Lively Tales About Dead Teams

1995-2001 Orlando Solar Bears

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International Hockey League (1994-2001)

Born: December 1994 – IHL expansion franchise.
Folded:
June 5, 2001

Arena: Orlando Arena (15,820)

Team Colors: “Solar Purple, Seafoam Green, Sunset Orange, Growling Grey, Ice Blue & Solar Eclipse Black”

Owner: Rich DeVos

 

The Orlando Solar Bears were a minor league hockey team that operated for six seasons at the Orlando Arena/TD Waterhouse Centre from 1995 to 2001.  The Solar Bears were a consistently terrific team on the ice, but the team’s novelty factor in the Orlando community wore off quickly.  Attendance dropped from an announced average of 10,460 in the Solar Bears’ debut season of 1995-96 to only 5,156 during the club’s final winter in 2000-01, when the Solar Bears won the final International Hockey League Turner Cup championship.

The Solar Bears were owned by the DeVos family, who also owned and operated the Orlando Magic of the NBA.  Patriarch Rich DeVos co-founded the $6 billion Amway direct sales empire in 1959.  DeVos bought into the International Hockey League (IHL) at the top of a bubble market purchasing the Orlando franchise for $6 million in December 1994.  The IHL dated back to 1945 and as recently as the mid-1980’s had been a thrifty bus league confined to icy industrial cities of the upper Midwest like Muskegon and Kalamazoo.  In the early 1990’s, the league became an air travel league, attracted NBA ownership including Larry Miller (Salt Lake City) and Palace Sports & Entertainment (Detroit), and began charging multi-million dollar expansion fees.  The IHL’s newfound hubris was fueled by the NHL lockout during the 1994-95 season, which helped the minor league draw a record 5.85 million fans during the winter of 1994-95.  The league began to expand more aggressively into major non-traditional hockey markets like Orlando, Las Vegas and San Francisco.

Rich DeVos’ Orlando franchise would be the 19th franchise in the IHL and it marked the crest of the wave.  The IHL never grew beyond 19 clubs and it only sold one more expansion franchise during its final six seasons, which also went to the DeVos family for their home state of Michigan.

The Solar Bears were competitive right out of the gates under Head Coach Curt Fraser in 1995-96.  The team came out flat in its home debut at the Orlando Arena on October 6th, 1995, dropping a 5-1 decision to the Detroit Vipers in front of an announced crowd of 14,119.  But overall the team was terrific, winning the Central Division with a 52-24-6 record en route to the IHL’s Turner Cup finals in their debut season.  26-year old Craig Fisher led the IHL with an astounding 74 goals in 82 games.

In the finals, the Solar Bears ran into the Utah Grizzlies, losing in a four-game sweep.  But the series was closer than the final result indicated, with three of the four games going into sudden death overtime.  Games one and two took place in Orlando, drawing large crowds of 14,211 and 11,964 respectively.

The Solar Bears continued their winning ways throughout the rest of the 1990’s, never finishing lower than second place in their division.  In 1999, the Solar Bears returned to the Turner Cup finals for the second time, falling to the Houston Aeros in a best-of-seven series that went the distance.

By the 2000-01 season, the IHL was down to 11 teams, down from 19 in the 1996-97 season. The DeVos family was the largest investor in the league, with father Rich in charge of the Solar Bears and son Dan controlling the Grand Rapids and Kansas City franchises.  The entire league floundered under the burden of cross-continental travel, escalating payrolls, and a lack of financial support from the National Hockey League, which preferred to place most of its subsidized farm clubs with the less ambitious and abrasive American Hockey LeagueAn amusing 1998 Houston Chronicle article pointed out that the $105 million dollar free agent contract signed by Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Kevin Brown would cover the payrolls for all of the IHL’s 18 clubs for five years.  Nevertheless, the $1.2 million annual salary cap was aggressive for largely unsubsidized teams, combined with the high costs of travel, insurance and rent for major arenas.

The Solar Bears earned their third trip to the Turner Cup finals during the 2000-01 IHL season.  Even before the playoffs concluded, rumors of the league’s demise circulated as six of the remaining eleven IHL clubs considered paying $2.5 million entry fees to defect to the 22-team American Hockey League.  Orlando Sentinel reporter Scott Andera compared the plight of the Solar Bears to the fictional Charlestown Chiefs from the movie Slap Shot who competed for the Federal League title even as their fate was already sealed.   The third time was the charm for the Solar Bears, who defeated the Chicago Wolves four games to one to claim the IHL’s final Turner Cup Trophy in May 2001.

As expected, six IHL clubs formally joined the American Hockey League in June 2001, marking the end of the International League after fifty-six seasons.  Unlike the IHL, the AHL prevented investors from operating more than one franchise.  The DeVos family chose to enter their Grand Rapids Griffins franchise from their home state of Michigan into the AHL and to fold their money-losing clubs in Kansas City and Orlando.

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The Solar Bears never had a losing season in six years.  In their worst season, they won 12 games more than they lost and finished second place in their division.

Original Solar Bears GM Don Waddell was the General Manager and later President of the NHL’s Atlanta Thrashers for their entire run in Atlanta from 1999 to 2010.  He also served two stints at the Thrashers’ interim Head Coach.

In 2011 the East Coast Hockey League expanded to Orlando and the new club revived the Solar Bears name, along with the polar bear-in-shades logo.  The new Orlando Solar Bears debut in 2012.

 

==Links==

International Hockey League Media Guides

International Hockey League Programs

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Written by AC

January 5th, 2012 at 4:11 am

One Response to '1995-2001 Orlando Solar Bears'

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  1. […] They purchased the team in 1996, the family also owned the Grand Rapids Griffins and the Orlando Solar Bears as well.  The wikipedia article on the Blades states that the DeVos family rather quickly became […]

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