International Hockey League (1992-1996)
Born: 1992 – IHL expansion franchise.
Moved: May 1, 1996 (Quebec Rafales)
Arena: The Omni (15,207)
Team Colors: Black, Light Blue, Silver & Yellow
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.
==Atlanta Knights Programs on Fun While It Lasted==
|1992-93||10/17/1992||vs. Cincinnati Cyclones||W 7-5||Program||Rosters|
|1994-95||11/3/1992||vs. Soviet Wings||W 7-3||Video|
Manon Rheaume’s debut as the first female pro hockey player. Knights vs. Salt Lake Golden Eagles. December 13, 1992.
The Knights win the Turner Cup at the Omni. May 25, 1994
“Paris helped put Atlanta hockey on the map“, Adam Kimelman, NHL.com, January 14, 2008