IHL Hangs Up Skates

May 28, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — When Dan DeVos and David Van Andel formed West Michigan Hockey Inc. in 1995 with the intention of reviving the sport in the city, they were wooed by three leagues. The American, East Coast and International leagues all sparred for the soon-to-be franchise and its yet-to-be-built Van Andel Arena.

After months of discussions with each league and comparisons of the three, DeVos and Van Andel paid a $6 million franchise fee and joined the IHL in April 1996. It was a solid business decision then.

The IHL was the hottest business thing in minor league professional sports in the mid-1990s. The league was led by Bob Ufer, Jr., an energetic commissioner who preached an expansion homily that overflowed with confidence.

In 1994, under Ufer's direction, the IHL had grown to 17 teams by adding Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Houston and Minneapolis — quite a change from the Muskegons, Daytons and Port Hurons that filled the league. Los Angeles, San Francisco and Orlando were on the waiting list then, as was a franchise for suburban Toronto.

Ufer also was courting cities across the Atlantic for a European division. He foresaw the Euro champ playing North America's best, which would give the IHL something no other league had — two continents playing for its coveted prize, the Turner Cup. His vision was wildly exciting for a 50-year-old league that began with two franchises in sleepy Windsor, Ontario, and two more in post-war Detroit.

And for a while, it all seemed possible. Even with an average ticket price of $10.

In the 1995-96 season, the league grew by two franchises with two more waiting in the wings. The following year the "I" drew 6 million paying customers, for the first and only time in league history, which was also the inaugural season of the Grand Rapids Griffins.

But five years later, Ufer and his vision were gone, as were eight franchises and more than 3 million paying customers. The league only drew 2.7 million this past season, its lowest total in a decade.

So current IHL Commissioner Doug Moss announced on Friday that the league will dissolve after 56 years.

Another announcement is expected to come from DeVos today. He is likely to report that the Griffins are joining the AHL — as Chicago, Houston, Manitoba, Milwaukee and Utah are also expected to do — as part of that league's expansion plan.

"Things will probably be resolved by Monday, late Monday, as to how everything is exactly going to fall," DeVos said last week of the IHL and the Griffins' fate.

Van Andel Arena general manager Rich MacKeigan recently told the Convention and Arena Authority, which owns the arena, that DeVos assured him there would be hockey in the building next season, and at the highest minor pro level possible. With the "I" closed, that title easily falls to the AHL.

But what happens to the Kansas City Blades, the other franchise owned by DeVos and his wife Pamella, partly depends on what action is taken by the San Jose Sharks of the National Hockey League. The Sharks bought an AHL affiliate in Lexington, Ky., and team executives have indicated they will move it to either Cleveland or Kansas City.

The Blades have another year in Kemper Arena on a lease that can be transferred. If San Jose picks Kansas City, it's likely that DeVos will transfer the lease and cut his ties with the Blades. Not surprising, since he tried to move the franchise last year.

"Dan is willing to transfer that lease to an American Hockey League franchise that is moving to Kansas City," Blades general manager Doug Soetaert told the Kansas City Star.

Ironically, the Blades were affiliated with the Sharks in the mid-1990s.

But the latest word had the Sharks teetering between going to Cleveland and staying in Lexington. In the meantime, the Central Hockey League, which merged with the Western Pro league, has become intrigued with Kansas City. If the CHL wants KC, it's unlikely that DeVos would operate a franchise at that second-tier level.

"It would not be me, if it was the CHL. That's just not what I want to do. It's better done by somebody else," he said last week.

Sharks management was expected to announce their decision last Friday at the earliest, or today at the latest.

The future for the other DeVos-owned IHL franchise is also expected to be made clearer this week. Richard DeVos, Dan's father, owns the Orlando Solar Bears, the reigning IHL champs who were not invited to join the AHL. John Weisbrod, CEO for RDV Sports, the DeVos-owned sports-marketing company, said a decision is coming soon on whether the franchise will try to join the AHL, the East Coast league or shut down.

"We've circled early June on our calendars to make a decision. At that time, we'll sit down with everyone, look at what has happened and decide where we'll fit in that landscape," he recently told the Orlando Sentinel.

Dan DeVos told the Business Journal last week that his dad was still weighing his options concerning the future of the Solar Bears.

"They are going through the process of really looking closely at what their next step is. They clearly have other issues to deal with than their team issue. They're also dealing with an arena issue," said Dan DeVos. "I think they will be coming up with an answer pretty soon because next year is not too far away."

As for making a switch to the AHL, DeVos will surely have some regrets over the demise of the IHL. After all, he served as the league's head governor for the past few years and always said the "I" had a good group of owners.

But he likely won't mourn the loss too long, as having the Griffins in the AHL still meets the promise he and Van Andel made to the city six years ago, and that was to offer minor league hockey at its highest possible level.

"We've put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into it, you know. We've worked hard with it and have tried to keep it going. When you make a change, change is always difficult," DeVos said last week of leaving the IHL.

"But life goes on and I always like to look at the positive side of things," he added. "And the positive is this solidifies the teams and the league, the AHL now in this case, as the place to be. It really locks it all in pretty well and makes a lot of sense for everybody, including the NHL and minor league hockey."

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