Monday, April 18, 2016

Detroit Vipers (IHL, 2000-01)

2000-01 Regular Season--Vipers vs. Orlando Solar Bears
     The Detroit Vipers were in their seventh season of play by 2000-01. Since relocating from Salt Lake City Utah, the Vipers were a big success both on and off the ice. The team made the playoffs each season from 1994-99, reaching the Turner Cup Finals twice, winning the Cup in 1997. Off the ice, the Vipers rewrote the IHL record books for attendance. The franchise often packed the Palace of Auburn Hills and were at or near the top of the IHL in attendance average.
     A turning point for the franchise came in 1999, when owner Bill Davidson purchased the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning.  After years of being an independent franchise, the Vipers became the Lightning's top farm club. The Lightning were a bottom feeder in the midst of a total rebuild, so the cupboards were not exactly stocked with talent. Due to a rash of injuries on the parent club, the Vipers used 63 players in 1999-2000. This led to the team crashing to the IHL cellar, with a miserable 22-52-8, by far a franchise low.
     2000-01 was even worse. Former defenseman Brad Shaw retired to step behind the bench to lead the young Vipers. Didn't matter, as the team was buried deep in the IHL cellar yet again. It wasn't even close, as Detroit's horrific 23-53-6 record was 39 points back of fifth-place Milwaukee in the East Division. The next worst team in the league, Kansas City, was 25 points better than the Vipers. Attendance slumped seriously this season, as the Vipers averaged only 5,163 per game, easily the lowest in team history.
     Not surprisingly, the Vipers were the worst in both offense and defense. The team scored a miniscule 184 goals, 24 behind second worst Utah. Leading this offensive "attack" was Martin Cibak, who notched 10 goals and 38 points in 79 games. That's right, the leading scorer had 38 points in 79 games! Nils Ekman was the lone 20-goal scorer, notching 22 in only 33 games.
     The defense was just as brutal, as the Vipers allowed 311 goals, 38 more than Kansas City. Detroit saw seven goaltenders bounce in and out of the lineup. Leading the way was Dieter Kochan. Kochan was a fine goaltender in the UHL with Binghampton, but no netminder would find success with this group. Dieter played in 49 games, going 13-28-3, with a 3.55 GAA and no shutouts. Evgeny Konstantinov was his backup for most of the season, playing in 27 games with a 4-15-2 mark and 4.26 GAA. Other netminders include former NHLer Mark Fitzpatrick, future Canuck Dan Cloutier, Ryan Hoople, Markus Helanan and David Mitchell. The days of Rich Parent, Rick Knickle and Jeff Reese were a distant memory.
     No playoffs for the second straight year. Only three teams were eliminated from postseason contention, and the Vipers were far and away the least competitive.
     Despite the pitiful season, the Vipers put out a great-looking program. It's 112 glossy pages, loaded with color and  black-and-white pictures and ads. Each player from that season has a color picture and a bio, along with a question-and-answer section. The hockey personnel of both the Lightning and Vipers are highlighted as well. Lots of stats too, not only for the Vipers but also the IHL. Each team has their own section as well. Local ads include Meijer, Young Country 99.5 FM, Bill Fox Chevrolet and the Palace Grille.
     Got this program from the final game of the season, which also turned out to be the final game, period. The Vipers played host to the Orlando Solar Bears that night. Despite playing behind an offense with all the firepower of a pop gun, Dieter Kochan stopped 30 of 32 shots to lead the Vipers to a 3-2 triumph over the eventual champions, in front of an estimated crowd of 7,000. After the game was over, the PA system played The Doors' classic song The End. Kind of "hint-hint", wasn't it?

Aftermath: 2000-01 was the last hurrah for not only the Vipers, but the rest of the IHL. The league had shrunk over the past few seasons, from a high of 19 teams in 1995-97 to just 11 by 2000-01. Facing increasing financial problems and several teetering franchises, the league disbanded after the Turner Cup Finals, won by the Orlando Solar Bears. Six teams (Grand Rapids, Milwaukee, Chicago, Utah, Houston, Manitoba) joined the AHL after the season, while Cincinnati dropped to the ECHL. The rest of the league, including the Vipers, folded. The Vipers last two seasons were a nightmare, as the team went 45-105-14, thanks to the pitiful, talent-barren Tampa Bay Lightning. What a way to ruin a great hockey club.

Sources:
International Hockey League Statistics: 2000-01 (from hockeydb.com)

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