Friday, 5 February 2016

Carolina's Monarchy

With Carolina arriving on the scene in the major football league to play for their ultimate trophy, HBIC always likes to look back at the hockey history of the cities and regions that are featured in the games. Denver's history is pretty well-known with the Rockies and Avalanche having called Denver home in the NHL, but Carolina's hockey history a little more colorful. Sure, there are the Hurricanes and Checkers, but there was an AHL that called Greensboro home for two seasons before the Hurricanes arrived on the scene. Today, HBIC takes a look at the short history of the Carolina Monarchs, the first AHL team in the Carolinas.

The Florida Panthers were the NHL affiliate of the Carolina Monarchs, but it may have played out differently had history gone in a different direction. The Panthers, founded in 1993, had the IHL's Cincinnati Cyclones as their original affiliation until the Panthers chose to move their club closer to Miami, Florida for easier recalls.

The Greensboro Monarchs were moved from the ECHL to the AHL after many successful seasons in the ECHL. The 1994 season saw the Monarchs play in the newly-renovated, 21000-seat Greensboro Coliseum, and the rough-and-tumble style that the ECHL Monarchs employed was a hit with fans in the south. There was a better chance of seeing a multiple fight night than a multiple goal night on some occasions, and this helped the Monarchs draw over 216,000 fans to 34 home games in 1994-95!

The AHL saw this opportunity to capitalize on a hockey-mad market by expanding southward, and Greensboro was included with three other former ECHL cities in Norfolk, Charlotte, and Charleston. With the expansion came high hopes in Greensboro as the newly-founded Carolina Monarchs, backed by an affiliation with the Florida Panthers, took to the ice in 1995 in the AHL's Southern Division that would see the Monarchs compete in a division with the Hershey Bears, the Binghamton Rangers, and the Baltimore Bandits.

Richard Kromm was named as the head coach, replacing the popular Jeff Brubaker. Kromm was a former NHL player with the Calgary Flames and New York Islanders, and spent some time in Winnipeg as his father, Bobby Kromm, coached the WHA's Winnipeg Jets. Kromm moved with the Panthers' affiliation as he had been an assistant coach and interim coach of the IHL's Cincinnati Cyclones from 1993-95 before finding his way to Greensboro. Kromm's first season in North Carolina saw him in charge of some excellent talent.

Of the names that most will recognize, Gilbert Dionne, Bob Boughner, and Kevin Weekes will jump out at you. Weekes, as seen to the right, was a fan favorite as he dressed for 60 games while wearing #00, a celebrated number among goalies. This was prior to the updated statistical tracking that the NHL used which forced Martin Biron to switch from his #00, so Weekes wore his double-zeroes for both seasons that he was in Greensboro. Statistically, he never had a goals-against average below 3.50, but Weekes played a lot and faced a lot of pucks in his two seasons with Carolina. Of course, that doesn't bode well for how the team actually did on the ice or at the box office.

It was pretty clear that the fight-per-night atmosphere that once filled the Greensboro Coliseum and the fans that loved it were disappointed in the Carolina Monarchs. The team hovered around .500 for the first month of the 1995 season, and the fans who were expecting the old Monarchs didn't get what they wanted. Monarchs owner Bill Black told The Greensboro News & Record in December 1995,
"We've got a marketing job to do with a new product we've got. You can't judge this product in light of the old one. Fans who came out for what the old product offered – the fights and stuff like that – there’s not much here for them anymore. There was an element out there we were a little frustrated with. I thought they were running off some of our families, detracting from our ability to market to our clientele. Those were the ones who fought in the parking lot after the game."
Fans were displeased with the changes and they showed their unhappiness at the ticket booth. Nearly 1700 less fans turned out to watch the Carolina Monarchs as the average attendance dropped from around 6400 fans in the ECHL to just over 4700 in the AHL. Gone were local rivalries with the surrounding cities in the ECHL. Gone was the violence many fans had come to love. Gone was the atmosphere that once surrounded the Monarchs.

