International Hockey League (1994-1995)
Born: 1993 – IHL expansion franchise.
Died: 1995 – The Grizzlies relocate to Salt Lake City, Utah.
Arena: McNichols Arena
The Denver Grizzlies hockey team is an anomaly in our One-Year Wonder collection, a fraternity of failed teams typically defined by chaos, dysfunction and insolvency. But the Grizzlies, an International Hockey League club owned by veteran minor league baseball operator David Elmore and Donna Tuttle, were a roaring success both on the ice and at the box office.
Prior to the Grizzlies arrival in 1993, Denver had a miserable history with pro hockey. Seven clubs set up shop in Denver between 1950 and 1990, including a short-lived and unloved National Hockey League franchise, the Colorado Rockies, that departed for New Jersey in 1982 after six losing seasons.
Elmore and Tuttle invested in a large and experienced front office staff, headed by President & CEO Bernie Mullin. As Senior VP of Business Operations for Major League Baseball’s Colorado Rockies, Mullin helped to sculpt the massively popular debut of that National League expansion franchise in 1993. Playing in Mile High Stadium, home of the NFL’s Denver Broncos, the Rockies drew a Major League record 4.5 million fans in their inaugural season of 1993, a record that still stands as of 2012. To lure an executive with Mullin’s pedigree and local market connections to a minor league hockey club was a remarkable coup for Elmore & Tuttle. It paid off at the turnstiles, as the Grizzlies attracted over 12,000 fans per game at McNichols Arena in the winter of 1994-95.
Having a terrific team didn’t hurt business either. Under Head Coach Butch Goring, the Grizzlies went 57-18-6. In the postseason, the Grizzlies were even more dominant, losing only two of seventeen playoff games as the team rolled toward the IHL’s Turner Cup finals in the spring of 1995. The Grizzlies swept the Kansas City Blades in four games to take home the crown.
On the day the Turner Cup Finals began, COMSAT Entertainment Group, owners of the NBA’s Denver Nuggets and the McNichols Arena, announced the $75 million purchase of the NHL’s Quebec Nordiques franchise. COMSAT would move the Nordiques to McNichols for the 1995-96 NHL season. Without an exclusive lease with COMAST for use of McNichols, Elmore and Tuttle knew that they could be bounced out of the building by the arrival of an NHL club. Their original gamble was that the NHL wouldn’t return to Denver until the next round of expansion, expected to be 3-4 years down the road. By that point, construction of Denver’s new state of the art Pepsi Center would be complete. The Nuggets and a future NHL franchise would play in the new building, while the Grizzlies could remain in McNichols in such a scenario.
“We thought we’d have three seasons,” Mullins told The Houston Chronicle in 1995. “By then, people would know our product and be hooked on us. We would have tried to stay here.”
The IHL’s homeless champions had no shortage of suitors. During the summer of 1995, Elmore and Tuttle considered relocation opportunities in Sacramento, San Antonio and San Diego, before settling on Salt Lake City’s Delta Center. The club kept the Grizzlies nickname in the move and, as the Utah Grizzlies, repeated as Turner Cup champions during the 1995-96.
Grizzlies attendance in Utah never matched the enthusiasm for the club in Denver. During the club’s first season in 1995-96, the Grizzlies averaged over 7,000 fans at the Delta Center. The IHL folded in 2001 and the Utah Grizzlies moved to the rival American Hockey League where the club remained through the 2004-05 season. In 2005, Elmore and Tuttle withdrew from the AHL and purchased a mothballed franchise from the lower-budget ECHL to play under the Utah Grizzlies name for the 2005-06 season.
The dormant AHL Grizzlies club – the franchise which traces its origins back to the 1994-95 Denver Grizzlies – was later sold to Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and relocated to Cleveland where it continues to play today as the Lake Erie Monsters.
==Denver Grizzlies Games on Fun While It Lasted==