The San Jose Rhinos were a Roller Hockey International franchise that played out of the San Jose Arena during the mid-to-late 1990’s. During their second season in the summer of 1995, the Rhinos won the Murphy Cup championship of RHI by defeating the Montreal Roadrunners in the championship game.
After years of declining membership, RHI collapsed in the fall of 1997 due to internal financial disputes between the remaining owners and league CEO Larry King. The 1998 season was cancelled and the league appeared to be dead. Improbably, the league returned for a comeback season in 1999 and the Rhinos came out of cold storage to play one final season. But nobody paid much attention and Roller Hockey International faded quietly into history before another season could be staged.
San Jose Rhinos vs. Vancouver Voodoo at San Jose Arena. July 29, 1994.
During the inaugural season of RHI in 1993 the Skates nabbed the 8th and final playoff spot despite a less-than-mediocre 5-9 record. They upset the St. Louis Vipers and the Calgary Rad’z* in the quarters and semis to earn an improbable trip to the Murphy Cup finals against the Anaheim Bullfrogs. The undefeated Bulldogs (15-0-1) made quick work of the Skates, sweeping the series 2 games to 0 in September 1993.
The Skates played their first three seasons in the enormous Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Arena, home to the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. The building was far too big for the team’s small cult following. The Skates averaged just 2,710 fans per game for 12 home dates in 1995. The Skates had to play the 1996 season in the 80-year old Henry J. Kaiser Arena in downtown Oakland due to renovations at the Coliseum.
The majority owner of the Skates was restaurateur Murray Simkin. At league meetings shortly after the 1996 season, he withdrew the Skates from RHI to go on a hiatus for the 1997 season. The team never returned to activity. RHI itself took a hiatus in 1998, briefly returned for a low-profile 1999 season, and the vanished for good at the turn of the century.
The Long Island Jawz made a brief appearance in Roller Hockey International, playing a single campaign in the summer of 1996. The owners of the Jawz – who also owned RHI’s New Jersey Rockin’ Rollers franchise – got into an acrimonious battle with Spectacor Management Group (SMG), managers of the Nassau Coliseum, over advertising placement rights and threw in the towel before the team’s inaugural season was even over. In July 1996, just one month after starting play, the Jawz announced they would fold after completing the 1996 RHI schedule.
The team was pretty good, finishing 16-9-3 under Head Coach Phil DeGaetano. Winger Hugo Belanger (48 goals, 53 assists) recorded the only 100-point season on RHI’s history and won the league’s Player-of-the-Year Award. Another key player was Glen Metropolit (39 goals, 37 assists) who later enjoyed a 9-year NHL career between 1999 and 2010.
The Empire State Cobras were a One-Year Wonder franchise in Roller Hockey International during the summer of 1996. Based out of tiny Glens Falls, New York, the team seemed incompatible with the rest of Roller Hockey International, a 17-team cross-continental league that most played in huge NHL and NBA arenas.
Sure enough finances turned out to be a problem, as the Cobras drew fewer than 1,000 per game at home and owner Jerry Shorthouse ran out of money before the end of the season.
Most of the Cobras’ roster came over from the defunct Buffalo Stampede franchise (1994-1995), which won RHI’s Murphy Cup in 1994. Although the club was good and won the Atlantic Division with a 16-7-5 record, the Cobras reportedly had to sell their home court advantage in the playoffs to the lower-seeded Orlando Jackals. They lost to the eventual champion Jackals in the first round.
In January 1997, the Cobras returned to Buffalo under new ownership and changed their name to the Buffalo Wings (I’m not kidding).
Roller Hockey International closed temporarily after the 1997 season and then folded for good after staging one final season in 1999.
The St. Louis Vipers were one of 12 original franchises in Roller Hockey International, which began play during the summer of 1993. RHI was an attempt to cash in on the inline skating phenomenon of the early 1990’s and the league did establish a minor footprint in the middle of the decade, securing an ESPN/ESPN2 contract and attracting investment from a few NHL owners, including Dr. Jerry Buss and Howard Baldwin.
Longtime St. Louis Blues star Bernie Federko was the frontman for the Vipers’ ownership group and also served as the team’s Head Coach for the 1993 and 1994 seasons. Another Blues connection was Perry Turnbull, the #2 overall pick in the 1979 NHL amateur draft, who played two stints with the Blues between 1979 and 1988. Turnbull finished out his playing career with the Vipers in 1993 and 1994 and then took over head coaching duties from Federko in 1995.
The Vipers played their first two seasons at the old St. Louis Arena, before moving to the brand new Kiel Center in 1995.
Most of the Vipers’ players were ice hockey minor leaguers keeping in shape and pocketing extra money during the offseason. The Vipers all-time leading scorer was Christian Skoryna (118 goals) was a typical story. Skoryna came to RHI out of junior hockey after being passed over in the NHL draft. He played all six seasons that RHI existed and later played six years of pro ice hockey, almost entirely in low-level independent leagues.
RHI was a chronically unstable league, with teams coming and going in large numbers every season. The Vipers were one of the most stabled franchise. Along with the Anaheim Bullfrogs, they were one of only two clubs to survive for all six seasons that RHI existed from 1993 to 1999. But the Vipers weren’t immune to the league’s problems. According to a December 1996 St. Louis Business Journal profile, the franchise lost $1.5 million over its first four seasons of operation and required a lifeline from the owners of the St. Louis Blues and the Kiel Center to return for a fifth season in 1997.
After the 1997 season, RHI suspended operations and cancelled the 1998 campaign. The league re-organized under former Major League Baseball executive Bernie Mullin and managed to get a chaotic and under-capitalized 1999 season off the ground. The Vipers returned from the one-year layoff and won the final Murphy Cup championship in the summer of 1999. Roller Hockey International died of exhaustion shortly thereafter.
The Vipers host the Buffalo Stampede at Kiel Arena in 1995.