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.