IHL To Fold This Week and Merge To AHL.

By Andrew Bourgeois
When the Orlando Solar Bears won the International Hockey League’s Turner Cup championship last Saturday, the future was missing from the celebration.

The 56-year-old IHL is expected to fold this week thus dramatically changing the landscape at the top level of minor professional hockey.

Six of the IHL’s 11 teams from the 2000-01 season, including the Grand Rapids Griffins, the Milwaukee Admirals, the Houston Aeros, the Manitoba Moose, the Utah Grizzlies and the Chicago Wolves, are expected to jump into an expanded American Hockey League for the 2001-02 season.
The AHL, always a prime development arena for the National Hockey League, would become the primary feeder system, potentially expanding into a 28-team circuit for next season.

In the dream world of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, the AHL will eventually become a 30-team entity, so that each of the NHL’s 30 teams will have one top affiliate, similar to how Triple-A baseball teams act as the primary farm teams for major-league baseball clubs.

Like mergers in the corporate world, the logistics of merging two hockey leagues in a few short months have already resulted in plenty of frenzied activity. Among other things, players are worried about lost jobs, while NHL organizations are anticipating reduced costs as new alliances and situations emerge.

Consider the activity in the past two weeks:

- The Minnesota Wild cut their ties to the Cleveland Lumberjacks of the IHL and hooked up with Houston, which also formally announced it was joining the AHL. The league, which had taken over operation of the Lumberjacks during the 2000-01 season, then announced the club had ceased operations.

- The Carolina Hurricanes dropped the Cincinnati Cyclones of the IHL and announced a partnership agreement with the Lowell Lock Monsters of the AHL.

- The Tampa Bay Lightning who cut ties with the Detroit Vipers announced they will share the AHL’s Springfield Indians affiliate with the Phoenix Coyotes. The Vancouver Canucks are expected to hook up with the Manitoba Moose.
At this point, the Turner Cup finalists in Orlando and Chicago the type of free-spending independent teams that were central to the collapse of the IHL have been left without a league.

NHL’s Gary Bettman believes the minor leagues, at the highest level, had to be stabilized. It was too fragmented. There were independent teams and affiliated teams in two different leagues. It just wasn’t working.

After relatively humble beginnings as a regional league in 1945 two teams in Windsor and two in Detroit, designed to give hockey players returning from the war a place to play the IHL lost its regional roots in the mid 1990s.

As a continent-wide league, stretching from Orlando to Houston to Long Beach, California, to Winnipeg, the IHL expanded to 19 teams, with major-league travel budgets and salaries, and a major-league attitude that didn’t sit well with the NHL.

During the NHL lockout of 1994-95, several NHL players kept in shape and picked up paycheques playing in the IHL. As recently as the the 1999-2000 season, goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin played for the now-defunct Long Beach Ice Dogs, during his drawn-out contract fight with the Phoenix Coyotes.

“The IHL had a great concept,” said Gene Ubriaco, director of operations for the Chicago Wolves. “We wanted to be the second league, at a reasonable price. We filled a need. Unfortunately, we might have got off our message. The prices went too high. It didn’t work without working with the NHL. In some situations, players used us against the NHL, and that wasn’t good for anybody. If there was one thing the XFL showed us, it was that people don’t want a substitute. If we’re connected to the NHL, a second tier of the NHL, that would be amazing.”

Carolina GM Jim Rutherford said that in the IHL’s case, it goes back to the work stoppage, we had people in the IHL who just wouldn’t let go. They wanted to have the best minor league and people did things for the wrong reasons. That didn’t help NHL players. How can anybody justify that? So, Khabibulin plays in the IHL instead of making the measly $3 million he would have made in the NHL.

In recent years, the IHL had attempted to become more like the AHL, clawing average salaries to about $57,000 from an average of $80,000 several years ago (the AHL average salary is $61,000) and placing a stronger emphasis on developing younger players than signing past-their-prime veterans.

But the change came too late, and now it’s difficult to find an NHL executive who isn’t in favour of the new-look minor-league system.

“It would make a lot of sense for the NHL if we had one super minor league,” said Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Rick Dudley, once general manager and coach of the IHL’s Detroit Vipers.

“It allows you to see your players competing against exactly the same players they’re going to competing against in the future.”

The other advantage for NHL and AHL teams comes from the reduced costs stemming from squeezing the same talent pool across fewer teams.

Under the AHL’s development-oriented mindset, each team is allowed a maximum of six players who have played more than 260 games at the NHL, IHL and AHL levels. The IHL had no such rule, meaning numerous veterans are now looking at either finishing off their careers in Europe or retiring altogether.

As before, some NHL teams will own and/or operate their AHL teams, providing the bulk of the players for the roster, and will have bigger minor-league payrolls.

Others will provide a handful of prospects to round out an already established minor-league operation, as is the case with the Senators’ affiliation with the Grand Rapids Griffins.

The new setup could mean younger players receive a longer look from their parent organizations because fewer minor-league spots will be used for players past their NHL prime.

Jim Rutherford says the quality of the East Coast Hockey League, which had been the next step below the IHL, should eventually rise so it becomes a direct feeder league to the AHL, similar to the Double-A level of baseball.

“The whole thing puts a structure in place it makes sense for everyone,” he said.

“It provides a good guideline and it makes it fair. You will still have differences with each team. One team might spend $1 million U.S. on (minor-league players), another team $400,000 U.S., but it just makes it so much easier to line things up this way. What you’re really going to do is strengthen the development of players.”

IHL FASTFACTS

On Jan. 17, 1962 the Saint Paul Saints win the most lopsided game in IHL history, a 20-3 drubbing of the Toledo Mercurys.

DID YOU KNOW

That only 2 players from Yugoslavia went on to play in the NHL. They were Ivan Boldirev and Stan Smrke. Stan Smrke played 9 games in the NHL with the Montreal Canadiens between the 1956-57 and 1957-58 seasons. Smrke played most of his career with the Rochester Americans of the AHL, while Ivan Boldirev played 15 seasons in the NHL with Detroit, Vancouver, Atlanta, Chicago, California, and Boston.