The .500 season continued through 1995-96 before a late-season losing streak saw the Monarchs fall out of the playoff race and finish with a 28-38-11-3 record for 70 points (W-L-T-OTL). That left them seven points back of third-place Baltimore in the four-team Southern Division. There were some highlights, though, as Brad Smyth, seen to the left, scored an AHL-best 68 goals - 20 better than his next closest goal-scorer - and finish with an AHL-best 126 points. Brett Harkins led the AHL in assists with 71, Mike Casselman finished third with 68 helpers, and both Gilbert Dionne and Smyth finished ninth with 58 assists each. Gilbert Dionne was sixth-best with 43 goals. Casselman finished third in scoring with 102 points, Dionne in fourth with 101 points, and Harkins in ninth with 94 points. Needless to say, the Monarchs had a number of scorers.

Goaltending was a bit of an issue. Kevin Weekes played 60 games that season, posting a 24-25-8 record with a 4.04 GAA and an .876 save percentage to go along with two shutouts. There aren't many teams who win while giving up an average of four goals per night, so it was clear that for all the offence that the Monarchs could throw up on the scoreboard, playing defence wasn't a priority. Almost all the regulars finished the season with a minus-rating. That's never going to help in the standings.

After missing the playoffs in their first season and seeing attendance drop off as the season wore on, ownership began to publicly bemoan the lack of support from the fans and the surrounding businesses. Black once again went back to The Greensboro News & Record to state, "Obviously, the quality of the product is only part of the package. We failed to factor in that there were some people who came to games for the lesser aspects of hockey – the goonery. The other major disappointment is the lack of major corporate support."

With the ownership blaming fans and corporate sponsors for the lack of success at the box office, the team sagged further on the ice in the 1996-97 season. They were moved to the five-team Mid-Atlantic Division where they competed against the Philadelphia Phantoms, the Hershey Bears, the Kentucky Thoroughblades, and the Baltimore Bandits. They would equal their win total from a season previous, but they fell in points as they finished the campaign 28-43-4-5 for 65 points, eight points back of fourth-place Baltimore. The Monarchs would once again miss the playoffs while attendance fell again to an average of 4166 per game.

The offence was markedly less potent as well. Gilbert Dionne led the team in scoring with 88 points, goals with 41, and assists with 47. Smyth, Casselman, and Harkins had all moved on as the Florida Panthers had more influence on the roster, but it wasn't much help. Dionne did finish in fourth-place in AHL goal-scoring and seventh-overall in scoring, but the only other Monarch to make a top-ten list was Trevor Doyle who finished ninth with 288 penalty minutes.

With attendance dwindling, there were rumours that the Monarchs were up for sale. Things in the AHL were on the move as well as the Baltimore Bandits folded, making travel even tougher for the Monarchs as Baltimore was the closest opponent in their own division. The upheaval in the AHL was a concern for all the teams in the American League, but the NHL solved Carolina's problem with the announcement in the spring of 1997 that the Hartford Whalers would move to Raleigh, North Carolina. However, because a suitable arena wasn't available in Raleigh, the team announced it would play its first seasons in Greensboro until an arena could be built in Raleigh to house the NHL club.

The Monarchs were in a bit of a jam in that their arena was about to be taken over by an NHL club yet they still held a lease for the arena dates. To solve this issue, the Whalers paid the Monarchs $350,000 and the Monarchs folded quietly as the brand-new Carolina Hurricanes invaded Greensboro for their first season in North Carolina. The Monarchs franchise rights were transferred to New Haven, Connecticut where the Beast of New Haven played a couple of seasons before they folded up their tents.

Two seasons of sub-.500 hockey, one scoring champion, and a truckload of money - that's the story of the Monarchs in one line. While I'm no NFL fan, there's a large number of people who believe that the Carolina Panthers will win this Sunday. Unfortunately for hockey fans, the story of Carolina and the NHL Panthers didn't result in the same hope.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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