International Hockey League (1992-2001)
Born: 1992 – The Muskegon Lumberjacks relocate to Cleveland, OH.
Died: May 23, 2001 – The IHL terminates the Lumberjacks franchise.
- Black, Gold & White (1994-95)
- 1992-2000: Larry Gordon
- 2000-2001: Hank Kassigkeit
- Feb. 2001 – May 2001: International Hockey League
The Cleveland Lumberjacks hockey team traced their history all the way back to the formation of the Muskegon Zephyrs of the International Hockey League in 1960. The franchise spent most of its existence in Muskegon, going through two name changes over the decades. A turning point in the team’s fortunes came in 1984, when former Edmonton Oilers executive Larry Gordon purchased the financially troubled team (then known as the Muskegon Mohawks) for $1.00.
Gordon renamed the team the Muskegon Lumberjacks and built his club into the dominant IHL franchise of the 1980’s. In eight seasons between 1984 and 1992, Gordon’s Lumberjacks appeared in the IHL championship series six times, winning the Turner Cup in 1986 and 1989.
In the early 1990’s, the IHL began to attract wealthier investors and took move beyond its upper Midwest roots. Cities like Muskegon and Port Huron were left behind as the league expanded into cities such as Las Vegas, Atlanta and Orlando. Expansion fees rose to $6.0 million dollars by 1994, a decade after Gordon had paid one dollar for his club. In keeping with the trend, Gordon uprooted his Lumberjacks out of Muskegon in the summer of 1992 and move to Cleveland, where the new 20,000-seat Gund Arena was set to open in 1994. (In the meantime, the ‘Jacks would play in the old suburban Richfield Coliseum, the former home of the NHL’s Cleveland Barons and WHA’s Cleveland Crusaders of the 1970’s).
The Lumberjacks’ days as an IHL dynasty ended when the team left Muskegon. They never again appeared in a Turner Cup finals series. But the team did feature some outstanding players, including two of the most prolific scorers in minor league hockey history – Jock Callander and Dave Michayluk, who both moved with the team from Muskegon. The Lumberjacks also helped develop Russian goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, who spent part of the 1999-00 season in Cleveland before embarking on a decade-long career with the NHL’s San Jose Sharks.
The IHL boom of the early 1990’s turned out to be a speculative bubble. By the latter half of the decade, the 50-year old league was shedding franchises at an alarming rate. The costs of seven-figure payrolls, cross-continental air travel and unfavorable leases at massive big city arenas were killing the league. The Lumberjacks managed to hang in, but they had one of the worst leases in the league at Gund Arena, paying $10,000 per game with no participating in parking or concessions revenue. By 2000, the club was reportedly more than $2 million in debt and on the verge of financial collapse. Crowds, which occasionally topped 10,000 in the mid-1990’s, were down to only 2,700 paid per game in 1999-00, according to a 2001 expose by Cleveland Scene magazine.
On the eve of the 2000-01 season opener, Gordon sold the ‘Jacks to Hank Kassigkeit for $1.8 million and retired to Mexico. Kassigkeit fancied himself as a turnaround specialist, but rapidly grew disenchanted as the money pit opened beneath him early in the 2000-01 campaign. By the end of January 2001, after just four months of ownership, Kassigkeit was out a reported million bucks. He threatened to fold the team immediately without completing the season. The IHL sued Kassigkeit on January 30, 2001 for breach of contract. Ultimately, the IHL and the NHL’s Minnesota Wild – parent club of the ‘Jacks – took over the franchise from Kassigkeit and let it finish out the season as a ward of the league.
The IHL terminated the franchise on May 23, 2001 after more than 40 years of play. The league itself followed a few weeks later.
Pro hockey returned to Cleveland and Gund Arena the very next fall with the Cleveland Barons of the American Hockey League.
- Jock Callander
- Dave Michayluk
- Evgeni Nabokov
Former Lumberjacks owner Larry Gordon died on March 19, 2013 at age 74.
Lumberjacks vs. Atlanta Knights at the Richfield Coliseum, 1992.
Lumberjacks vs. Orlando Solar Bears at Gund Arena, April 1998. 2nd Round of IHL Turner Cup Playoffs.
February 2001 Cleveland Scene article on the financial collapse of the Lumberjacks.