Lumberjacks Skating On Thin Ice

May 17, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS—Grand Rapids Griffins and Kansas City Blades co-owner Dan DeVos was surprised to learn of the money problems facing the Cleveland Lumberjacks, another International Hockey League franchise.

“I thought we had settled into the year and that everything was rolling along pretty well,” said DeVos last week. “It was surprising for everybody to hear that (Lumberjacks owner) Hank (Kassigkeit) was looking at it differently than he was not too long ago.”

A few days after the IHL governors meeting in Chicago, Kassigkeit said he was broke and couldn’t continue to run the Lumberjacks. The league went to court to stop him from shutting down the franchise. Then IHL Commissioner Doug Moss and a court-appointed mediator began talks with Kassigkeit in an attempt to iron-out the problems in Cleveland.

“Are there problems? Yes, but our goal is to keep hockey in Cleveland,” said Moss to the Houston Chronicle. “Will the IHL be around next season? Absolutely. We face financial problems like any sport, but we have people committed to this league.”

“Cleveland is an important part of our league. It’s a very important city, a good city with a great arena,” said DeVos. “The support for the team over the years has been good. We need to keep looking at different options to keep it there.”

One option has the IHL assuming control of the franchise for the remainder of the season. For that to happen, the league’s other owners have to agree to provide the financial means to do so, as the IHL doesn’t have a rainy-day fund for such a purpose.

“If the league does operate it, it clearly wouldn’t be for the long term,” said DeVos.

Another possibility has the Minnesota Wild, the Lumberjack’s NHL affiliate, buying the franchise.

“We are aware of the situation, and we are monitoring events in Cleveland. Beyond that, we can’t comment on the current proceedings,” said Wild spokesman Bill Robertson.

Kassigkeit bought the Cleveland franchise just days before the season started for $1.8 million from Larry Gordon, who moved the Lumberjacks from Muskegon in 1992 to take advantage of Gund Arena which opened in downtown Cleveland two years later. Kassigkeit also borrowed money from other IHL owners to run the operation and signed an agreement that he had the financial means to keep the franchise active for this season.

“Personally, I’m shocked and I’m embarrassed,” said Kassigkeit to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “It’s not a pleasant situation.”

Kassigkeit reported that he has lost at least $1 million so far this season, four times as much as he initially projected. He said to keep the club operating he needed Gund Arena officials to suspend $260,000 in rent he owes them. He has also asked the Wild for $740,000 to keep the franchise going. The Wild has said it will pay the coaches and players.

Attendance at Lumberjacks games has dropped 56 percent from last season.

If the league takes possession of the Lumberjacks for the remainder of the season, Moss will likely look for a new owner this summer to keep IHL hockey in Cleveland. If a buyer can’t be found, the IHL could open its next campaign with only ten franchises, the number it had in the 1991-92 season.

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