Lively Tales About Dead Teams

June 28, 1995 – Orlando Rollergators vs. Detroit Motor City Mustangs

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Orlando Rollergators vs. Detroit Motor City Mustangs
June 28, 1995
Orlando Arena
Roller Hockey International Programs

Kooky sport.  Bad market.  Dumb name.  Late start.  Out of state owners.  Check, check, check, check and…check.  The Orlando Rollergators of Roller Hockey International reside securely in our One-Year Wonders file of ill-conceived and unlamented minor league teams.

RHI was an effort to capitalize on the 1990′s in-line skating craze.  RHI played in big arenas during the summer time, with rosters primarily composed of minor league ice hockey players moonlighting during their off season.  Former Montreal Canadiens star Ralph Backstrom was the league’s front man and helped convince well-heeled NBA investors like Jerry Buss and Howard Baldwin to purchase franchises.  Other clubs were run more like mom-and-pops as was the case with the Orlando Rollergators, who were owned by the New Jersey Devils’ team orthopedist, Dr. Richard Commentucci.  Devils star and future Hockey Hall-of-Famer Slava Fetisov also held a minority stake in the Rollergators.

The Rollergators set up shop in Orlando in late March 1995, barely two months the start of the RHI season.  Central Florida is a notorious graveyard for goofy start-up sports leagues.  One notable exception was the Orlando Predators of the Arena Football League, a wildly popular club during the 1990′s which routinely sold out the Orlando Arena.  Orlando wasn’t big enough for two made-for-cable Frankensports and the fans voted with their pocketbooks: they preferred the Preds.  So did the managers of the Orlando Arena, who sensibly gave the Predators the prime weekend dates and gave the Rollergators the leftover garbage: a bunch of Monday and Wednesday nights.  Commentucci and Fetisov neglecting to spend any money introducing their unfamiliar product didn’t help.

Long-time NHL winger Walt Poddubny was the Rollergators coach and, at age 35, occasionally strapped on the in-line skates as well.

This June 28th game was a typically lonely night of pro roller hockey at the O-Rena.  The ‘Gators played the Detroit Motor City Mustangs, another of RHI’s one-season-and-done entries.  1,121 lonely souls (announced) showed up on a Wednesday night.  In ten home games in 1995, the Rollergators never cracked 2,000 fans in the 13,000-seat building.  The Rollergators beat the Mustangs 7-3 on this evening, but that was a rarity.  The club finished the season dead last in the Eastern Confernece at 7-16.

Commentucci, Fetisov and fellow partner Igor Maller flew in for a late season match at the O-Rena in July.  Peering out at the announced crowd of 1,082, Fetisov gave an upbeat assessment to The Orlando Sentinel:

“We’ve come to stay,” said Fetisov.  “We’re not coming for one season and then run away.  We’re ready for this.”

The Rollergators played their final game two weeks later.

##

The Rollergators were gone but RHI, improbably, returned to Orlando the following summer.  New owner Norton Herrick had real money, unlike the ‘Gator guys.  The real estate mogul previously tried to bring Major League Baseball to Orlando and was a rumored suitor for the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers at one point in the 1990′s.  In addition to launching the Orlando Jackals franchise in 1996, Herrick bought 25% of RHI itself.  He sunk millions into the promotion of the roller hockey and the Jackals and won the league’s Murphy Cup championship in his first season of 1996.  The sport was still a loser on the balance sheet, however.  For his passion and largesse, Herrick lost a reported $4 million on the Jackals over two seasons from 1996 to 1997.

RHI itself shutdown at the end of 1997, returned briefly (and invisibly) in 1999, and was gone for good by the turn of the century.

Most of the principals of the Rollergators have now passed away. Owner Richard Commentucci passed at age 71 in 2011.  Head Coach Walt Poddubny died suddenly of a heart attack in 2009.  He was only 49.

Downloads:

Orlando Rollergators sources

 

Written by andycrossley

August 30th, 2012 at 2:16 am

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  1. Alright, I’m going to tell you all a story, that I know I will get called out on…but my friends it is absolutely true, and if any of you know me, then you’ll believe me as I write this post…

    Back in 1993-94 I operated a small Double “A” minor league basketball team in Allentown, Pennsylvania – the 2nd incarnation of the Allentown Jets. This was at the time when basketball only had one minor league…the Continental Basketball Association or CBA and the Atlantic Basketball Association (ABA) was a great weekend minor league with six teams, four in Pennsylvania, one in Maryland and one in Delaware.

