Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Almost A Hockey Promoter

I haven't watched professional wrestling with any sort of regularity since my high school days. In other words, I haven't watched it in a good while. If there is one person who has transcended the eras and champions of the former WWF and now WWE, it's owner, chairman, and sometimes-wrestler Vincent Kennedy McMahon. Vince, as you're probably aware, is a pretty good promoter of his brand and company, and he's certainly built the WWE into a worldwide phenomenon. He's dabbled in other sports as well with a venture into football as the owner of the XFL, but did you know that he was an aspiring AHL owner early in his sports entertainment career?

The Eastern Hockey League was reformed after the Northeastern Hockey League rebranded itself in 1979-80. Baltimore joined the league, and the Cape Cod team relocated to Richmond, Virginia. This gave the league some steady franchises in two easy-to-reach road trip circles: Richmond, Baltimore, and Hampton in one circle and Utica, Johnstown, and Erie in the other.

Like any fledgling league, though, there were some issues and teams relocated for the second season in 1980-81. Utica moved to Salem, Virginia, and Johnstown dropped out of the league only to be replaced by Syracuse. The Syracuse franchise was already behind the eight-ball in its late inclusion, and was forced to ice a team with rather inadequate players. After starting the season 0-9-1, Syracuse folded.

On July 19, 1981, the five owners of the remaining teams met and decided to fold the EHL in favor of founding the Atlantic Coast Hockey League. The ACHL consisted of Baltimore, Salem, Winston-Salem, and Mohawk Valley - aka Utica - as the original teams, and Richmond showed interest. Because of geographic locations, a more northern sixth team was sought to help Utica. Johnstown appeared to be the team, but the owner fell ill and the team was pulled from consideration.

The Boston Bruins and a group of investors from the Cape Cod area approached the ACHL with the intent to supply the sixth team. The investors, however, failed to pay the $15,000 ACHL membership fee, leaving the Cape Cod franchise in a bind. Cape Cod Coliseum owner Vince McMahon recognized that his major tenant wasn't going to ice a team, so he did what he needed to do to protect his arena's investment, and he paid the $15,000. Vincent McMahon was now a hockey team owner!

McMahon had larger dreams prior to buying the ACHL team. McMahon had approached the American Hockey League with the intent on putting an AHL franchise into his arena for the 1981-82 season. McMahon, unfortunately, was unable to finalize plans and get them in front of the AHL Board of Governors before the summer break, so he took the opportunity to buy the ACHL franchise and work with the Boston Bruins.

While all of this was happening, the Intercontinental Major Hockey League was starting up, and threatened to move in on some of the franchises in the ACHL. The IMHL, however, had very little financial support, and the three founding franchises that they had hoped to get off the ground applied to join the ACHL. Of the three, Schenectady and Fitchburg were accepted into the fold. Richmond, Virginia, however, backed out of the ACHL, and the league would open its doors with seven franchises to its name.

Initially, Vince McMahon voiced opposition to the additions of Schenectady and Fitchburg as both franchises were owned by the same man in Robert Critelli. He asked the league to investigate the franchises as it seemed they were icing inferior talent compared to the rest of the league, and the league obliged.

The Cape Cod Buccaneers were officially unveiled in August of 1981. McMahon's first move as owner was to hire former New Haven Nighthawks player Jim Troy as the team's coach and general manager. McMahon's venture seemed to be a wise one as the Cape Cod Coliseum was attracting fans for hockey, and the team was starting to develop a following.

September of 1981-82 saw a seven-team ACHL open its doors. The Salem Raiders, Winston-Salem Thunderbirds, Mohawk Valley Stars, Baltimore Skipjacks, Cape Cod Buccanners, Fitchburg Trappers, and the Schenectady Chiefs were the initial members, and there was hope that this new league's venture in the northeastern United States would prove to be a prosperous one for all involved.

In reality, the ACHL was nowhere near prosperous. The two Critelli teams - the Schenectady Chiefs and the Fitchburg Trappers - folded within the first month of the league's existence as it was found that Critelli's finances weren't as they were forecasted, and Winston-Salem was nosediving towards bankruptcy quickly within the second month.

The Buccaneers, for what it's worth, finished the season at 17-21-1 after the emergency meeting. Despite having 35 points and being four points better than the fifth-place Winston-Salem Thunderbirds, the Cape Cod Buccaneers missed the playoffs for one very good reason: Vince McMahon folded the team in January 1982.

Cape Cod found the lack of northern-based teams to be a strain on the team's finances, and owner Vince McMahon tried to borrow $15,000 from the ACHL to supplement his spreading red ink. He was accused by the other owners of trying to recoup his membership fee, and this didn't sit well with McMahon. In announcing that he was shutting down the Cape Cod franchise, he also announced that Winston-Salem was folding as well. Winston-Salem, it turned out, did not fold and actually participated in the ACHL Playoffs. I have no idea where McMahon got the idea that they would be folding, but c'est la vie.

Despite lasting for just over half the season, the team did get some strong performances on the ice as former NHL star Fred Ahern led the team in points with 36 while Jerry Curley and Mark Fidler shared the goal-scoring lead with 17 apiece. Goaltender Jim Stewart, who bounced around the Bruins' minor-league affiliates, played in 26 games, posting a goals-against average of 4.17.

So what happened to Vince's interest in finding a tenant for the Cape Cod Coliseum outside of his wrestling venture? Despite hosting several wrestling events a year in the building, McMahon couldn't find another permanent tenant. In 1984, McMahon sold the arena to Christmas Tree Shops and converted to a warehouse. And with that sale, Vince McMahon wouldn't step into the hockey world as an owner again.

It's not like Vince McMahon fell on hard times, though. He took over the business his father ran, and turned it into a global force in which he crushed and eventually absorbed his rivals in Ted Turner's WCW and the ECW. The WWE is an industry unto itself, and Vince has played a big part in that success.

To me, it would have been interesting to see what would had happened had he been able to pull everything together for an AHL franchise. Could you imagine that?

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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