Owners: San Jose Sports & Entertainment Enterprises
The Worcester Sharks were the top farm club of the NHL’s San Jose Sharks from 2006 to 2015. The Sharks arrived in the small central Massachusetts city in 2006 from Cleveland, replacing Worcester’s previous AHL franchise, the IceCats (1994-2005).
The Sharks’ best season came in 2009-10 with an Atlantic Division title and a run into the second round of the Calder Cup playoffs. Aside from that campaign the Sharks never placed higher than 4th in their division.
In early 2015, a long-simmering re-alignment of the American Hockey League saw five western NHL franchises shift their farm clubs from the Eastern seaboard and the South to a newly-formed West Coast Division of the AHL. On January 29, 2015, San Jose Sports & Entertainment announced they would move the former Worcester Sharks to San Jose at the conclusion of the 2014-15 AHL season. San Jose’s top prospects will now share the SAP Center with their NHL parent club beginning in the fall of 2015.
Worcester’s pro hockey future in the near term looks bleak. Glens Falls, NY and Manchester, NH, the other two Northeastern cities that lost their AHL franchises in the league’s Westward shift, immediately secured replacement teams in the lower-level ECHL. No obvious ECHL prospects for relocation remain available for Worcester and it appears certain there will be no pro hockey in Wormtown in the immediate future.
==Worcester Sharks Programs on Fun While It Lasted==
Lucas set up shop in Worcester, Massachusetts at the DCU Center, formerly known as the Worcester Centrum. The building was something of a graveyard for minor league sports going back to the mid 1980’s, with series of failed promotions in pro basketball, box lacrosse and ice hockey. The casualties also included a previous indoor football attempt, the Massachusetts Marauders of the Arena Football League, in 1994.
The Surge’s home debut on April 14th, 2007 drew a respectable announced crowd of 4,724 (video below). Nevertheless, the team’s expenses vastly outpaced weak revenues and by the end of the Surge’s second season in 2008, the club was nearly $600,000 in the red, according to The Worcester Telegram & Gazette, and up to its eyeballs in liens and small claims cases. The club folded before a third season could be launched, amidst squabbling between founder Roy Lucas and his minority shareholders, none of whom had any real money.
Notable Surge players included former New England Patriots running back Harold Shaw and Tyler Grogan, son of long-time Pats QB Steve Grogan.
The Surge’s mascot was a leopard named Surgeo, which was somewhat clever.
Highlights of the Surge’s first home game, a 61-6 victory over the New York/New Jersey Revolution at the DCU Center on April 14, 2007.
The Worcester IceCats were a minor league hockey team that operated for 11 seasons in central Massachusetts. The founder of the IceCats was Roy Boe. Boe was an active sports investor during the 1970’s, at one point controlling both the New York/New Jersey Nets basketball team and the NHL’s New York Islanders. Never especially rich by the standards of Major League sports owners, Boe was forced to sell both teams in 1978 and sat on the sidelines during the 1980’s before re-emerging to form the IceCats in the spring of 1994.
Boe and his partners purchased the Springfield (MA) Indians of the American Hockey League and received approval from the AHL to move to Worcester in May 1994. Due to the late start organizing the team, the IceCats were unable to secure an NHL parent club for the 1994-95 season and were forced to play as an independent team, cobbling together a team of free agents and leftovers. No surprise they finished in last place. As of 2014, the 1994-95 IceCats remain the last AHL to play an independent season.
In 1995 the IceCats signed an affiliation agreement with the St. Louis Blues. For the next 10 seasons from 1995 through the club’s demise in 2005 Worcester would serve as St. Louis’ top farm club. During the 2000-01 season, Roy Boe sold the IceCats to the Blues, who operated the team directly for the next three seasons. In November 2004, the Blues sold the IceCats to the owners of one of their other farm teams, the Peoria (IL) Rivermen. The new owners announced that the IceCats would move to Peoria for the 2005-06 season in order to upgrade the Rivermen from their lower-level league to the AHL. The ‘Cats played out their final season in Worcester as lame ducks and played their final home game on April 17, 2005 before a farewell crowd of 10,211.