    I had been with the ABA pretty much since its inception and had acted as the league’s original Deputy Commissioner for the year before the games started. I was personally responsible, along with league president George Daniel (who is now the Commissioner for the National Lacrosse League) for recruiting three of the teams into the league (Pottsville, Scranton and Frederick, MD) as well as keeping my own team Allentown in the right direction. Not knowing too much about professional basketball, I began researching the original Jets and the league they played in, the Eastern Basketball Alliance (which reformed into the CBA in 1978). That led me into borrowing and then later purchasing a copy of Terry Pluto’s great book “Loose Balls” about the American Basketball Association. I loved that book and I loved the characters involved in it.

    Our year in Allentown was both joyous and sad. We drew great crowds (averaging around 2,500 patrons) for the first few games, and then the winter of 1994 came and destroyed us. Games were postponed, cancelled, or worse – played before small crowds who dared to come out in the bad weather. The team, while not quite on a shoestring budget, still didn’t have deep pockets to start with, so things began to get financially tough for the team.

    While looking for investors I had remembered that I had spoken to Dennis Murphy – thee Dennis Murphy, the original founder of the ABA to fill him in on our project and see if I could pick his brain from time to time. During one of our conversations he told me that a bunch of the guys he had dealt with from the ABA were in a new venture of his – Roller Hockey International, including George Mikan who was going to own the Chicago team! He said that even though he was busy with the RHI I could call him from time to time to talk. From that point on Dennis and I spoke about three times.

    During the near end of the season when money was getting tougher and tougher, I arranged to have a conference call with one of the owners of the team Mark Suter, our GM and Head Coach Billy Avant and myself with Dennis. He told us to call at 4 PM his time (which was 8 PM our time). We explained our problems trying to obtain investors and what direction did he think we should go. We were really seeing if he knew a deep pocket that might throw a few bucks our way. He gave us his opinions and thoughts, but not knowing the situation personally in Allentown he really couldn’t help us. Then near the end of our two-hour conversation he asked if we had heard of the RHI. I said I had, and I knew that the league was going into the second season. He wanted to know if we wanted to own a team in Allentown, PA for the 1995 season. I explained that even though I thought our market would be perfect for a RHI team, there just wasn’t an arena for the team to play in. Then he mentioned that he was looking for an investor to play in Orlando at the Orlando Arena and asked if we wanted to try to put a group together. I explained that even though the offer was tempting, our organization was in such disarray that I didn’t know the right people to put up that kind of money for the team. He understood and wished us luck and then before we hung up I said to him – half kiddingly, you know what you should call the team in Orlando, he remained silent while I gave him the name, the Roller Gators – you know like roller skaters, but Roller Gators, that would have a great logo to go with it (which they didn’t). He chuckled, “Roller Gators, that’s kinda funny. I like that, we might just use that,” and with that our conversation finished and we hung up. Less than 20 seconds later, Billy Avant looks at me and goes “Roller Gators, are you kidding me.” The Allentown Jets would eventually folded three months later in the summer, with only a few “tire kickers” looking to purchase the team.

    About a year later, my phone rings and it’s Billy calling from his home in Willingboro, NJ. “You are not going to believe what I just read,” he says. “What’s that Coach?” I asked. He replies, “The new roller hockey team that’s going to play in Orlando is going to be called the Roller Gators – can you believe that…the f***ing Roller Gators! You should sue for naming rights,” as he laughed.

    So point blank blame me for the f***ing Roller Gators. They changed the name the next year, but to me it they should have kept it, because it was original.

    That’s the story and it’s all true.

    Just an aside; that was the last time I spoke to Dennis Muphy. Mark Suter and I are still friends, in fact we even had lunch together today, the day I’m writing this – we were even the Best Man at both of our weddings and Billy was a groomsman for both of us. My good friend and brother Coach William Avant died in 2008, the weekend I was away at a reunion for a baseball team that I worked for. Billy taught me one lesson in life that I share with you… “If it don’t make dollars, it don’t make cents (sense).” And as for me, well after almost 20 years of being out of minor league sports, the siren song has be calling me back – I’ve dabbled a little in independent league hockey, and this past summer I was the GM of a minor league football team here in Allentown and now I’m talking with a basketball league to do some consulting and recruiting for new teams. But think about it for a second; that could have been my team: THEE ORLANDO ROLLER GATORS!

    David Ziegenfuss

    31 Aug 12 at 4:20 am

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