International Hockey League (1993-1999)
Born: 1993 – IHL expansion franchise
Folded: April 18, 1999
Arena: Thomas & Mack Center (12,347)
- 1993-1996: Hank Stickney & Ken Stickney
- 1996-1999: Hank Stickney, Ken Stickney & Mandalay Sports Entertainment
The Las Vegas Thunder were a six-year entry in the International Hockey League during that organization’s gold rush era of nationwide expansion in the mid-1990’s. Minor league baseball investors Hank Stickney and his son Ken, who also owned the Las Vegas Stars Class AAA baseball team, paid a $2.0 million expansion fee for the Thunder in 1993.
The Thunder employed a fascinating menagerie of players during their six-year existence, including female goaltender Manon Rheaume, who played two games for Las Vegas in 1994, and Wayne Gretzky’s younger brother Brent Gretzky. But what the Thunder were really known for was providing paychecks for erstwhile NHL superstars caught up in the the NHL’s labor wars of the 1990’s.
First to arrive was Alexei Yashin, the 20-year old rising star of the NHL’s Ottawa Senators, in 1994. Although the IHL publicly discouraged its clubs from signing players under NHL contract during that league’s 1994-95 lockout, the league didn’t prevent the Stickneys from signing Yashin to a reported $200,000 one-year deal, which Yashin could void at any time when the lockout ended. The Russian centerman tore up the IHL for 24 games (15 goals and 20 assists) before the NHL re-opened for business and Yashin returned to Ottawa.
NHL All-Star goaltender Curtis Joseph arrived the following year during a holdout with the St. Louis Blues. Like Yashin, Joseph toyed with IHL competition (12-2-1, 1.99 GAA) for a few weeks before a trade to Edmonton resolved his NHL contract woes.
The Thunder also had a knack for importing young Eastern European stars. Thunder GM Bob Strumm brought over both 17-year old Radek Bonk of the Czech Republic and 20-year old Belarussian Ruslan Salei to begin their North American careers in the IHL. Both quickly between Top 10 overall draft picks in the NHL after showcasing in Las Vegas.
Despite the glitzy signings and two divisional titles, the Thunder still bled through a reported $6 million during their first three seasons in Sin City. The IHL’s business model proved to be hugely flawed. Unlike the Stickney’s minor league baseball holdings, where player costs were covered by Major League affiliations, IHL teams functioned primarily as independents. Starting in 1996 the Thunder had a partial affiliation with the NHL’s Phoenix Roadrunners, but Phoenix only supplied a couple of players a year. The Stickney’s were on the hook for virtually all of the IHL’s $1.3 million annual salary cap, plus the attendant medical and insurance costs. By the mid-1990’s it was clear that the IHL needed NHL support to survive, but IHL leaders angered the senior circuit by expanding into NHL cities like Chicago and Detroit. The NHL preferred to work with the more docile American Hockey League and didn’t truly need the IHL.
Midway through the Thunder’s fourth season in 1996-97, the Stickney family partnered with former Sony Pictures Chairman Peter Guber and his Mandalay Sports Entertainment on all of their baseball and hockey properties. The partnership made the already well-heeled Thunder ownership even more formidable, but to some extent the Thunder had already taken their best shot at Las Vegas by the time Mandalay entered the picture.
Rumors began to circulate that the Thunder would leave Las Vegas for a new Mandalay-run arena under consideration in Ontario, California. When Ottawa Senators star and former NHL Rookie-of-the-Year Daniel Alfredsson held out in 1997, his agent naturally placed a call to the Thunder. But GM Bob Strumm rebuffed Alfredsson’s agent with a low offer, later telling The Las Vegas Sun’s Steve Carp “We’re not a Club Med for unsigned NHL players. We’re not doing that anymore.”
But the Thunder did do it one more time. Late in the 1997-98 season, the Thunder signed Pittsburgh Penguins holdout scoring star Petr Nedved, one of the elite centers in the world, hoping we would spark the team on a Turner Cup playoff run. Nedved was different than Yashin and Joseph, the story went, because he wasn’t an early season rental. However, the IHL ruled Nedved ineligible to join the team so late in the season and he appeared in only 3 regular season games for Las Vegas. Nedved’s contract dispute with Pittsburgh dragged on and he re-joined the Thunder in the fall of 1998 as a rental for 13 games before a trade to the New York Rangers cleared up his contract fight. He was the last world class player to wear a Thunder jersey.
The Thunder’s lease at Thomas & Mack Arena ended in the spring of 1999 and the Thunder closed for business that April, a few days after the conclusion of the team’s sixths season. The rest of the IHL folded two years later in May 2001.
Ex-Thunder defenseman Ruslan Salei died on September 7, 2011 in a plane crash in Yaroslavl, Russia which killed the entire roster of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey team. Salei was 36 years old.
==Las Vegas Thunder Games on Fun While It Lasted==
|1994-95||3/11/1995||@ Phoenix Roadrunners||W 5-2||Program|
|1995-96||2/16/1996||@ Los Angeles Ice Dogs||W 4-1||Program||Game Notes|
|1998-99||12/9/1998||@ Detroit Vipers||L 2-1||Program||Game Notes|