Sunday, December 15, 2013

St. Thomas Wildcats/London Wildcats/Dayton Ice Bandits/Mohawk Valley Prowlers (CoHL, 1991-2001)

Here's another set of programs I don't see that often. The franchise never lasted too long in any city it was in (3 years in St. Thomas was the max), and never drew much for crowds anywhere.

1991-92 Regular Season--Wildcats vs. Flint Bulldogs
     The Colonial Hockey League was formed in 1991 with five charter members, two in Michigan and three in Ontario. At it's best, the CoHL was a Double A hockey league, a notch below the IHL. At it's worst, it was nothing more than a glorified beer league made up of has-beens and never-weres.
     One of the "Original 5" teams was the St. Thomas Wildcats. They played their home games at the St. Thomas-Elgin Memorial Centre, a 2600-seat arena in St. Thomas, Ontario. 
     During the first two seasons of the Wildcats, their head coach was Peter Horachek, a former Flint Generals and Spirits forward. The Cats were also affiliated with the Buffalo Sabres and St. Louis Blues.
St. Thomas finished in fourth place in their inaugural season, going 24-29-7. Their 55 points were 12 better than last-place Flint, but 18 behind first place Michigan. They were led in the scoring department by Kent Hawley, who chipped in 30 goals and 85 points. Four others scored over 20 goals for Horachek's squad. As a unit, the Cats scored a league-low 263 goals.
     On defense, the Cats were middle-of-the-pack, allowing 288 red lights. They used four different goaltenders that season, but the main netminders were Kevin Butt and Wayne Marion. Kevin Butt played in 30 games, with a 13-10-3 record and 4.22 GAA and 1 shutout. Marion got into 23 games and recorded an 8-9-4 mark with a 5.13 GAA. Scott Luce and Doug Brown were the other two netminders that year.
     In the playoffs, the Wildcats drew regular season champion Michigan Falcons in Round One. The Falcons were favored, but St. Thomas stunned them in 5 games (best-of-seven), to advance to the first-ever Colonial Cup Finals. They faced the Thunder Bay Thunder Hawks, and after falling behind 3-1 in the series, fought back to force a Game 7. Their luck ran out in overtime, as the Thunder Hawks won, 5-4, to clinch the Cup.
     I bought this program about a year ago. This was the first Wildcats program I have seen. Didn't expect to find one, since the team never drew that many fans and it existed for only a few years. It's about 28 pages, full of advertisements and pictures of the front office, coaching staff, players and even cheerleaders. That night's opponent was the Flint Bulldogs.

1993-94 Regular Season--Wildcats vs. Brantford Smoke
     After a second straight Finals appearance (and loss), Peter Horachek moved on to become the head coach/GM of the new Flint Generals. He was replaced by veteran coach Wayne Maxner, who had previously coached for years in the OHL and a two-year stint with the Detroit Red Wings. 
The CoHL was now split into two 4-team divisions, with St. Thomas in the East. The Wildcats finished in third place, sporting an unspectacular 22-34-8 record. Their 52 points were second-worst in the league, only 6 better than last-overall Utica. The team still qualified for the postseason (only Utica was eliminated).
     St. Thomas scored the second-fewest goals in the league this season, a paltry 284 in 64 games. However, they did have two 40-goal scorers, Tim Bean (40) and Gary Callaghan (43). They were the only 20-goal scorers left on the team after winger Don Martin was sent to Muskegon.
     Team defense was a weak spot, as the Cats allowed 343 goals, second-worst in the league. Maxner's bunch used four different goaltenders, but Ron Bertand played the lion's share of games. Bertand got into 53 games, and went 16-23-5 with a 5.09 GAA.
     In previous seasons, the Wildcats turned mediocre regular seasons into Cinderella playoff runs. This time, the Cats would have no such luck. They drew West Division champion Chatham in Round One and were blown away by the Wheels in three straight, outscored 22-9 in the process.

1994-95 Regular Season--Wildcats vs. Flint Generals
     Playing in one of the smallest cities and smallest rinks in the Colonial League, the Wildcats drew small crowds, sometimes in the hundreds. Attendance dropped from 1428 per game in 1993 to 1288 in 1994. Owner Doug Tarry had had enough and relocated his team to London, Ontario, a much larger city with a larger arena. Sounds good, right? Well, just one problem: London was already home to an established OHL franchise, the London Knights. While the Knights were pretty awful back then, the quality of OHL hockey was leaps and bounds over what the Colonial League could ever hope to showcase. After one mediocre season and an average of 1254 fans per game, the Wildcats suspended operations for the 1995-96 season. In the summer of 1996, the franchise was purchased by Campus Green Hockey, LLC, and relocated to Dayton, Ohio.