The IceCats made the AHL’s Calder Cup playoffs eight times in ten seasons, but never advanced beyond the 2nd Round.
After one winter without hockey, the AHL returned to Worcester in 2006 with the formation of the Worcester Sharks. The Sharks played in Worcester until 2015, after which that franchise relocated to San Jose, California. The team formerly known as the IceCats remains active. After eight seasons in Peoria, the team relocated to Utica, New York in 2013 and is now known as the Utica Comets.
==Worcester IceCats Programs on Fun While It Lasted==
My God…I remember watching this team on SportsChannel New England when I was in the eighth grade. By “watching” I mean clicking over to catch a few minutes of World Basketball League action during the commercial breaks on Dear John or Head of the Class.
There were two things about the Worcester Counts and the World Basketball League that intrigued me. The first was that the ball they played with was awesome. It was a bright white globe with all of the continents of the world painted on in maroon. (Years later former WBL PR Director Jimmy Oldham told me the league only had 2-3 of these balls and they were shipped around the country for use on SportsChannel games).
The second was that the Counts had Keith Smart. I wasn’t a huge hoops fan, but I vividly remembered watching Smart hit “The Shot”for the University of Indiana in the 1987 NCAA Championship game to beat Syracuse with only four seconds left.
At 13 years old, it made an impression on me that Smart could go from the pinnacle of the college basketball world to playing minor league ball in a nearly empty Worcester Centrum in just over 24 months.
7,056 fans turned out for the Counts first game at the Centrum on May 10th, 1989. According to former Counts PR man Rob Ekno, the big crowd was the result of his frantic, last-minute efforts to paper Worcester with free tickets:
“The guy who owned the Counts, his name was Rob Shoemaker. He was a Harvard Business School graduate. So, presumably well-versed in business. He was promised by the World Basketball League that he was going to make “X” amount of dollars and there would be “X” amount of attendance and so on. When I got to meet Rob, he told me the league said to him that he could expect about 6,000 or 7,000 people a game.
“To cut down on travel expenses and stuff, the Counts and the World Basketball League set up the schedule with back-to-back games. A team would fly in from Youngstown, Ohio, for example, and they would play us at the Worcester Centrum on Friday night and then play again on Saturday night.
“I told <Rob> “Listen, this is Worcester. You’re in the middle of Massachusetts. People either go to Cape Cod on the weekend or they go to Misquamicut State Beach down in Rhode Island, or wherever. Not a whole lot of people stay around Worcester on the weekend. You’re playing your games on Friday and Saturday nights – back-to-back games against the same exact team that people don’t know anything about. I know that this league promised you certain things, but I’m just giving you my experience from the Arena Football League and I don’t believe you’re going to get the attendance you are expecting.
“Shoemaker put his trust in the league, of course, because he had already sunk his money into the team and he didn’t want to think he was investing in a failure.
“So it was about a week-and-a-half before the first game and the gentleman who was the Director of the Centrum called me into his office and said “Look, you gotta help us out here. There’s only about 2,000 tickets sold.” I said “I’ve been trying to tell these guys that all along, but no one is listening to my experience here.” So I went out and in ten days I hit every business, every school, every charity…everybody who would take a hundred, two hundred, four hundred tickets to give away. And if you look at the attendance for the first night, it was a full house.
“But then the second game dropped way off and from there it was down to a 1,000 people a game after that.”
Perhaps Worcester fans simply weren’t interested in the WBL’s perplexing line-up of opponents, which included geographically irrelevant “rivals” from places like Youngstown, Ohio and Calgary, along with European tomato cans like the Estonian National Team and Computerij of Holland. Since the WBL had only five franchises, league officials imported the (terrible) clubs from Europe to pad out the schedule. During the summer of 1989 the Europeans posted a collective record of 1 win and 49 losses against the five WBL clubs.
