I Was Good For Grand Rapids

May 30, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — For much of the past year, IHL Commissioner Doug Moss tried to interest AHL CEO David Andrews in merging or creating a working relationship. But Andrews nixed that idea, preferring that his league continue with its established game plan.

Last Monday, the American Hockey League did that by adding six former International Hockey League franchises, including the Grand Rapids Griffins, a move that effectively ended the IHL’s lengthy and historic life.

A few days earlier, the IHL’s last commissioner, soon to become its head pallbearer, met with league owners to grimly realize that the league had passed away. Old age hadn’t killed the “I”, Moss said, but the cause of death was just as natural. The league’s fiscal arteries had hardened, limiting its movements and making its life one deficit-day after another. So the plug was pulled.

“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,” said Dan DeVos, co-owner of the Griffins who served as the league’s lead governor for the past two seasons. “Our first objective has always been to keep the IHL going.

“But the costs just got too high in all areas of operations, and it got to the point where it was very difficult to cut those back,” he added. “Then couple that with the increased competition in the markets that we were in, big markets with other professional teams.”

In the end, the rapid expansion became most critics’ designated culprit for the league’s demise. They portrayed it as being overzealous and poorly planned, and ultimately it gave a bruised and battered league a big, black “I”. Maybe they are right.

Yet, that same expansion put the city on the national sports-business map, as for the first time Grand Rapids was competing with the biggies. Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Houston, Milwaukee and other major markets made regular trips to the arena, and the city made regular appearances in their newspapers and on their TV stations.

In fact, soon after DeVos and David Van Andel cut the $6 million check and joined the IHL, Grand Rapids gained the distinction of being the best minor pro sports city in the nation — something that wouldn’t have happened had the Griffins continued to face the old bus-league franchises like Toledo, Dayton and Port Huron.

Nor would Grand Rapids likely have made the elite list and been invited to join the AHL, if the expansion hadn’t happened. Nor would the Arena Football League likely have come calling if the Griffins hadn’t competed so successfully against much larger markets.

But by the time the next puck drops in October and the Griffins pursue the Calder Trophy instead of the Turner Cup, those recollections of what the “I” did for the city will likely fade. All won’t vanish, though, as the memories of a growing league and the promises that were almost kept will linger in the corners and in certain sections of the arena for years to come.

The new will be there, too. Hartford Saint John and St. John’s will visit and fresh rivalries will replace old ones. Travel expenses should be lower, and the Griffins won’t have to make many marketing or merchandising changes. The franchise will remain affiliated with Ottawa, the AHL has a collective bargaining agreement in place until 2005, and the admission fee is only $1 million and can be paid interest-free over 10 years. Those are all business pluses.

But the best thing about new isn’t a better bottom line for a single franchise. The picture is bigger than that. As DeVos knows, the best thing about new is the hope it always brings when it arrives.

“For the last couple of years, we’ve been trying to think of the ways that we could improve minor league hockey. That’s ultimately what we’re trying to do, what everyone has been looking to do,” he said. “If that means we need to move teams into another league, if that’s better for minor league hockey, then that seems to make some sense.”  

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