Published: June 10, 2001 in the Orlando Sentinel
The Orlando Solar Bears and the Charlestown Chiefs from the movie "Slap Shot" have a lot in common.
Too much, in fact.
Think about it: The Solar Bears, like the Chiefs, continued winning amid a slumping economy and rumors about their future while galvanizing a small but fiercely loyal following. Unfortunately for the Solar Bears, their season and the 1977 movie ended the same way: The hometown team won the championship but ended up folding, leaving a city without hockey.
The script that included the Solar Bears' demise may well have been written before the team joined the International Hockey League, which ceased day-to-day operations June 1. Reckless rapid expansion -- which included Orlando -- weakened the league and drove up player salaries and team expenses.
Those factors brought down the curtain on both the IHL and the Solar Bears. The question now concerns why it happened and what the future holds. As Dickie Dunn, the reporter in the movie, said, let's "try to capture the spirit of the thing."
The ingredients for the collapse of the 56-year-old IHL -- and ultimately, the Solar Bears -- already had started to bubble over years before hockey came to Orlando in 1995.
For most of its history, the IHL had primarily been a league of teams in the Midwest and Great Lakes region. With franchises in towns such as Peoria, Ill., Fort Wayne, Ind., and Kalamazoo, Mich., clubs were close geographically and formed close-knit rivalries.
That changed in 1989 when N. Thomas Berry became commissioner. The league added seven new cities, and fees for expansion soared from $200,000 to $5 million. By 1995, with Bob Ufer as commissioner, the IHL had 19 teams, with franchises scattered across the country.
Life was good. A labor dispute that halted play for half of the NHL's 1994-95 season proved a windfall for the IHL, helping the teams set attendance records and the league draw nearly 5.8 million fans.
Buoyed by the influx of fans, Ufer pushed for more expansion -- this time into non-traditional hockey markets such as Las Vegas, San Francisco, Houston and Orlando.
It was all part of his ultimate plan, which called for the IHL to take on the NHL directly. That was an enormous mistake, according to Doug Moss, the president and CEO of the IHL when the league folded last week.
"It was a disaster," Moss said. "I was in the NHL, and I was laughing at it then. You can't compete with the NHL. I mean, even though there was a lockout, you knew the league was going to come back. It was foolish."
Todd Richards, who played for the Solar Bears for all six years of their existence, also saw trouble.
"I believe the league was moving too fast with expansion," Richards said. "We were hot there for a little bit, but the league started throwing franchises where they shouldn't have been."
Expansion wasn't the only culprit in the league's demise. Some teams began to ruin the league's salary structure by paying more than they could afford for free agents, forcing the lower-budget teams to do the same.
"With the way things were going, it was a wagon heading over the cliff," said Moss, who became commissioner in 1997. "I think the biggest problem was that we had almost no affiliation with the NHL, and the teams and play just didn't look that good, especially when the league was calling itself the second-best hockey league in the world."
Moss worked to control expenses and encourage team affiliations with the NHL. But in the end, the cost of running a minor league in far-flung major-league markets was too much. Teams began to fold or leave for rival leagues. Finally, last week, six of the 11 surviving IHL teams joined the American Hockey League, forcing the IHL to close.
SPEND, SPEND, SPEND
The high cost of doing business also put a dent in the Solar Bears' finances. John Weisbrod, chief operating officer of RDV Sports, which owned the team, said declining attendance played the biggest factor in the decision to fold the team.
The Solar Bears saw their average paid attendance for the regular season drop from 10,460 in their 1995-96 inaugural season to 5,156 this season.
Weisbrod said he searched for any possible way to keep hockey in Orlando, but as much as his heart wanted to keep the sport on ice for himself and the team's fans, his head told him the numbers wouldn't allow it.
"Fundamentally, we made a lot of adjustments in the past few years in the way our organization was structured, the way we went about the business, the way we tried to do things, the way we handled expenses -- all the things we could do to right a ship that was struggling," he said.
