The Louisville IceHawks were a minor league hockey outfit that played during the early years of the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL). The club served as a second-tier farm club of the Chicago Blackhawks and Hartford Whalers during its inaugural season of 1990-91 and later supported the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning (1992-1993) and Pittsburgh Penguins (1993-1994).
Serial hockey investor Horn Chen acquired the club from founder Leo Hunstiger in the early 1990′s and operated the IceHawks during their final seasons at Broadbent Arena. Chen shuttered the team following the 1993-94 season and the franchise went into inactive status for a year. In 1995, Chen reanimated the team as the Jacksonville Lizard Kings (1995-2000).
In 1995 the ECHL returned to Broadbent Arena after a year’s absence with the formation of the Louisville River Frogs, who lasted three seasons from 1995 through 1998.
The 2001-2006 Cleveland Barons of the American Hockey League represented the second revival of the classic “Barons” hockey brand in Cleveland. The original Barons played in the AHL from 1937 to 1973. When the NHL’s woeful California Golden Seals franchise moved to Ohio to play in the old Richfield Coliseum in 1976, they reclaimed the historic Barons name. But the club was a disaster and lasted just two seasons before financial insolvency forced the team to merge with the Minnesota North Stars in June 1978. To this day, the NHL Cleveland Barons remain the last franchise from North American Big Four professional sports leagues (MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL) to go out of business.
Pro hockey returned to Cleveland in 1992 with the arrival of the Cleveland Lumberjacks of the minor International Hockey League. The ‘Jacks enjoyed some good crowds in the mid-1990′s, but by the end of the decade the IHL was on the verge of collapse and Cleveland was one of the league’s trouble spots, drawing fewer than 3,000 fans per night at Gund Arena.
After the IHL and the Lumberjacks folded in the spring of 2001, the San Jose Sharks moved their Lexington, Kentucky AHL farm club to Gund Arena for the 2001-02 season. The Sharks brought back the old Barons identity, but the farm club used San Jose’s modern colors of teal and black.
Perhaps the Lumberjacks’ struggles soured the market on minor league hockey or maybe northeast Ohio fans just couldn’t get excited about the far away San Jose Sharks. The Barons also played very poorly, failing to make the Calder Cup playoffs in four of their five seasons. Whatever the problem, the modern day Barons failed to spark much interest in Cleveland. Through the club’s first four-and-a-half seasons at Gund Arena, attendance averaged only 3,716 per game according to The Silicon Valley Business Journal. The Sharks reportedly lost several million dollars on the Barons over the years. Midway through the 2005-06 season, San Jose management applied to the AHL to move the team to Worcester, Massachusetts for the 2006-07 season. The move was approved on January 9, 2006 and the Barons finished out the season as a lame duck team. The franchise lives on today as the Worcester Sharks.
The Worcester IceCats were a minor league hockey team that operated for 11 seasons in central Massachusetts. The founder of the IceCats was Roy Boe. Boe was an active sports investor during the 1970′s, at one point controlling both the New York/New Jersey Nets basketball team and the NHL’s New York Islanders. Never especially rich by the standards of Major League sports owners, Boe was forced to sell both teams in 1978 and sat on the sidelines during the 1980′s before re-emerging to form the IceCats in the spring of 1994.
Boe and his partners purchased the Springfield (MA) Indians of the American Hockey League and received approval from the AHL to move to Worcester in May 1994. Due to the late start organizing the team, the IceCats were unable to secure an NHL parent club for the 1994-95 season and were forced to play as an independent team, cobbling together a team of free agents and leftovers. No surprise they finished in last place. As of 2014, the 1994-95 IceCats remain the last AHL to play an independent season.
In 1995 the IceCats signed an affiliation agreement with the St. Louis Blues. For the next 10 seasons from 1995 through the club’s demise in 2005 Worcester would serve as St. Louis’ top farm club. During the 2000-01 season, Roy Boe sold the IceCats to the Blues, who operated the team directly for the next three seasons. In November 2004, the Blues sold the IceCats to the owners of one of their other farm teams, the Peoria (IL) Rivermen. The new owners announced that the IceCats would move to Peoria for the 2005-06 season in order to upgrade the Rivermen from their lower-level league to the AHL. The ‘Cats played out their final season in Worcester as lame ducks and played their final home game on April 17, 2005 before a farewell crowd of 10,211.
