Roanoke area was a longtime stronghold of hockey in the South, hosting a pro team in every winter but one between 1967 and 2004. The various club played in a succession of lower-level leagues – the Eastern League, the Southern League, the Atlantic Coast League and so on. For most of this history, pro hockey bounced between the region’s two conventional arenas: the Roanoke Civic Center and the Salem Civic Center.
But for a brief period from 1988 to 1993 a trio of short-lived teams made their home in a peculiar building called the LancerLot Sports Arena. My Dad and I went to one Rebels game at the LancerLot when I was a kid. It was a utilitarian 3,000-seat barn and it had an exercise facility attached. I remember that you could see people jogging on treadmills as the game went on. It was an incredibly strange setting.
After the Atlantic Coast Hockey League’s Virginia Raiders folded at the end of the 1982-83 campaign, the Southwest Virginia region started the fall of 1983 without pro hockey. However, in the middle of the 1983-84 season, Roanoke oilman Henry Brabham purchased the Nashville South Stars franchise and moved them in mid-season back to the Salem Civic Center. Brabham renamed the team the Virginia Lancers after his “Lancer Mart” chain of convenience stores in the area.
After the season, Brabham built the LancerLot in neighboring Vinton. The Lancers moved in for the 1984-85 campaign. The ACHL soldiered on for the next few seasons, with stronger clubs in places like Utica, Erie and Winston-Salem (NC) joined by an assortment of oddball franchises, such as the Pinebridge Bucks of tiny Spruce Pine, NC (population 2,100) and the New York Slapshots, who meandered from arena to arena before becoming a road-only team.
After a couple of forgettable campaigns on the ice, the Lancers put things together in 1986-87, assembling a 36-19-3 record and capturing the ACHL championship. The team was coached by John Tortorella, now better known for winning the 2004 Stanley Cup as Head Coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning and for his amusingly curt post-game press conferences as the current Head Coach of the New York Rangers.
The strain from years of barely getting by finally sunk the ACHL in 1987. The Slapshots folded five games into the 1986-87 season and Mohawk Valley (Utica) called it a day after the season. Erie refused to continue in a three-team league. That left the Lancers and the Carolina Thunderbirds scrambling to find some sort of a league, or at least some opponents, for the 1987-88 campaign. With few options, the two teams hooked on with the All-American Hockey League, a frail Midwestern loop. Tortorella’s Lancers obliterated their inferior competition, going 37-5-1 and outscoring AAHL opponents 321-129 that winter.
Brabham and Carolina owner Bill Coffey spent the following offseason trying to put together a new league for their franchises, which now numbered three, as Brabham entered a Johnstown, Pennsylvania club into the AAHL in January 1988. After securing arena leases in Erie and Knoxville, Tennessee as well, the East Coast Hockey League was born in 1988.
A stronger league was bad news for the Lancers, who finished last in the ECHL at 22-30-8 in 1988-89. After the season, Brabham sold the Lancers to Richard Geery, a businessman from New York City. In 1989-90, the Lancers had a stronger finish, third in the now eight-team ECHL at 36-18-6, but brought up the rear in attendance, finishing at 1,754 per game. Near the season’s end, Geery announced that there was a “pretty good chance” he would move the team out of Vinton. But concrete plans for relocation were never revealed and Geery just sort of wandered off, abandoning the club and leaving behind debts of $28,000 to Brabham (who still owned the arena), the league, and various businesses in town.
The ECHL revoked the Lancers membership in June 1990. Shortly thereafter Brabham purchased an expansion franchise for the LancerLot for the 1990-91 season. Borrowing the name and logo from a popular local club of the 1970′s, the team was re-branded the “Roanoke Valley Rebels“. Recycling names of past teams is certainly nothing new in pro sports, but in this case it was a bit tone-dead on Brabham’s part. Using Confederate iconography may have been slightly more acceptable in the early 1970′s, but by 1990 the “Rebels” name and rather weird logo (the Stars and Bars overlaid on a maple leaf) came across as insensitive and backward.
The Rebels lasted for two seasons, dithering around near the bottom of the standings while averaging 1,566 per game in 1990-91 and 2,054 in 1991-92. By the spring of 1992, Brabham had had enough and announced he would either sell or fold the team. He eventually found a buyer in Larry Revo, a fellow who had been in and out of minor league baseball ownership during the 1980′s.
Revo paid $250,000 for the Rebels, renamed the team the Roanoke Valley Rampage, and gave the usual owner-speak about being in it for the long haul. Revo told The Roanoke Times:
“It doesn’t seem to me if I only wanted to be here a year that I’d have three full-time people and two interns working 12 months a year, which we will have. If I intended to only stay a year, I’d come in, run it as cheaply as I could, minimize my losses, then leave.”
But the realities of the fast-growing ECHL caught up with the Rampage and it was difficult to attract quality players to skate in front of small crowds at the spartan LancerLot while cross-state rival Hampton Roads averaged nearly 8,000 fans per game at the Norfolk Scope. The Rampage put together a dreadful season, going 14-49-1, and set league records for futility that stills stand, including fewest points (29), fewest road wins (2) and longest road winless streak (26 games). Attendance plummeted to 1,491 per game.
The Rampage’s home schedule came to a fitting conclusion on March 13, 1993 during the Blizzard of ’93. 40 MPH winds battered the LancerLot while inside a crowd of 63 paying customers (according to The Baltimore Sun) watched the Rampage play their final home game against the Richmond Renegades. With Roanoke Valley down 6-2 in the second period, officials stopped the game when the arena roof began to buckle under 16 inches of snow. Players, staff and fans rushed to vacate the arena. The roof collapsed four hours later.
The Rampage had one road game left at Hampton Roads to finish out the season. The team’s gear was buried in the rubble, so the 11 remaining players borrowed jerseys and equipment from area recreational leagues. They lost 9-4 in Norfolk on March 16, 1993.
Larry Revo moved the franchise to Alabama in 1993 where the team became the Huntsville Blast. He sold the club shortly thereafter. The ECHL granted an expansion franchise to begin play at a proper hockey venue, the 8,600-seat Roanaoke Civic Center, in the fall of 1993. The Roanoke Express lasted eleven seasons in the ECHL and enjoyed a period of strong popularity in the mid-1990′s, but they are a story for another day.
The LancerLot still stands in Vinton, Virginia today and is home to a health club.