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.