Hockey’s Colorado Rockies were a star-crossed NHL franchise that spent most of their six seasons in Denver attempting to move elsewhere. The Rockies began life in 1974 as the Kansas City Scouts, a poorly vetted NHL expansion effort. After two disastrous seasons in K.C., the destitute Scouts were purchased by Colorado oilman Jack Vickers in the summer of 1976. Vickers immediately moved the team to Denver’s McNichols Arena for the 1976-77 NHL season.
Denver trudged a long, weird path to make it into the National Hockey League. During the late 1960’s and early 70’s, the city enjoyed the minor league Denver Spurs, who played at the Denver Coliseum. In 1972, the World Hockey Association formed and fired a shot across the NHL’s bow by signing Chicago Blackhawks star Bobby Hull to an historic $1 million contract. Further raids on NHL rosters followed and the warring leagues soon began fighting over expansion cities. Denver was attractive to both leagues, especially with the brand new 16,000-seat McNichols Arena due to open in 1975.
In 1974, Spurs owner Ivan Mullenix landed conditional approval for an NHL expansion club to begin play in the fall of 1976. But with McNichols Arena ready for 1975, Mullenix pushed to get into the NHL a year earlier. The plan called for Mullenix to acquire one of the NHL’s basket case franchises of the era – either the California Golden Seals or the Pittsburgh Penguins. But those maneuvers collapsed in early 1975 and with the Spurs’ future in the NHL looking shaky, Mullenix abruptly joined the rival World Hockey Association instead that spring. Denver fans, promised NHL for more than a year, were displeased with the bait and switch. They stayed away in droves and the Spurs only lasted three months in the WHA before bolting town midway through the 1975-76 season.
This was the landscape that Vickers inherited when NHL hockey finally arrived in Denver in the autumn of 1976. “Rocky Hockey” could have been a coronation after years of struggle. Instead, it was just Act II of the perverse soap opera that was Colorado hockey during the Me Decade. For starters, the Rockies were consistently terrible. The team had seven head coaches in six seasons and in their best season finished 23 games below .500. The Rockies never won a playoff game in their brief lifespan.
By the spring of 1978, Vickers had lost somewhere between $4.5 and $6 million on the Rockies and was fed up with the lease at McNichols Arena. The Rockies nearly move to Houston in June 1978, but instead Vickers sold the team later that summer to New Jersey trucking baron Arthur Imperatore. Imperatore was clear about his ambition to move the Rockies to New Jersey to play in the new Brendan Byrne Arena in East Rutherford but the new building wouldn’t be ready until 1981. The Rockies would stay in Denver another four years, but they always had the feel of short-timers.
During the second year of Imperatore’s ownership, in 1979-80, the Rockies made their two biggest acquisitions. First, they hired the colorful former Boston Bruins chieftain Don Cherryand made him the highest paid coach in the National Hockey League. And midway through the season, they traded one of their top players, Wilf Paiement, to the miserly Toronto Maple Leafs for future Hall-of-Famer Lanny McDonald. Cherry was a fan favorite in Colorado and McDonald quickly established himself as the Rockies’ top scoring threat.
But as usual the club’s chronic instability rapidly undermined any sense of excitement or momentum. The Rockies finished in last place (19-48-13) under Cherry, while the coach clashed all season long with General Manager Ray Miron. Cherry was fired at the end of the season (no Rockies coach ever lasted longer than one season). McDonald was traded to Calgary in 1981 after playing just one full season for Colorado. And Imperatore gave up on the NHL and sold the club to Buffalo cable TV entrepreneur Peter Gilbert in late 1980, the team’s third owner in four years.
By the spring of 1982, the Brendan Byrne Arena was open for business in the swamps of northern New Jersey. Peter Gilbert sold the team yet again, this time to Houston Astros owner John McMullen. McMullen pulled off the complex maneuver that had eluded Arthur Imperatore, paying off the New York Islanders, New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers to gain the NHL’s blessing to move to New Jersey in May 1982.
Postscript: Don Cherry never coached again in the NHL after being dismissed by the Rockies in the spring of 1980. But he became a Canadian icon as the between-periods host of “Coaches Corner” on CBC’s Hockey Night In Canada NHL broadcasts. In 2004, Cherry was voted the “7th Greatest Canadian” in a CBC poll.
The NHL returned to Denver in 1995 when the Quebec Nordiques relocated to the Mile High City and became the Colorado Avalanche.
==Colorado Rockies Programs on Fun While It Lasted==
The Newmarket Saints were the top farm club of the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs during the late 1980’s. The team was owned directly by Maple Leaf Gardens Limited during the last dark years of the Harold Ballard era.
The club played at the tiny 3,000-seater Ray Twinney Complex in Northern Ontario. A year after Ballard’s death in 1990, the Maple Leafs moved the club to St. John’s, Newfoundland. Since the Saint’s departure, pro hockey has never returned to Newmarket and the Complex now plays host to junior hockey.
1990’s minor league outfit that was one of countless iterations of the “Phoenix Roadrunners” hockey brand to set up shop in the Arizona city. This 1989 re-boot was named in tribute to the original Roadrunners of the Western Hockey League and the World Hockey Association, who played from 1967 to 1977. Like previous versions of the ‘Runners, the team played at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
The team enjoyed a reasonably long and stable run under the ownership of Alberta businessman Lyle Abraham from 1989 until 1996. But the 1996 relocation of the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets to Phoenix complicated matters. Adding to that, proposals were afloat to close down the 30-year old Coliseum, which hosted little else besides IHL hockey in the mid-90’s.
