Charles O. Finley purchased the Columbus, Ohio franchise in the International Hockey League on May 11, 1971 for a fee of $50,000. The Columbus Golden Seals would serve as a farm club for Finley’s California Golden Seals NHL franchise. This would be the Midwest-based IHL’s second go around in Columbus, following the Columbus Checkers (1966-1970), who had ceased operations one year earlier.
Loaded with raw young players by their California parent club, the Seals won only once in the first 25 games, at one point enduring a 21-game winless streak. Columbus hockey fans responded accordingly, with only one 1971 Golden Seals game attracting an announced crowd of over 2,000 fans and several drawing less than 1,000 spectators. The Golden Seals finished the 1971-72 campaign with a league-worst record of 15-55-2. Incredibly, the 1972-73 Golden Seals were worse, finishing 10-62-2 while opponents outscored them 393-177.
The spring and summer of 1973 saw Finley attempting to divest himself of many of his money-losing sports properties, including the NHL Golden Seals and the Memphis Tams of the American Basketball Association. Finley sold his IHL franchise to Indianapolis-based mortgage banker Al Savill on April 18, 1973. Savill had owned the minor league Indianapolis Capitols of the Continental Football League in the late 1960’s and gained minor notoriety in 1969 when he offered Heisman Trophy winner O.J. Simpson a $400,000 contract to play for the Caps while the rookie running back reached a salary impasse with the American Football League’s Buffalo Bills.
Savill renamed his club the Columbus Owls for the 1973-74 IHL season. Freed of the dregs of the California Golden Seals farm system, the Owls signed an affiliation agreement with the St. Louis Blues and put together a competitive team that finished 40-34-2, good for second place and a playoff appearance. Remarkably, the turn around occurred under the same Head Coach – Moe Bartoli – who had suffered through the previous year’s 10-62-2 nightmare. Bartoli was the face of hockey in Columbus, having also served as a player/coach for the Checkers in the late 1960’s.
In July 1975, Savill purchased the Pittsburgh Penguins out of receivership for a reported $3.8 million. Reportedly, the sale germinated from a casual conversation between Savill and Marc Boileau, the Penguins Head Coach who came to know Savill during his days as an IHL coach. Savill and his partner Otto Frenzel would own the Penguins for only three years, losing a considerably sum of money in the process. But their purchase of the club in the summer of 1975 at a time when the IRS has padlocked the doors of the team offices likely saved NHL hockey for Pittsburgh.
Towards the end of the 1975-76 season, Savill asked the IHL Board of Directors for permission to move the Owls to Grand Rapids, Michigan. Savill cited tepid attendance as the franchise’s main problem, noting that the club averaged only 2,568 fans per game at the 5,000-seat Fairgrounds Coliseum through 38 games of the 1975-76 schedule. He pegged financial losses at approximately $100,000 per year during his first two seasons owning the Owls and expected to exceed that number for the 1975-76 campaign. However, in June 1976, Savill announced that the Owls would stay put in Columbus for one more season.
Attendance was just one challenge the Owls faced in Columbus. The other was the building itself. The Owls’ Fairgrounds Coliseum lease de-prioritized the team in the spring, meaning the team frequently had to host playoff games in Troy, Ohio. During the bitterly cold winter of 1977, the United States faced a severe natural gas shortage that closed 4,000 factories and idled over 400,000 workers. The Midwestern industrial communities that played host to the IHL were especially hard hit. In January 1977 the Fairgrounds Coliseum nearly expended its natural gas allotment for the winter, prompting Owls general manager Moe Bartoli – now bumped from the bench to the front office – to ponder cancellation of the remainder of the season.
In June 1977, Savill announced he would not return to Columbus for the 1977-78 season, citing an inability to secure home playoff dates at the Coliseum after March 20th, 1978. In August 1977, the IHL approved plans for Savill to move the club to Indianapolis. However, prior to the start of the 1977-78 IHL season in October, Savill instead moved the Owls to Hara Arena in Dayton, Ohio. The Owls arrived in Dayton on the heels of the Dayton Gems, who had shut down operations over the summer after suffering their own problems with declining attendance in the mid-seventies.
In early December 1977, with the season barely 20 games old, the Owls announced plans to either disband or relocate the team immediately. The Owls averaged only 1,500 per games at Hara Arena and Savill expected to lose close to $300,000 if he remained in Dayton for the remainder of the season. The IHL quickly convened and approved a mid-season move to Grand Rapids, Savill’s original preference of 18 months earlier.
Although the Owls unhappy stay in Dayton lasted less than two months, they stuck around long enough to play a role in a classic piece of 1970’s hockey goonism that seemed straight out of the hockey classic Slap Shot, released in theatres the same year. During an October 29, 1977 game against the Port Huron Flags, Owls enforcer Willie Trognitz swung his stick into the skull of Flags player Archie Henderson during a bench clearing brawl, putting Henderson in the hospital.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have hit him with my stick, but I was too tired to fight,” Trognitz told The Associated Press “I already had been in two fights.”
Commissioner Bill Beagan suspended Trognitz from the IHL for life…which proved to be just the sort of publicity boost the career minor leaguer needed. Four days later, the goon-deficient Cincinnati Stingers of the major league World Hockey Association signed Trognitz to a contract.
In August 1979, Al Savill’s six-year associated with the Owls came to an end. A group of local Grand Rapids minority partners led by Michael Knapp and David Baines bought out Savill’s majority share for a reported $100,000 plus assumption of the team’s debt. Two weeks later, the team was served with an eviction notice from Stadium Arena over $12,366 for back rent and other fees.
Owls owner Michael Knapp disbanded the club once and for all on June 6th, 1980.