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Putting On a Show

While the NHL slumbers, the International Hockey League is giving crowds a rousing time

As best Detroit Viper coach and general manager Rick Dudley can piece it together, this is the story: Toronto Maple Leaf star Doug Gilmour was at home on Sept. 30 in Toronto watching the Vipers' first game on television, saw 20,000 happy fans cheering Detroit on in the glittery Palace of Auburn Hills and began feeling a little morose about the NHL's lockout. While the game was still in progress, he had a friend call the Vipers, a new franchise in the International Hockey League, to ask if Dougie could come out and play.

Can you blame him? The IHL not only offers credible hockey but also has shoot-outs to settle ties, power plays sponsored by pizza parlors and intermissions featuring human pucks and fans in inflated sumo-wrestler bodies rumbling at center ice. Do you think Gilmour could bump into a giant skating-knight mascot in the corridors of Maple Leaf Gardens?

"This is a league for the masses and not the classes," says Atlanta Knight president Richard Adler, who picked up the phrase while working for 16 years as a vice president of marketing for the Ring-ling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus. "It's entertainment, with the ice as the stage. The NHL is a coat-and-tic league. We're not. They're the Mercedes, the best hockey league in the world. We're the Chevrolet. Of course, more people drive Chevys."

So for now, the Vipers' Dudley and the other general managers in this pro league for the proletariat have given Gilmour and all other inquiring NHL players—and there have been several—a polite no to their requests to temporarily join the IHL. It may be that one or two clubs in the league will change their minds if the NHL's deadline for starting the season this Saturday passes without a new collective bargaining agreement; Los Angeles King defenseman Marty McSorley, for example, says he would like to join his brother Chris, who is associate coach of the IHL's Las Vegas Thunder. But most of the league's teams seem willing to continue down the path that combines hockey with hokum and low ticket prices with low salaries.

In its 50th season, the IHL, known as the I to everyone in hockey, has become a magnet for players, fans, businessmen and, as we'll soon see, maybe even several million francs, lire and kronor. The average attendance for the first weekend this season was an impressive 10,540 per game, and nine of 14 home openers were played to capacity or near-capacity crowds.

The I formation of 17 teams now includes clubs in two venerable NHL cities, Detroit and Chicago, as well as in such metropolises as Denver, Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul and San Diego. The league has teams in 14 of the top 36 U.S. markets and has plans to expand to American cities that fit the description of "major league." There will be three new cities next season, then two a year for the rest of the decade. But the big news is that the Chevy is being exported: By next October the IHL hopes to have a six-team European league with franchises in England, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Sweden and France.

If the IHL had said 15 years ago that it was expanding to Paris, the assumption would have been that the league was bound for Paris, Ky.—because Paris, Texas, would have been too long a haul from Kalamazoo. The IHL was then a Michigan-based bus league, a circuit of Flint, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Muskegon, Port Huron and Saginaw, with side trips to exotic burgs like Milwaukee, Toledo and Fort Wayne, Ind. Back then, the I might as well have stood for Interstate. Men sweated in small arenas for minuscule paychecks and played a game straight out of the movie Slap Shot, in which the struggle was to keep your teeth and your dignity. The IHL was as much a sentence as it was a league, the closest thing professional hockey had to Attica.

"The I was the pits then, as low as you could sink," says 34-year-old Viper goalie Rick Knickle, who first played in the league in 1979-80. "And it was definitely Slap Shot. In Muskegon I played with one of the Hansen brothers [as they were named in the film], Jeff Carlson. One day I'm going down the hall in the hotel, and his door's open, and he's playing with his toy cars, just like in the movie."

"My first game, Milwaukee versus Saginaw, set the record—444 penalty minutes," says Scott Gruhl, who scored a record 596 regular-season and playoff goals during 13 IHL seasons and is now a player-assistant coach with the Richmond Renegades of the East Coast Hockey League. "There were two 30-minute brawls, the game took 4½ hours, and I felt like I spent the whole time hanging on to somebody. I'm thinking, What have I done? What am I doing here? You played out of fear, and you played in tough rinks. The dressing room in Grand Rapids had a bare lightbulb swinging from the ceiling, like you see in prison movies. The stands were right above the room. Coffee and pop would dribble down on us. And there were these low-hanging pipes. Between periods, when one of our guys called for our trainer, the trainer turned around, hit his head on a pipe and knocked himself cold. We're getting ready to go back on the ice, and we're giving him his own smelling salts."

"It's amazing that NHL players are now asking to play in the I, considering that back in the 1960s, guys had it written into their contracts they couldn't be sent to the International League," says Kalamazoo Wing general manager Bill Inglis.

It was in June 1984 that the black I changed forever. The Central Hockey League folded, and two of its teams, Salt Lake City and Indianapolis, became the eighth and ninth IHL franchises. While Indianapolis was just another Midwestern city in I country, Salt Lake City was special—because teams were forced to fly there. Neckties came out. Coolers from the back of the bus were discarded. The simple act of air travel seemed to turn the players into self-respecting pros. And the league took off. In '85 the IHL adopted a shoot-out in the event of a tie so that each game would have a winner. Rules against fighting became stricter, and penalties more severe. By the late '80s the IHL had evolved into the equal of the reputable American Hockey League, which has franchises throughout the Northeast and in Canada's Maritime Provinces, and by '90 the IHL had surpassed the AHL as hockey's premier minor league. Ten years after current Cleveland Lumberjack owner Larry Gordon bought the troubled Muskegon franchise for one dollar, the entry fee for an expansion franchise in 1994 was $5 million.