"Ultimately it came down to a revenue issue, and it came down to a fan support issue," he said.
Fans aren't so sure. While many blame the team's extinction on poor coverage by area media, including the Sentinel, others cite the team's marketing.
"They used to have billboards, TV spots on all the channels, parking-lot clinics for kids. They'd do store grand-openings and things like that," said Altamonte Springs' Maggie Shouse, who attended every Solar Bears home game for four years. "Each season the marketing effort became less visible. I don't understand why they didn't put more effort into marketing."
Bev Parker of Orlando, another regular in the stands, blames RDV Sports for not doing enough to keep the team in the public eye.
"It's the `old out of sight, out of mind' saying," Parker said. "I think it's irresponsible of RDV to blame their failure on the fan base. How can you blame the fans if the marketing isn't there?"
Six playoff berths, three Turner Cup appearances, one championship and the most regular-season victories among all IHL teams in the past six seasons would seem to be enough to bring in fans, but that wasn't the case.
"The thing is, we were successful all six years," said Richards. "And then to see the gradual decline in attendance. It's kind of like as a player, what more can you do?"
A FUTURE FOR HOCKEY?
Though RDV has washed its hands of hockey for the foreseeable future -- bypassing opportunities to have the Solar Bears join the AHL or the lower-level East Coach Hockey League -- others could start a team or move one here.
Some fans, including Shouse, think hockey will return. But with the Solar Bears' death, the viability of Central Florida as a hockey haven is being questioned.
In general, thriving hockey markets have large numbers of fans who have grown up around the game, who have strong ties to the area and who don't have many other entertainment options.
That doesn't describe Orlando now, but it could in the future. Participation in youth hockey continues to rise dramatically, and a growing population means more people are willing to stay put.
Don Waddell knows the situation. He was the Solar Bears' first general manager. Now as vice president and general manager of the NHL's Atlanta Thrashers, he has made countless trips to Orlando to watch his team's prospects play with the O-Bears the past two years.
"It has been a pretty good market," Waddell said. "It is, but you have to understand the market -- that you'll have a core group of fans that give you about 5,000 a game. You can't expect to get 8,000 to 9,000 every night. But if you understand you'll get the core fans and plan for that, hockey can succeed there."
ECHL President Rick Adams has said his league would love to include Orlando among its cities, which include Pensacola, Savannah, Ga., and Mobile, Ala.
"Geographically, it would be a good fit for us," Adams said. "And the arena would also be a first-class facility for our league."
By controlling TD Waterhouse Centre, the city of Orlando will be a key player if any team wants to call Orlando home.
"It would be a negotiation process, and we'd see what kind of expenses they had and the attendance they expected," said Jon Dorman, deputy director of the Centroplex, which runs the arena. "We would probably be looking to get more of our expenses covered."
The Solar Bears' original lease agreement called for the team to pay the city greater sum of $5,000 or 7 percent of ticket sales per game. Because attendance fell below prescribed limits, this season the team paid about $5,700 per home game and the city lost $7,000 to $10,000 per game paying for power, cleaning and game-day workers.
From what Dorman has seen the past six years, he doesn't think Orlando can support minor-league hockey in the near future unless a team finds a smaller venue or can guarantee crowds of about 8,000 every night.
Though the immediate future looks dim, most agree Orlando will eventually host pro hockey again -- but no one can say when that might happen.
"To say never, there's an evolution taking place with the city and with the population that I could never predict," Weisbrod said. "If I thought hockey at our level or above would succeed in Orlando in the next five years, we'd still have hockey."
That may well be the case, but try telling that to Orlando fans who called other Solar Bears fans a "second family" and now have the Tampa Bay Lightning as their closest hockey option.
"What is really sad at this point is how many of us miss the values they had," said Gary Morin of Lake Mary, who, while working in Tampa, would pass up free Lightning tickets and drive past the Ice Palace on his way to Orlando to watch the Solar Bears. "They've always done everything the right way and they've been successful. It doesn't get much better than that."