- 1982-1983: ?
- 1983-1987: Steve Stroul
ACHL Champions: 1984
Text coming soon…
East Coast Hockey League (1988-1996)
Born: 1988 – ECHL founding franchise.
Move Announced: March 15, 1996 (Baton Rouge Kingfish)
Arena: Tullio Arena (5,477)
Team Colors: Black, White & Silver
The Erie Panthers were one of five founding members of the East Coast Hockey League in 1988. The club lasted for eight seasons in Erie, playing at Louis J. Tullio Arena. In their early years, the Panthers were competitive. The team made the Riley Cup playoffs in each of their first five seasons. The Panthers fell behind in later years though, failing to make the playoffs during their final three seasons in town. Attendance dipped below 3,000 fans per game by the mid-1990’s.
Former NHL journeyman goaltender Peter Skudra played 12 games for the Panthers during their final season in Erie. Skudra is the most prominent former Panther to make it to the NHL.
At the end of the 1995-96 season, the Panthers moved to Louisiana where they became known as the Baton Rouge Kingfish (1996-2004). A subsequent move in 2004 saw the franchise relocate to British Columbia as the Victoria Salmon Kings. The Salmon Kings went out of business in 2011.
After the Panthers left town in 1996, they were replaced by the Erie Otters of the major junior Ontario Hockey League. The Otters continue to play in Erie today.
Sometimes bigger isn’t better. That was the lesson for the hockey fans of Erie, Pennsylvania in the winter of 1981-82.
The industrial city had a popular team – the Erie Blades – that formed in 1975 and kicked around in a variety of low-level minor leagues during the latter half of the 1970’s. From 1979 to 1981 the Blades dominated the Northeastern Hockey League and then the Eastern Hockey League, winning three straight league championships. Crowds of 3,000+ were not uncommon at the old Erie County Fieldhouse.
The kinds of players who played in the Northeastern Hockey League and the Eastern Hockey League were not on the fast track to the NHL. These were rough-and-tumble leagues that emphasized physicality and fighting where many players were hanging onto their pro careers by a fingernail.
But – as it turns out, according to this great 2011 retrospective by Victor Fernandes of The Erie Times-News – that’s what made the players so appealing to Erie hockey fans. The players were familiar and relatable. They hung out with fans after the games. Guys like Jim Cowell, Stan Gulutzan, Ron Hansis and Brad Rhiness were terrific players within the universe of the Eastern League, but they never really went anywhere – there were no mid-season call-ups to speak of and they found themselves back in Erie each fall.
In May 1981, the Blades signed an affiliation deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins and made the leap to the American Hockey League. The AHL was just one step below the NHL and it was an unusual move for the AHL to absorb an existing club from a lower tier league. The team would be run as a joint venture between the Penguins and Blades owners Dr. John Caruso and Ben Kasper. The deal called for the Penguins to supply the Blades with players (the Boston Bruins would contribute players as well) and to split the profits or losses of the team 50/50 with Caruso and Kasper.
The move to the AHL promised much better players, but also a different kind of player. Transient players who viewed Erie as a way station on the road to the NHL and came and went in a bewildering flurry of promotions and demotions to Pittsburgh and Boston. Rhiness was the only holdover player from the Blades 1981 EHL championship team to return for the 1981-82 AHL season.
“At first we were excited,” a Blades season ticket holder recalled to Victor Fernandes in 2011. “But after they got here, most of the season ticket holders who had been here as long as I had were very disappointed. It just felt strange to have this team. We missed (that connection).”
The Blades had some terrific talent that winter. The Penguins developed a few future NHL regulars in Erie including Rod Buskas and Dave Hannan. The Boston Bruins, who had a much stronger farm system, sent Randy Hillier, Mike Krushelnyski, Craig MacTavish, Larry Melnyk and former U.S. Olympic hockey hero Jim Craig, among others. But the talent didn’t mesh and the Blades finished in last place with a 22-52-6 record. Erie also saw the worst attendance in the AHL, drawing just 1,677 on average to the Erie County Field House.
The Blades lost a reported $250,000 during the 1981-82 season. The Penguins quickly grew unhappy with the situation and sued Caruso and Kasper in May 1982 for misrepresenting their ability to capitalize the team. In June 1982 the Pens pulled up stakes and moved their AHL farm club to Maryland, where the former Erie AHL franchise became the Baltimore Skipjacks.
Caruso kept going, forming the Erie Golden Blades in 1982 and entering the team in the Atlantic Coast Hockey League. It was a back-to-basics move. The ACHL was a ramshackle independent outfit, much like the ones Erie dominated in the late 1970’s. In fact, a number of popular Blades of that era returned to play for the Golden Blades, including Sylvain Cote, Jim Cowell and Ron Hansis. The Golden Blades lasted until 1987.
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New York-Penn League (1981-1987)
Born: 1981 – The Auburn Americans relocate to Erie, PA
Moved: 1988 (Hamilton Redbirds)
Stadium: Ainsworth Field
New York-Penn League Championships: None
Professional baseball returned to Erie, Pennsylvania after a 13-year absence in the summer of 1981. Beginning in 1976, local businessmen Dave Masi and Joe Castelli worked for five years to secure a franchise for Erie. Their break finally came in the summer of 1980. New York-Penn League President Vince McNamara gave the men an opportunity to operate his league’s rudderless franchise in Auburn, New York. Operating without a Major League affiliation in 1980, their Auburn Americans were a “co-op” club, accepting low-level draftees from the Cleveland Indians and Boston Red Sox.
The arrangement was essentially a quid pro quo. In return for operating a dog in Auburn for one season, Masi and Castelli were essentially guaranteed an Erie franchise for 1981. This was long before the minor league baseball renaissance of the late 1980’s. The Auburn Americans drew 9,474 fans during the entire summer of 1980 – just 250 lonely spectators per game.