Surprisingly, the team didn’t fold or relocate immediately, but competed head-to-head with the NHL for one final season in the winter of 1996-97. But it did so without Abraham, who leased the team to a group called the Arizona Sports & Entertainment Group (ASEG), whose main financial backer was the Ak-Chin Indian Community. ASEG also struck a new lease to keep the Coliseum open and control its operations. However, the 1996-97 season was saw steep financial losses for the team and the Ak-Chin Community cancelled its financial support. The Roadrunners folded in the spring of 1997 a few days after the conclusion of their eighth season in the IHL.
The Roadrunners brand name was re-animated for a third time in 2005 for Phoenix’s new franchise in the ECHL. Those Roadrunners lasted four seasons, shutting down in 2009. But it’s only a matter of time until someone tries again…
==Phoenix Roadrunners Games on Fun While It Lasted==
The Atlanta Knights were a minor league hockey franchise that played at the Omni Coliseum from 1992 through 1996. The arrival of the Knights marked the return of pro hockey to Atlanta for the first time since 1980, when the NHL’s Atlanta Flames departed for Calgary.
The Knights served as the top farm club to the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning, who also entered their inaugural season in the fall of 1992. Atlanta would end up benefitting from the stunt casting undertaken by Lightning President & GM Phil Esposito as he stocked Tampa’s roster with an apparent eye towards selling tickets. Esposito expended a 3rd round draft pick on Wayne Gretzky’s younger brother Brent, who would spend most of the next three season with the Knights.
Esposito also signed 20-year old female goaltender Manon Rheaume and played her in a September 1992 NHL exhibition game against the St. Louis Blues. The move generated huge notoriety for Rheaume, which carried over when Tampa assigned her to Atlanta for the regular season. The day after the Knights played their inaugural home game at the Omni on October 17, 1992, the New York Times ran a lengthy profile on Rheaume by George Vecsey. The International Hockey League didn’t earn too many write-ups in The Times.
What wasn’t immediately clear was whether Reaume would ever get to play. The Knights were embarrassed early in the 1992-93 season by press reports that the team circulated a memo to other IHL clubs, offering to bring Reaume on the road only if the home team reimbursed her expenses. The implication was that Rheaume was a promotional attraction like the San Diego Chicken or Krazy George. The Knights denied the report.
On December 19, 1992, Head Coach Gene Ubriaco inserted Rheaume into a game against the Salt Lake Golden Eagles at the Omni in relief of starter David Littman. Rheaume saved two of three shots and became the first female player to play in a professional hockey game in North America.
Rheaume aside, the Knights had an outstanding club in 1992-93. Gretzky was solid in his rookie pro season (20 goals, 34 assists). Atlanta’s oldest player was 31-year old minor league legend Jock Callander (34 goals, 50 assists). Callander would go on to become the all-time leading scorer in the IHL’s six decade life span. Leading scorer Keith Osborne (40 goals, 49 assists) was a career minor-leaguer who never had another season close to this good. The goaltending tandem of Littman (23-12-4) and Jean-Claude Bergeron (21-7-1) was among the best in the IHL.
By April 1993, the Knights had the IHL’s Atlantic Division clinched. The expansion club would finish with the 2nd best record in the league at 52-23-7. On April 10, 1993, the final weekend of the regular season, Gene Ubriaco started Manon Rheaume in net against the Cincinnati Cyclones. It was Rheaume’s first appearance since her brief 5-minute relief stint back in December. A sell-out crowd of 15,127 showed up at the Omni to cheer her on. Rheaume knocked away 11 of 12 shots in the 1st period, but wore down in the 2nd and allowed six goals in an 8-6 loss. Rheaume never skated for the Knights again, but played sporadically for many other men’s pro teams during the 1990’s and won an Olympic silver medal with Canada’s women’s team at the Nagano Olympics in 1998.
The Knights’ debut season came to an end with a 4-0 series sweep loss to the Fort Wayne Komets in the 1993 Turner Cup semi-finals.
Although leading scorers Keith Osborne and Jock Callander did not return in 1993, the Knights remained one of the IHL’s best clubs in their second season. Stan Drulia more than filled the scoring void (54 goals, 60 assists). Newcomers Steve Larouche (43 goals) and Jeff Madill (42 goals) also had big campaigns.
With 17 games left in the regular season, Gene Ubriaco left the Knights to join the Tampa Bay Lightning scouting department. The Knights made history again with his replacement, John Paris Jr. Knights ownership had already hired Paris to coach the Atlanta Fire Ants, a new professional roller hockey team set to play at the Omni in the summer of 1994. When Ubriaco departed, Paris was asked to take over the Knights for the rest of the IHL season as well. Paris thus became the first African-American head coach of a North American pro hockey team. Under Paris, the Knights won their division again and went on a terrific run through the playoffs. On May 25, 1994, the defeated the Fort Wayne Komets at the Omni to win the Turner Cup (see video below).
The 1994 Turner Cup victory was the high water mark for the Knights franchise. With the imminent demolition of the Omni in 1997 and Atlanta’s effort to attract an NHL expansion club with the construction of Phillips Arena, the Knights’ future grew murky. In May 1996, after four seasons in Atlanta, team owners Richard Adler and David Berkman shifted the franchise to Quebec City to replace the NHL’s departing Quebec Nordiques at Le Colisee. The move proved to be an unhappy one. Renamed the Quebec Rafales, the club lasted only two years before going out of business in 1998. The IHL closed down after 56 seasons in 2001.