1990’s minor league outfit that was one of countless iterations of the “Phoenix Roadrunners” hockey brand to set up shop in the Arizona city. This 1989 re-boot was named in tribute to the original Roadrunners of the Western Hockey League and the World Hockey Association, who played from 1967 to 1977. Like previous versions of the ‘Runners, the team played at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
The team enjoyed a reasonably long and stable run under the ownership of Alberta businessman Lyle Abraham from 1989 until 1996. But the 1996 relocation of the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets to Phoenix complicated matters. Adding to that, proposals were afloat to close down the 30-year old Coliseum, which hosted little else besides IHL hockey in the mid-90’s.
Surprisingly, the team didn’t fold or relocate immediately, but competed head-to-head with the NHL for one final season in the winter of 1996-97. But it did so without Abraham, who leased the team to a group called the Arizona Sports & Entertainment Group (ASEG), whose main financial backer was the Ak-Chin Indian Community. ASEG also struck a new lease to keep the Coliseum open and control its operations. However, the 1996-97 season was saw steep financial losses for the team and the Ak-Chin Community cancelled its financial support. The Roadrunners folded in the spring of 1997 a few days after the conclusion of their eighth season in the IHL.
The Roadrunners brand name was re-animated for a third time in 2005 for Phoenix’s new franchise in the ECHL. Those Roadrunners lasted four seasons, shutting down in 2009. But it’s only a matter of time until someone tries again…
==Phoenix Roadrunners Games on Fun While It Lasted==
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==
The Minnesota Moose were a high-caliber minor league hockey team that played two seasons in the Twin Cities shortly after the departure of the NHL’s Minnesota North Stars for Dallas in 1993. The Moose played out of the Saint Paul Civic Center, but also played 14 dates at the Target Center in Minneapolis during their second and final season.
The Moose’ debut game in St. Paul on October 7, 1994 – a 2-1 loss to the Milwaukee Admirals – attracted 11,652 fans. Attendance dropped off quickly and the Moose finished the year ranked 12th in the 17-team International Hockey League with average crowds of 6,787 – a somewhat disconcerting result for an expansion team in what should have been its honeymoon phase. On the plus side, the team’s fun, eye-catching logo was a big hit. The Hockey News named the Minnesota Moose logo as the best in all of minor league hockey in February 1995 and the team would later claim an eye-popping $1.3 million in souvenir sales during their inaugural season.
On the ice, the Moose squeaked into the 1995 Turner Cup playoffs with 34-35-12 record. They were swiftly dispatched by the eventual champion Denver Grizzlies in a three-game sweep in the first round. Center Stephane Morin led the IHL in scoring with 38 goals and 71 assists. The team’s big name was Minnesota native Dave Christian, a 14-year NHL veteran and member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey “Miracle On Ice” squad. Christian finished second on the team in scoring with a 38-42-80 line.
In 1995 the City of St. Paul launched a courtship to persuade the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets to relocate to Minnesota. The prospect of the NHL returning to the Twin Cities further eroded interest in the Moose. Ultimately the Jets moved to Arizona instead, but the experience seemed to sap the enthusiasm of Moose ownership. A few days after the Jets’ move to Phoenix was revealed in December 1995, the Moose announced a sale and relocation of their own – to Winnipeg, of all places, to replace the Jets at Winnipeg Arena.
The Moose played out their second and final season in Minnesota as lame ducks. They missed the playoffs with a 30-45-7 record.
The franchise flourished in Winnipeg, lasting 15 seasons at the Manitoba Moose. The team was displaced by the NHL (and the Jets!) once again in 2011 when the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg to become a revival of the Winnipeg Jets. The hockey franchise that started out as the Minnesota Moose in 1995 to Newfoundland and plays on today as the St. John’s IceCaps of the American Hockey League.
The Port Huron Flags were a long-standing minor league hockey outfit in the small northern Michigan border city of Port Huron (pop. 30,000). From the 1971 through 1974, a period that saw Port Huron affiliated with the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings, the team was briefly known as the “Port Huron Wings“.
The Flags/Wings played in the International Hockey League’s Turner Cup championship series seven times in 19 seasons, winning the crown in 1966, 1971 and 1972.
The San Antonio Dragons were part of a short, strange minor league hockey cold war in South Texas during the mid-1990’s.
The Dragons’ ancestry stretched back to 1982 when the franchise was formed as a Peoria, Illinois expansion entry in the International Hockey League (1945-2001). At the time, the IHL was an upper Midwestern bus league. But in the early 1990’s the IHL got ambitious, expanding into major league cities across the continent and recruiting major investors such as NBA owners Larry Miller and Bill Davidson. The moves put financial pressure on the IHL’s remaining small-market teams like Peoria. In 1996, long-time Peoria owner Bruce Saurs announced that he would move his club to San Antonio, Texas.
It was an odd choice. Hardly an ice hockey hotbed, San Antonio already had an established minor league team – the Iguanas of the Central Hockey League – at Freeman Coliseum, where Saurs and his business partner Donald Levin wanted to play. In the winter of 1996-97 both teams split dates in the building and fought over the arena lease. The big budget Dragons drove the Iguanas out of business after one season of competition, but it wasn’t a triumph. The San Antonio Dragons lost millions of dollars their first winter and ranked only 16th among 18 IHL clubs in attendance, with announced gate of 4,931 per game.
On the positive side, the 1996-97 Dragons won the IHL’s Midwest Division with a 45-30-7 record under Head Coach Jeff Brubaker. The Dragons advanced to the 2nd round of the Turner Cup playoffs before losing to the Houston Aeros. 29-year old Daniel Shank led the club in scoring with 33 goals and 58 assists, both team highs.
In 1997-98, the Dragons had Freeman Coliseum and the city of San Antonio to themselves with the Iguanas out of business. But the season was a disaster. The team went from first to worst, finishing in the league cellar at 25-49-8. Attendance crashed further to 3,668 per game. By the end of the season, the club’s two-year losses in San Antonio ran to a reported $7 million.
Bruce Saurs & Donald Levin dropped out of the IHL at the end of the 1997-98 season and unloaded the remains of the franchise to Horn Chen, lead investor of the vanquished Iguanas. Chen ditched the Dragons brand name, reclaimed the old Iguanas identity and entered the former Dragons franchise in the lower-budget Central Hockey League, which he largely controlled. The Peoria Rivermen/Dragons/Iguanas franchise eventually went out of business in 2002.