his landmark 1989 documentary Roger & Me. The inexorable decline of auto manufacturing jobs got underway, as General Motors shuttered plants and moved jobs to Mexico. Re-development efforts, such as AutoWorld and the downtown Water Street Pavilion (which featured a recreational ice skating rink) sputtered and died. The Spirits fared little better at first. The club averaged fewer than 2,000 fans per contest at IMA Arena through the first half of the 1985-86 season, the worst mark in the 10-team IHL. The Lambs ran out of money in five months.
By January 1986, it looked like the Flint Spirits might fold midway through their first season. Enter former Flint Generals star Bob Perani. Perani, a popular goaltender for the Generals from 1969 to 1974, remained in Flint after retiring from the ice. He started several local businesses, the most successful of which was the sporting goods retailer Perani’s Hockey World. In short order, Perani organized a 19-person local ownership that took control of the Spirits in February 1986 and saved the team from certain doom. Flint finished the 1985-86 season with an abominable 16-60-6 record.
The Spirits’ fortunes improved with the hiring of another former Flint General, Rick Dudley, as head coach in the summer of 1986. The team posted a winning record in 1986-87 and qualified for the playoffs. The season was marred by tragedy though when Dudley’s player-assistant Frank Perkins was found dead in his home in February 1987. Perkins was just 27 year old. The Saginaw Generals, Flint’s former team, eliminated the Spirits in the first round of the 1987 Turner Cup playoffs.
Dudley returned at the helm for the 1987-88 season. Rookie center John Cullen took the IHL by storm. The former Boston University star led the league in scoring with 48 goals and 109 assists, earning both MVP and Rookie-of-the-Year honors (the latter shared with Saginaw goaltender Ed Belfour). The Generals charged through the playoffs to the 1988 Turner Cup finals where they lost to the Salt Lake Golden Eagles. Cullen leveraged his breakout season into a contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He became a two-time All-Star in the NHL.
Dudley departed in the summer of 1988. He would become the Buffalo Sabres head coach in the NHL in 1989. Without Cullen, the Spirits fell back to a last place finish in the 1988-89 IHL season. For the winter of 1989-90, Flint became the top farm club for the NHL’s New York Rangers. The Rangers affiliation meant that Flint fans got to enjoy top prospects like winger Rob Zamuner and former U.S. Olympic goaltender Mike Richter.
The Rangers partnership was short-lived. In the summer of 1990, Fort Wayne, Indiana lost its IHL club after 38 seasons. The Komets moved to Albany, New York. Similar to the Flint situation upon the Generals departure in 1985, local hockey supporters immediately began looking for a new team. Fort Wayne businessman Steve Franke bought the Spirits in July 1990 and moved the club to Indiana where they became a new version of the Fort Wayne Komets for the 1990-91 IHL season.
After a one-year absence, pro hockey would return to Flint in the winter of 1990-91 with the formation of the Flint Bulldogs of the Colonial Hockey League.
Spirits player-assistant coach Frank Perkins died of natural causes at his home on February 24, 1987. Perkins was 27.
Former Spirits owner Bob Perani passed away during a flight from Detroit to Tokyo on April 15, 2012. He was 69.
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