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.
The modern day Aeros played their early seasons in the IHL, and ambitious but unsustainable minor league that featured big budgets, cross-continental air travel and occasional cross-border raids to sign NHL stars to short-term deals during contract holdouts. The Aeros were a box office hit upon their arrival in the mid-1990′s, averaging over 10,000 fans per game at the old Houston Summit during their first two seasons. Attendance declined year-over-year for all seven seasons that the Aeros played in the IHL, but those who stuck around were rewarded with an outstanding team and perennial title contender. From 1997 to 2005, the Aeros made the playoffs for nine straight seasons.
The Aeros won their first and only Turner Cup championship of the IHL in the spring of 1999. After posting a league-best record of 54-15-13 in the regular season, the Aeros outlasted the Orlando Solar Bears 4 games to 3 in the best-of-seven Turner Cup finals. Brian Wiseman led the IHL in scoring that season (109 pts.) and was named MVP of the league.
The IHL collapsed under its own weight and went out of business in May of 2001. The Aeros were one of six IHL survivors that were admitted to the American Hockey League for the 2001-2002 season. At the same time that the Aeros entered the AHL, they signed an affiliation deal to become the top farm club of the NHL’s Minnesota Wild. In 2003, stocked with Wild prospects, the Aeros defeated the Hamilton Bulldogs to capture the AHL’s Calder Cup championship.
Even more so than the transition from IHL to the AHL in 2001, the summer of 2003 following the Aeros’ Calder Cup victory brought massive change to the Aeros franchise. The old Summit/Compaq Center finally shut down after years of political wrangling. The Aeros and the NBA’s Houston Rockets would both move into the brand new $235 million Toyota Center in the autumn of 2003. Perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence that team founder Chuck Watson decided to sell the Aeros to Minnesota Sports & Entertainment, parent company of the NHL’s Wild, at this time.
During the late 1990′s Watson controlled the Compaq Center and Houston Rockets owner Leslie Alexander was his tenant. Alexander pushed for a new downtown arena and pushed to break his lease at Watson’s building, which ran through 2003. Watson refused to release the Rockets from their lease and led political opposition to the new arena project, helping to deal a shocking referendum defeat to the project in late 1999. (Watson and Alexander’s arena feud also played a role in sinking Houston’s NHL expansion bid in the late 1990′s.) But after the NBA threatened Houston with the loss of pro basketball if a new arena was not in the city’s plans, the project got back on track. The Toyota Center would open in 2003 and this time the roles would be reversed: Alexander would control the building and Watson would be the tenant. Watson sold out to the Wild two months before the Toyota Center opened, retaining only a small minority stake in the Aeros.
The Aeros made one more championship run in the spring of 2011, advancing to the Calder Cup finals before losing there to the Binghamton Senators.
At the end of the 2012-13 season the Aeros 10-year lease expired at Toyota Center. Although the team remained one of the stronger box office draws in the AHL (6,793 per game, good for 7th among the AHL’s 30 clubs), Minnesota Sports & Entertainment could not come to terms on a new lease with Toyota Center. On April 18, 2013, the Wild announced that the Aeros would relocate to Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa for the 2013-14 season and be known henceforth as the Iowa Wild. A few weeks later, the Aeros were eliminated by the Grand Rapids Griffins (another IHL refugee) in the Calder Cup Playoffs, bringing the Aeros era to an end after 19 seasons.
The Aeros’ IHL debut on October 7, 1994 goes to a shootout against the Atlanta Knights at a sold-out Summit.
The Aeros defeat the Hamilton Bulldogs in Game 7 to win the 2003 Calder Cup.
The Peoria Prancers were a short-lived farm club of the New York Rangers notable mainly for having perhaps the least intimidating name in the history of pro hockey. The club was owned by a long-time itinerant minor league hockey executive Ken Wilson. Wilson ran out of money in 1984 after two losing seasons and handed the keys to the franchise back to the International Hockey League. The money-losing Peoria Civic Center, faced with the loss of 40 booked dates at the building in the winter of 1984-85, agreed to buy the team, but quickly changed the name to the infinitely manlier Peoria Rivermen prior to the 1984-85 IHL season.
In May of 1974, Toledo Hornets (1970-1974) owner Paul Bright gave up on the city of Toledo and moved his International Hockey League franchise to Lansing, Michigan. Renamed the Lansing Lancers, the club’s new home would be Lansing’s brand new Metro Ice Arena. But financial issues left the Arena unfinished and the seating capacity was curtailed to just 900 seats.
The Lancers wouldn’t even need that many. By midseason, the Lancers were in deep distress, playing before a near-empty stands and contemplating a midseason move to Grand Rapids. When Bright’s fellow IHL owners refused to approve the midseason shift to Grand Rapids, the club folded on January 15, 1975, having played just 41 games out of a planned 75-game regular season. The Lancers’ final record was 12-28-1.
The Lancers were the first IHL in 20 years to fail to complete a season. Pro hockey has never returned to Lansing.
No Lansing players ever skated in the NHL. Two Lancers, John Gravel and Terry Ryan, played one season each in the major league World Hockey Association.