“We did have Keith Smart. All the guys were great guys,” recalled Ekno. “They all had dreams, obviously, of playing in the NBA. The whole premise of the WBL was that you had to be 6’ 5” and under. It was all about the passing and the speed. You didn’t see a whole lot of slam dunking and if you did, it was of the more spectacular, fast break variety. The idea was to get the ball up and down the court as quickly as possible, get it in the hoop and play a little defense.
“We had Norm Van Lier, the former Chicago Bulls star, who was the assistant coach. Norm was promised an apartment and all this other stuff but it never came through for whatever reason. So Norm and I ended up being roommates for the summer. That was an interesting experience for sure. I learned a lot about the behind-the-scenes workings of pro and college basketball from Norm. He would have been the dominant personality on that team.
“We also had a gentleman named Keith Gatlin and he was actually Len Bias’ roommate when Bias OD’d and died. So that was quite the learning experience from him as well.”
The Worcester Counts folded shortly after the 1989 season ended. The WBL hung on for three more years, but folded in 1992 when league investors learned that league founder Mickey Monus was underwriting the league’s substantial losses by embezzling millions of dollars from his Phar-Mor discount pharmacy chain.
Keith Smart played a decade in the American minor leagues and in the Phillipines. Today he is the Head Coach of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings.
The Massachusetts Marauders played a single season of Arena Football at the Worcester Centrum in the summer of 1994. The franchise had a previous history as the terrifically successful and popular Detroit Drive, a team which appeared in the Arena Bowl title game in all six season of its existence from 1988 to 1993, winning four of them. The Drive packed crowds as high as 18,000 into Detroit’s enormous Joe Louis Arena. After Drive owner Mike Ilitch, founder of the Little Caesar’s pizza chain, purchased the Detroit Tigers in 1992, he lost interest in the Drive and sold the team to Arena Football League Commissioner Joseph O’Hara for an undisclosed sum in early 1994.
I was home from college in the summer of ’94 when the Marauders set up shop in Worcester, a small city about 45 minutes west of Boston. My father and I made the trip one night to see the Marauders play the Las Vegas Sting at the half-full Worcester Centrum. The team had a few familiar names – Head Coach Don Strock had been the long-time back-up quarterback to Bob Griese and Dan Marino at the Miami Dolphins. Marauders QB Mike Pagel was also a long-time NFL journeyman, most notably with the Indianapolis Colts. The Marauders also had local legend Gordie Lockbaum, the former Holy Cross star who finished third in the 1987 Heisman Trophy balloting. But Lockbaum rarely saw the field for the Marauders and never played Arena Football – or any brand of pro football – again.
The Marauders finished the 1994 season with an 8-4 record, good enough for a trip to the Arena Football playoffs. A home playoff game, on August 20th, 1994 would prove to be the Marauders final appearance in Worcester, not that the locals seem to care much. A modest announced crowd of 6,858 – second smallest of the season – turned out at the Worcester Centrum for the playoff game. The following week the Marauders travelled to Florida and were eliminated by the Orlando Predators 51-42 in the playoff semi-finals. For the season, the Marauders averaged 7,474 which ranked 8th among the league’s 11 teams.
O’Hara began to feud with his Jim Drucker, his successor as Arena Football League Commissioner, about the direction of the league. At Arena Bowl XIII in Orlando in early September 1994, the two came to blows in a Disney World hotel lounge. O’Hara later threatened to sit out the season if Drucker was not removed from his post. He wasn’t and in February 1995, just a year after purchasing the club, O’Hara declined to post the six-figure letter of credit required of all clubs planning to take part in the 1995 season.
The Marauders were no more, but O’Hara was allowed to maintain ownership rights to the shuttered franchise. A couple of years later he sold off the carcass to the DeVos family of Grand Rapids, who were essentially buying just the league membership by that point. The players had long since scattered to the winds. The former Drive/Marauders franchise resumed play as the Grand Rapids Rampage in 1998 and continued in business until the original Arena Football League closed down after the 2008 season.