1992-93 Greensboro (NC) Monarchs Program
East Coast Hockey League Programs
FWiL contributor Hoffman Wolff grew up watching ECHL hockey in Virginia and the Carolinas in the 1990′s. His father, Miles Wolff, owned the ECHL’s Raleigh (NC) IceCaps club from 1991 to 1995.
If there were ever a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” in minor-league sports, it would certainly apply to the Carolina Monarchs, who played two unmemorable seasons in the American Hockey League from 1995 to 1997.
Their predecessors, the East Coast Hockey League’s Greensboro Monarchs, were one of many success stories during the hockey boom of the 1990’s. Led by former AHL and NHL goon Jeff Brubaker, the proudly rowdy Monarchs engaged in heated rivalries and rough-and-tumble games that were a hit with the team’s boisterous fan base.
In 1994, renovations to the team’s home, the Greensboro Coliseum, had finally finished, and a mammoth, 21,000-seat building was unveiled. The updated facility helped the Monarchs draw 216,865 fans over 34 home games in 1994-95.
At the same time, the higher-level American Hockey League began eyeing expansion southward. After courting the ECHL’s clubs in Norfolk, Greensboro, Charlotte and Charleston, the Monarchs made the jump to the new league alone for 1995-96. The Monarchs’ spinning turnstiles, along with the “new” Coliseum, made success at a higher level seem natural. If fans liked the middling skill level of the ECHL, the reasoning went, just wait until they got a look at players just one step away from the NHL. (There was precedent: after two wildly successful seasons in the ECHL, the Cincinnati Cyclones joined the higher level International Hockey League in 1992-93, and were still drawing over 8,000 per game three years later).
Now dubbed the “Carolina Monarchs,” the club hovered around the .500 mark to start the season. But an average team wasn’t the Monarchs’ main concern. It quickly became apparent that the AHL style of hockey wasn’t clicking. Attendance was down, and the Coliseum had become lifeless.
Monarchs management realized that they had work to do.
“We’ve got a marketing job to do with a new product we’ve got,” Monarchs owner Bill Black told The Greensboro News & Record in December 1995. “You can’t judge this product in light of the old one. Fans who came out for what the old product offered – the fights and stuff like that – there’s not much here for them anymore. There was an element out there we were a little frustrated with. I thought they were running off some of our families, detracting from our ability to market to our clientele. Those were the ones who fought in the parking lot after the game.”
With an attendance of 6,400 per game the previous season, obviously not too many families had been “run off” by the ECHL brand of hockey; as it turned out, Greensboro supporters were quite fond of the “fights and stuff like that,” level of play be damned. Fans had also grown familiar with the ECHL Monarchs’ cast of characters: Brubaker had been the club’s coach since its inception in 1989, and with player development not stressed in the league, he could keep popular players on the roster for as long as they were productive.
Moreover, the club was helped by the ECHL’s smaller geographical footprint. With all of the Monarchs’ Southern Division opponents within a four-hour drive, travel expenses were low. Meanwhile, large contingents of visiting supporters were a frequent occurrence throughout the league, building rivalries even further.
The “new” Monarchs were now missing all of the ingredients that had made the previous club successful. Now just a phone call away from the NHL, Greensboro was a waiting room for players in hopes of a callup. Fans complained that the intensity was gone, and that the players were trying to not to get hurt, lest they jeopardize their NHL chances. The numbers didn’t lie: most of the rough stuff was gone. The Monarchs averaged 39.1 penalty minutes per game in their final ECHL season; after the jump to the AHL, it dipped to 23.2 minutes a game.
Furthermore, with hockey a niche sport in North Carolina, only a limited number of fans really took to the improvement in play. The “farm system” concept, which worked well for baseball (especially in North Carolina, with ten minor-league teams), didn’t translate to hockey. The number of fans who cared to see “prospects” was small, and the number of people who cared about the Florida Panthers, the Monarchs’ NHL parent club, was even smaller.
Finally, the rivalries had disappeared. Southern Division opponents from nearby Raleigh, Richmond or Charlotte each had their own colorful players whom Greensboro fans loved to jeer. Now, clubs from distant locales like Worcester, Massachusetts and Prince Edward Island came to town, and were largely composed of the same anonymous fringe NHLers who populated the Monarchs’ roster.
An end-of-season dive put Carolina in last place with a 28-38-1-3 record in the AHL’s version of a “Southern Division,” which also featured the Dixie strongholds of Binghamton, New York, and Hershey, Pennsylvania. The bulk of the goaltending duties were carried by Kevin Weekes, who was of no particular importance to Monarchs fans at the time, but would become better known to hockey fans in North Carolina several seasons later, spending two seasons as the NHL Carolina Hurricanes’ number-one goalie.
But the larger story was the club’s alarming drop in attendance of over 1,700 a game, to an average of 4,734. After the season, ownership continued to bemoan the fans failure to appreciate the higher level of play, as well as a perceived lack of sponsorship from area businesses (which never was thought to be a problem in the ECHL days):
“Obviously, the quality of the product is only part of the package. We failed to factor in that there were some people who came to games for the lesser aspects of hockey – the goonery. The other major disappointment is the lack of major corporate support,” Black griped to The News-Record after the season.
Through the rather downbeat season, there was one bright spot: the new team logo had been awarded The Hockey News’ top spot in their annual ranking of minor-league insignias, replacing the rather pedestrian sultan’s crown that had adorned the team’s jerseys during the ECHL days.
The Monarchs carried on through year two of the AHL experiment with equally lackluster results: another last-place finish and another drop in attendance, to 4,166 per game. The future of the club was now in question – the larger budget of the AHL was taking its toll on ownership, and with the demise of the Baltimore Bandits, the Monarchs’ closest opponent was now over 400 miles away, creating even higher travel expenses.
The uncertainty was answered by the NHL’s Hartford Whalers, who rather suddenly announced their relocation to North Carolina in the spring of 1997. With a new arena in Raleigh not due to open until 1999, the Whalers intended to use the Greensboro Coliseum as their home for two seasons. The Monarchs still held the lease at the Coliseum, and, knowing they had the upper hand, the AHL club refused to give it up without compensation. After the nameless NHL team looked at a few other unappealing possibilities (for a short time, the team seriously considered playing their home games at the 8,900-seat Crown Coliseum in Fayetteville, N.C.), the Whalers relented and paid the Monarchs $350,000 to step aside.
Monarchs management made a halfhearted attempt to revive the team through a public share offering after the Hurricanes departed for Raleigh, but the plan went nowhere. Instead, the ECHL returned to the Coliseum with the Greensboro Generals for the 1999-2000 season. But the old Monarchs magic was gone, and the club trudged through five poorly-attended seasons before calling it quits after the 2004 campaign.