The IceCats made the AHL’s Calder Cup playoffs eight times in ten seasons, but never advanced beyond the 2nd Round.
After one winter without hockey, the AHL returned to Worcester in 2006 with the formation of the Worcester Sharks, who are now in their eighth season. The franchise formerly known as the IceCats also remains active. After eight seasons in Peoria, the team relocated to Utica, New York in 2013 and is now known as the Utica Comets.
The Beauce Jaros were a Quebec-based franchise in the North American Hockey League, the mid-1970′s minor league hockey loop that inspired the Paul Newman hockey comedy Slap Shot. The Jaros played at the tiny Palais Des Sports in the small city of Saint-Georges.
The Jaros player-coach was Jocelyn Hardy, who had a journeyman career in both the NHL and the World Hockey Association during the early 1970′s. Hardy was never a prolific scorer – his career high was 28 goals with New Haven of the Eastern League back in the 1966-67 season. But he went wild in Beauce, scoring 60 goals and adding a ridiculous 148 assists in 72 games during the 1975-76 season. Hardy won the NAHL’s MVP award that year and became the first pro hockey player to score 200 points in a season, six years before Wayne Gretzky accomplished the feat in the NHL.
The 1975-76 Jaros were a juggernaut, featuring four players who scored more than 60 goals. Hardy (208 pts.), Richard Grenier (160 pts.), Luc Simard (149 pts.) and Alain Caron (137 pts.) were the top four scorers in the league. Beauce had the best record in the league at 54-18-2 but were upset in the Lockhart Cup championship series by the Philadelphia Firebirds in six games.
The following year was a different story. Grenier, Simard and Caron departed. Through 30 games, the Jaros were the worst team in the league at 6-22-2. Attendance was poor in Saint-Georges and by December 1976 Beauce owner Andre Veilleux had lost a reported $300,000 on the team. On December 22, 1976 the Jaros failed to show upand forfeited a home game against the Mohawk Valley Comets. Veilleux announced the same night that he was folding his club.
The PHL debuted the year before as a sort of minor league offshoot of the World Hockey Association, a 1970′s rival to the National Hockey League. The WHA had flamed out in several Western cities, including San Diego and Phoenix. The PHL’s first season in 1977-78 featured only four teams, including the San Diego Mariners and the Phoenix Roadrunners, both of whom revived their WHA-era team names and logos. The Mariners were owned by San Diego Sports Arena owner Peter Graham.
In the summer of 1978 Graham sold the Mariners to Pittsburgh real estate developer Elmer Jonnet. Jonnet changed the team’s name to the San Diego Hawks and opened up his wallet to sign a roster full of World Hockey Association veterans. The Hawks also featured 42-year old San Diego hockey icon Willie O’Ree, who was a mainstay for the San Diego Gulls of the Western League from 1967 to 1974. Way back in 1958, O’Ree was the first black player to play in the NHL when he played in two games for the Boston Bruins, but he spent most of the next two decades in the minors. This was his final season and he played well, scoring 21 goals and adding 25 assists for the Hawks.
The Pacific Hockey League entered the 1978-79 season with six franchises but quickly lost two when the Los Angeles Blades and San Francisco Shamrocks dropped out of the league in January. The surviving teams weren’t in much better shape and the league cancelled the playoffs due to financial problems and declared first place Phoenix to be the league champion. The Hawks finished second with a 34-22-2 record.
26-year old center Joe Noris, a former NHL journeyman who also played for the WHA’s San Diego Mariners, led the Pacific League in scoring with 27 and 77 assists and was named Most Valuable Player. He never played another professional season. Noris would wage a protracted legal battle against former Hawks owner Elmer Jonnet for much of the 1980′s attempting to collect on the balance of the three-year playing contract and personal services agreement he signed with the developer in 1978. The litigation became as much of a circus as the Pacific League was itself, with Noris scoring a judgement against Jonnet’s Pittsburgh home and the beleaguered owner attempting to forestall payment by pleading that his attorney was a hopeless drunk and that the court discriminated against him on account of his Native American heritage.
The Pacific Hockey League folded in the spring of 1979, taking the Hawks with it.