The AHL has settled in as a developmental league, with all but one of its 16 teams affiliated with NHL clubs. Only 10 IHL franchises serve as NHL farm teams; the other seven are independent, free to snag whatever players they can. If you're a former NHLer or an upwardly mobile free-agent farmhand, and you're given a choice of Las Vegas and San Diego or the more bucolic charms of Hershey, Pa., and Sydney, Nova Scotia, which do you choose?

With the IHL's rising prestige and hockey's newfound reputation as a hot sport, is there any limit to the league's appetite for expansion? "it's gratifying to be at this level," says Inglis, whose K-Wings play in a rink with 5,113 seats, the IHL's smallest. "But I'm not in favor of shooting off a gun and seeing where things fall. Maybe we should take time and build on what we have."

No chance. For all its modesty, this is the hungry I. These are the minimum requirements for 1995-96 expansion teams: a 10,000-seat arena, a population base of one million and a $6 million franchise fee. Already Kalamazoo, Fort Wayne and Peoria. Ill.—"our Green Bays," new IHL commissioner Bob Ufer calls them—seem hopelessly small.

The IHL magic is not in its flashy pregame introductions—although Las Vegas Thunder players' bursting through an inflatable slot machine does have a certain cachet—but in its ticket prices. A family of four can get good seats, eats, parking and the requisite souvenirs for $90; that same package for an NHL Detroit Red Wing game would be around $175. Viper tickets range between $5 and $18; the Red Wings scale theirs between $15 and $43. Of course, there are other differences. For example, the Wings have Sergei Fedorov, the NHL's MVP. while the Vipers have Petr Sykora, an 18-year-old from the Czech Republic who is projected as the first pick in the 1995 NHL draft.

Then again, the Vipers are playing and the Red Wings are not. And in this era of fan alienation, the reassuring news for the Viper faithful is that they actually might be in the same tax bracket as the players they're watching. The average IHL salary is about $65,000, which is $500,000 below last season's NHL average. The IHL, during current negotiations for its own new collective bargaining agreement, has sought to include a unique clause: a provision that a large number of tickets in the big arenas will cost $10 or less. Such a provision reflects the fact that many of the league's movers and shakers don't want to move too far or shake too hard.

"I don't see us challenging the NHL," Ufer says. "It makes no sense. Why sign one player who'll double your payroll? We don't want to go the USFL route."

Yet it takes only one cold-weather Steinbrenner and....

"I know the commissioner talks about controlled growth and being a complement to the NHL, but even if it's not in the grand plan, there's a certain inevitability to a far better IHL," says Viper president Tom Wilson, who is also president of the NBA Pistons. "I'm bullish on this league. Maybe one day we won't be content to be a minor league."

The Vipers have told their fans that they're going to have fun from the moment the players skate onto the ice through a giant snake head. In fact, the Vipers guarantee it—at least they did the first weekend. On opening night a league-record 20,182 tickets were sold. The next night an announced crowd of 18,248 became the second-largest in IHL history. For the weekend only 81 tickets were refunded as part of the money-back Satisfaction Guaranteed offer. So far the Vipers have missed only one marketing gag: While they did put defenseman Gord Hynes in jersey number 57, they somehow failed to have forward Miroslav Satan wear number 666.

The second-year Thunder had it all for its opener in Vegas last Friday: a crowd of 12,604; center Radek Bonk the NHL's No. 3 draft choice in June, who returned to the I after failing to sign with the Ottawa Senators; Atlanta Brave pitcher Greg Maddux, a Las Vegas resident who had nothing better to do in October; third-string goalie Manon Rhèaume, hockey's first female pro; prospective employee McSorley dropping the first puck; and a 4-3 win over the San Diego Gulls. The tensest moment of the evening came during the national anthem when members of the 1950s singing group Lil Elmo and the Cosmos had to cover their foot-high pompadours with their hands when the fireworks went off.

In Atlanta's home opener on Saturday, the Knights skated onto the ice through a huge replica of the Turner Cup to celebrate winning last season's championship. The Knights beat the Houston Aeros 6-5 before 14,546 but didn't score on the designated power play that would have entitled each fan to a whole pizza for just $4.99.

"This is not the NHL," Adler says, "and we're aware that all the players really want to get to the next level."

Maybe now. But next year how will you keep them off the farm after they've played Par-ee?



The opening-night festivities in Atlanta (left), Detroit (above) and Las Vegas had plenty of fanfare—and attracted a lot of fans.



[See caption above.]



With their NHL favorites idled, fans in Detroit got their fix at a Viper game.



Former NHLers like Ron Wilson (far left) and Dave Barr (11) have found a home in the I.



Cheaper tickets mean more cash for Knight souvenirs.



The Kings' McSorley, a guest in Vegas, may join the Thunder if the lockout continues.