At the Dallas winter meetings in late 1980, Masi and Castelli landed an affiliation deal with the St. Louis Cardinals, who agreed to place their short-season single-A farm club in Erie for the 1981 season. The relationship would prove to be unusually enduring. St. Louis stuck with the franchise through numerous name changes and relocations for the next quarter century until 2006.
The Cardinals stayed in Erie through the summer of 1987. The team moved to Hamilton, Ontario for the summer of 1988 and wound its was through several subsequent purchases and relocations. The franchise still exists in the New York-Penn League today, back in Pennsylvania as the State College Spikes since 2006 and currently affiliated with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
World Basketball League (1990-1992)
Born: 1990 – WBL expansion franchise.
Died: July 20, 1992 – The Wave fold in midseason.
Arena: Tullio Convention Center (6,010)
Team Colors: Blue & Red
If they are remembered for nothing else – and they aren’t – the Erie Wave of the World Basketball League came up with one of the all-time great cheerleading squad names: the Eriesistibles. What else can be said about the Wave? They plied their trade in a gimmicky basketball league that had a height limit. Two of their players became so disgruntled with the team that they retired to start their own rival WBL franchise. And shortly after the team folded in the middle of its third season, Wave players and staff learned that they had unwittingly taken part in a massive criminal enterprise.
Erie received a WBL expansion entry in early 1990, just 67 days before tip-off of the franchise’s first game. The three-year old World Basketball League had several unique features that separated it from other basketball leagues. Players could be no taller than 6′ 5″ tall. The league played an untraditional May-August summer schedule, allowing minor leaguers from the winter Continental Basketball Association to ply their trade year round. Although the league had only seven franchises in 1990, they stretched across North America from Saskatchewan to Las Vegas to Memphis. To fill out the schedule, the WBL employed various imported clubs from Western Europe and the Soviet Union, which were not subject to the height limit. These games counted in the standings, but were basically an automatic win. WBL teams routinely pummeled the lumbering foreign clubs, who collectively lost 51 out of the 56 international games played in 1990.
The WBL business model called for the league to hold a 60% equity interest in each club, with local ownership holding the other 40%. During the 1990 season, Erie’s local investor was a car dealer named George Turner. Turner caught the basketball bug as a season ticket holder with the WBL’s nearby Youngstown Pride, located only 100 miles away and considered the league’s model franchise.
The Wave debuted at Erie’s Tullio Arena on May 17th, 1990 against the Calgary 88’s before an estimated crowd of 4,500. Attendance withered thereafter, as did the team’s performance on the court. The 1990 Wave finished in last place with a 12-34 record and posted an announced average attendance of 2,270 per game.
George Turner declined to renew his financial support at the end of the 1990 season. The WBL failed to find new local ownership to replace Turner. When the Wave returned for the 1991 season, they were wards of the league office and its primary patron, WBL founder and Youngstown Pride owner Michael “Mickey” Monus, the President of the Youngstown-based Phar-Mor discount pharmacy chain. The 1991 Wave won 18 games against 33 losses, once again posting the worst record in the WBL.
The Wheels came off for the WBL during its fifth season in 1992. The league’s Canadian expansion of the past few years proved quite successful, as clubs in Winnipeg, Saskatchewan and Halifax drew strong crowds. It was the American franchises – many of whom, like Erie, did not have functional local ownership, – that were bleeding the league dry. On June 15th, 1992 the WBL shuttered both of its poorly attended Florida clubs, the Florida Jades and the Jacksonville Stingrays, in midseason. The remaining clubs found the league office – which owned 60% of the equity in their franchises – unresponsive as bills mounted and went unpaid. The trail of financial problems led directly to the league’s founder and sugar daddy, Mickey Monus and his crumbling house of cards at Phar-Mor.
On July 20th, 1992 the cash-poor World Basketball League shut down the Erie Wave with 13 games remaining on the regular season schedule. The Wave had a record of 12-26 at the time. Attendance for the 1992 season at Tullio Arena averaged just 1,077 fans per game, compared to a league-wide announced average of 3,194.
In late July 1992, several days after the Wave folded, Phar-Mor opened its 300th store. Days later Monus was ousted when company officials discovered Monus and his CFO were maintaining two sets of books, claiming rapid growth and profits while Phar-Mor was actually generating huge losses and falling far behind in payments to its suppliers. Among other crimes, Monus had embezzled close to $10 million from Phar-Mor over four years to underwrite the operating losses of the WBL and its franchises. The entire financial underpinning of the WBL was revealed to be a criminal enterprise, with the local investors and front office managers in the role of unwitting participants. On August 1st, 1992, the World Basketball League folded in the midst of its fifth season, days after the downfall of its primary patron. Monus’ downfall also cost the jobs of 17,000 Phar-Mor employees – the seemingly robust chain was forced into bankruptcy – and nearly sank the fledgling Colorado Rockies expansion franchise in Major League Baseball, in which Monus was a major investor.
One of the best Wave players was Jamie Waller, a 1987 2nd round draft pick of the New Jersey Nets. Waller led the WBL in scoring in four consecutive seasons from 1988-1991. Waller began the 1991 season with the Nashville Stars and joined Erie midway through, finishing the season with a 26.3 points per game scoring average. Waller was dealt to the Youngstown Pride prior to the 1992 season.
In 2008, professional basketball returned to Erie after a sixteen year absence when the NBA D-League placed the Erie Bayhawks expansion franchise at Tullio Arena. The D-League is the official development league of the National Basketball Association (and has no height limits).
|1990||6/11/1990||vs. Illinois Express||W 111-107 (OT)||Program|