Roller Hockey International (1994)
Born: March 2, 1994 – RHI expansion franchise.
Died: March 1995 – The Stingers cease operations.
Arena: Cumberland County Civic Center
Team Colors: Jade, Royal Blue, Black & White
Owner: Tom Ebright & Godfrey Wood
Roller Hockey International (RHI) was the brainchild of serial sports entrepeneur Dennis Murphy. Murphy helped found the American Basketball Association, the World Hockey Association and World Team Tennis in the late 1960′s and early 1970′s. After a quiet decade in the 1980′s, Murphy re-emerged with RHI in 1993, co-founded with his former World Team Tennis partner Larry King.
Murphy and King sought to capitalize on the surge of interest in inline skating - often known at the time by the brandnomer Rollerblading – with a summertime league stocked with moonlighting minor league hockey players. RHI rules varied somewhat from ice hockey. Games were divided into four 12-minute quarters rather than three 20-minute periods. Teams played five-v-five with only one defenseman on a Sport Court (concrete) surface. Fighting was prohibited, punishable by a one-game suspension. The various rule changes all supported a higher-scoring, more fluid game. During the league’s inaugural season, RHI games averaged nearly 17 goals per game.
RHI debuted with twelve franchises in 1993, mostly in major NHL and NBA markets such as Los Angeles, St. Louis and Miami. Murphy and King attracted several major investors, including Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss, another World Team Tennis veteran. In 1994, the league expanded rapidly, adding six new franchises, primarily in big league cities such as Minneapolis, Pittsburgh (held by NHL Penguins owner Howard Baldwin), Philadelphia and Montreal. One exception in the 1994 expansion class was the archetypal minor league hockey market of Portland, Maine.
The New England Stingers were introduced to Portland at a news conference on March 2nd, 1994. Experienced hockey operators Tom Ebright and Godfrey Wood owned the club, which they envisioned as a summertime extension of their Portland Pirates American Hockey League franchise. The duo were riding a wave of enthusiasm in the city. Ebright and Wood first came together one year earlier, partnering to move Ebright’s struggling Baltimore Skipjacks AHL club to Portland’s Cumberland County Civic Center. When the Stingers were announced in early March, the Pirates were nearing the completion of a storybook first season in the city, one which saw the club win the Calder Cup championship.
Portland Pirates Head Coach Barry Trotz served as Head Coach and brought along his AHL assistant, Paul Gardner. The Stingers roster included several veterans with NHL experience, including Len Hachborn and Kevin Kaminski. University of Maine rookie Cal Ingraham signed on and would lead the Stingers in scoring with 30 goals and 32 assists.
Photo courtesy of Gary Griffaw
The Stingers struggled to adapt to the hybrid game, dropping the first seven matches of RHI’s 22-game season. In the front office, the challenges were just as daunting. Stingers management faced severe pressures both on the revenue and expense sides of the business, in stark contrast to RHI co-founder Larry King’s 1993 boast to Sports Illustrated that “In this league coaches need more skill than owners need money.”
“We had no idea how difficult it would be to convince Mainers that they should watch an indoor sport when they have waited so long for summer, boating, golf and beaches! Frankly, even giving away tickets – that got used – was hard,” recalled Godfrey Wood in 2011. “It was extremely expensive to travel the team, particularly given summer airfares. Sponsorship was moderate, and I was concerned we were cannibalizing the (ice) hockey team’s sponsors.”
The Stingers announced several larger crowds at the Cumberland County Civic Center as the season wound down, including successive attendace highs of 4,677 and 4,691 at the club’s final two home games in August 1994. Nevertheless, the Stingers finished the season with an estimated $300,000 operating loss and with average announced attendance of 2,850, 5th worst in the 18-team league. Adding insult to injury, the Stingers finished in last place with a record of 5-17.
Ebright and Wood formally withdrew from Roller Hockey International in March of 1995, under the guise of a one-year hiatus.
“This may be the fastest growing sport in the country, but maybe it’s a participatory sport, not a viewer’s sport,” Wood told The Portland Press Herald in announcing the shutdown.
The Nashville Predators chose Barry Trotz as their head coach when the expansion club debuted in 1998. He has held the position for the last thirteen seasons.
Stingers co-owner Godfrey Wood continues to live and work in Portland, where he has served as CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce since 1998.
Roller Hockey International continued to play through the end of the 1997 season. Reduced to only three teams, the league took a year off in 1998 to re-organize, then returned to play one final season in the summer of 1999. The league folded permanently after the 1999 season.
Former Stingers owner Tom Ebright passed away in 1997.
2011 Interview with Stingers Owner Godfrey Wood
New England Stingers Sources