1996-97 Regular Season--Opponent Unknown
      After taking a year off, the franchise returned with a new town and new identity. The team was named Dayton Ice Bandits and played their home games at 5500-seat Hara Arena. Again, sounds like a great idea, right? catch: Dayton already had an established pro team. The Dayton Bombers of the rival ECHL were a popular team, and had recently moved to Nutter Center, which held just over 9,000 fans. The Colonial League got into hot water with the Bombers and ECHL when they tried to invade the Bombers' territory.
     The Ice Bandits hired Dan Belisle as their head coach, but his team was a flop on and off the ice. They won only 4 of their first 20 games and never recovered. They ended up deep in the Colonial League cellar with a horrific 13-53-8 record. Their meager 34 points were 13 points behind the next-worst team, Saginaw, and a whopping 77 behind league-leading Flint.
     With a record like that, Dayton was naturally the worst in both offense and defense. Their miniscule 216 goals were the worst by 47. Here's an amazing stat: the team's leading points producer scored only 9 goals! Center Bob Clouston didn't reach the 10-goal mark that year, but his 51 points gave him a team-best 60 on the year. Three players on the team scored over 20 goals, including Sean Ortiz, who was traded to Utica. 
     The defense was a sieve all year, as they allowed 412 goals, easily worst in the league. The Ice Bandits went through four goaltenders, with Brian Renfrew and Scott Vetraino being abused the most. Renfrew survived 37 games, going 7-23-4 with a 5.09 GAA, while Vetraino made it into 35 games, going 4-20-4 with a 5.59 GAA. Marc Morningstar and Darryl Foster were the other two netminders.
     Seeing that team only existed for one year and never drew that many fans, I didn't expect to find a program for this team. I grabbed it as soon as I saw it on eBay. For as awful as the Ice Bandits were, they had a really nice-looking program. It's 68 pages, mostly black-and-white, on glossy paper. It's loaded with ads, articles and pictures. So the team did sell a lot of advertising in their program, but just couldn't get the crowds to stick around.

     Playing in a city with an established, popular pro team and icing a terrible product, the Ice Bandits never really had a chance in Dayton. After one season and drawing only 1955 per game (sadly, a franchise high at that point), the Dayton Ice Bandits suspended operations for the 1997-98 season. The franchise would be purchased by Jack Tompkins and relocated to Utica, New York, for the 1998-99 season.

1999-2000 Regular Season--Prowlers vs. Port Huron Border Cats

     Hey, recognize that logo? In an unusual move, the franchise changed cities and nicknames, yet kept the logo. The team was now the Mohawk Valley Prowlers, yet kept the logo previously used by the Dayton Ice Bandits. In an unusual (for this franchise) turn of events, their new city did not have an established team already in place. The Utica Blizzard had skipped town for Winston-Salem after the 1997-98 season. The Prowlers played their home games at Utica Memorial Auditorium, which held just over 3900 fans.
     For 1999-2000, the Prowlers were coached by Shawn Evans, a long-time minor league defenseman.  His Prowlers had a so-so season, going 28-31-15, second place in the Eastern Division. That was somewhat misleading, as only the first-place B.C. Icemen were over .500 in the East, and the Prowlers were 30 points behind that team.
     Mohawk Valley scored the 11th-most goals in the league, with 254. Chris Palmer (featured on the program) led the team with 40 goals and 92 points. John Vecchiarelli and Nic Beaudoin each scored over 30 goals, and Nick Kotary was the only other player with over 20. 
    On defense, the team was fifth-worst in the league, surrendering 295 goals and went through five different goalies. Patrick Charbonneau made it into 50 games, going 20-20-4 with a respectable 3.45 GAA. His main backup was Mike Torchia, who played in 23 games and compiled an 8-9-4 mark with a 3.85 GAA. 
     After several years of forgettable-downright awful hockey by the Bulldogs and Blizzard, Utica fans seemed to respond to the Prowlers. The attendance average reached a franchise high in 1999-2000, as 3308 per game made it to the Aud. That stat was more than double what the team ever averaged in St. Thomas and London, and about 1300 more than they did in Dayton.
     In the playoffs, the Prowlers drew the Missouri River Otters in Round One. In a best of three series, Mohawk Valley upended the Otters in 3 games to advance to Round Two. However, they then faced regular season champ Quad City. The Prowlers were no match for the powerful Mallards, and were crushed in 5 games (best of seven), outscored 26-16 in the process.
     Again, another fine program. It's mostly black-and-white, but there are 48 pages full of ads, stats and pictures. It also has an article about The Assemblyman's Cup, which was awarded to the one New York UHL team that won the regular season series.

     1999-2000 was the last gasp for the franchise. Ownership ran into serious financial troubles the following year and began missing payroll. The players responded by walking out and going on strike midway through the year. The team went into a 10-game tailspin towards the end, which included an 18-4 annihilation by the Icemen in Utica. At the 54-game mark, the Prowlers were 15-32-6. The franchise had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, but the UHL requested it be changed to Chapter 7, to immediately end the season. The UHL got it's wish, and terminated the franchise. Utica would not have professional hockey again until the AHL's Utica Comets arrived this season.

St. Thomas Wildcats Stats: 1991-92 and 1993-94 (from
Dayton Ice Bandits Stats: 1996-97 (from
Mohawk Valley Prowlers Stats: 1999-2000 (from
At A Glance. The Post and Courier, February 18, 2001. (from Google News Archive)

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