The Forgotten Hockey League: Exploring the History and Demise of the IHL

The Hershey Bears and the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins took to the ice on Saturday night to a sold-out Giant Center in Hershey, PA. They were two teams who were on completely opposite sides of the AHL world; the Penguins were comfortably leading the league and the Bears were just fighting to make the playoffs.

The entire philosophy of being a player for the Bears and Penguins are quite odd; you want to help your team succeed, but you also want to move up to the NHL. And while these two teams were in different sides of the AHL playoff scenario, their players all were fighting to make it to the highest level of play in the world, the NHL.

Many fans know what the feeder system of making the NHL is. You get drafted, then rise up the professional ladders until you finally make the NHL. In fact, you can read about that in one of my previous articles, From Prospect to Professional.

All NHL teams have affiliates in the AHL, and most have affiliates in the ECHL. The Pittsburgh Penguins have the WBS Penguins and the Wheeling Nailers of the ECHL, while the Washington Capitals have the Hershey Bears and the South Carolina Stingrays of the ECHL.

It’s a simple progression ladder. However, it was not always this simple.

Lost to the world of sports leagues who tried to do too much (this includes the World Hockey Association and the United States Football League) is the International Hockey League.

The International Hockey League, or the IHL, was, at its peak, the main 2nd division of North American hockey. It functioned from 1954 to its poor demise in 2001.

If you take a look back at the Pittsburgh Penguins minor league affiliate history, you would notice that they had two 2nd division affiliates at one point in the Baltimore Skipjacks of the AHL and the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the IHL. That was in the 1986-87 season. The year after that and up until the end of 1997, the Penguins lone affiliate in the 2nd division was the Lumberjacks of the IHL.

This means that there were two teams that played at a very high level of play that you could put your top prospects into.

This would be beneficial for teams that had a wealth of talent. If need be, they could shuffle their top prospects into different teams playing at the same level of hockey and see if they would fit into different systems or styles. Because of this, they didn’t have to mess up certain aspects of their NHL team. Also, they didn’t have to put these players in lower leagues that played at the same level of the modern-day ECHL.

Basically, it was a really cool thing to have.

It could be a really good thing today as well. That flexibility to fit prospects into many different systems is a fantastic tool. However, there is no denying the simplicity that the current system provides.

In the 1970s, the IHL started to gain a lot of talent that could take on the AHL. In fact, it was the preferred affiliate league of many NHL teams.

The issue for the IHL, however, was that they got too big. And that’s what precisely happened when they tried to expand.

One of the main royalties that minor league hockey fulfills wonderfully is the small town feeling that you get from teams. The Bears play in Hershey, a city with 14,257 people. They sell out the Giant Center so much that, with a seating capacity of 10,500, 74% of the entire city ends up going to the games. Of course, that is if no one comes from out of town, which is obviously a far-stretch. But it is still an incredible fact.

That’s why minor league hockey is awesome. From the terribly amazing jerseys to the passionate fans of only minor league teams (I plan to write an article soon on an evaluation of fans who don’t follow NHL teams but follow minor league teams), there is never a dull moment. It’s a special, un-industrialized feeling. Oh, and don’t forget the brawls.

Yeah, the IHL did not get that memo.

Beginning in the 1980s, they started to move into cities that were major markets. They were either NHL-untapped cities or cities that the WHA recently operated in. In an essence, this move was the start of the long and drawn-out demise of the IHL.

Major markets started to overrun any other smaller-town teams. The Fort Wayne Komets actually relocated to Albany for one year before folding in 1991. Losing that minor-league feel was a really big deterrent on the enjoyment of IHL hockey. There is a sports business idea in that niche markets reap better benefits because you have a group of people, or fans, that will become attached to a team in bigger ways than if the team was in a major-market. There just was not enough interest in an IHL team in specific cities.

Doing this not only destroyed small-town teams, but it allowed the creation of another league called the Colonial Hockey League. Most people know this league as the United Hockey League (UHL). This league was created to fill the niche in the Great Lakes region that was abandoned by the IHL.

So, at this point, the small-town teams started to leave and a new league was created to fill a void. What else could go wrong?

Well, the IHL tried to expand into NHL cities. Not only was this idea absolutely moronic on a level of trying to make money with minor league teams in cities that NHL teams already dominate, but it also led the NHL to believe that the IHL was trying to compete with them.

Although there are some teams today, like the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Toronto Marlies, that are able to thrive in NHL-AHL markets, they are rare. The Philadelphia Flyers couldn’t make the Philadelphia Phantoms work after a few years in Philly, so they were moved to Glens Falls, NY until an arena in Allentown, PA was created. It just does not work.

Many NHL GMs were worried about the IHL trying to compete with them. And perhaps that was an irrational fear; after all, the NHL had an extremely richer set of teams, media attention, and TV deals compared to the IHL. But, with the major-market expansion during the NHL lockout and with teams in the NHL holding the affiliation business in both the AHL and IHL, there was only one thing that could happen as a result: NHL teams started pulling affiliations out of the IHL and into the AHL.

In the late 90s, with fan attendance dwindling and NHL teams beginning to pull out of the league, there was no future that was good for the IHL. Many teams started to cease operations or fold into the AHL and ECHL. By 2001, the IHL was finished all because they got too greedy.

An interesting tidbit is the UHL actually formed into the ‘new’ IHL in 2007. It didn’t last; by 2010, it folded. However, some teams actually had an affiliate in that level of play underneath their ECHL affiliate. For example, in the 2009-10 season, the Flyers had an affiliation with the Quad City Mallards.

Because the AHL is such a stable league at this point, there is not going to be another league for a very long time that will compete for the 2nd division of professional hockey in North America. And if one does present itself as a competitor, don’t destroy relations with NHL teams. They are kind of important.

Dylan Coyle is a writer and the founder of Good Night, Good Hockey. He is also a Hershey Bears and Reading Royals reporter. You can follow him on Twitter @DylanRCoyle.



5 thoughts on “The Forgotten Hockey League: Exploring the History and Demise of the IHL

  1. “The Philadelphia Flyers couldn’t make the Philadelphia Phantoms work after a few years in Philly”

    Untrue. The Phantoms were well-loved and drew good crowds. They left because their arena was shut down and they had nowhere to play. Looks at the current trend in the AHL – it is moving your AHL affiliate in with your NHL team. Both San Jose and Winnipeg now share their arenas between their AHL and NHL teams.

    1. I grew up and still live in the Phialdelphia area, and I went to many Phantoms games as a kid. They moved after the 08-09 season. Not only was the Spectrum getting shut down, the Phantoms weren’t proving to get any crowds, even in playoff games at the Wells Fargo center. They won the Calder Cup in 04-05 to a sellout in game 4.

      When the Phantoms first joined the AHL, they were getting over 10,000 fans per game. However, that number fell off dramatically. While the Phantoms are still loved and have a special place in my heart as well as the city of Philadelphia, there is no denying that part of their issue came with dwindling attendance numbers.

      Now, some teams are the exception. You always see a boost in fans when teams are newer to an area, and that may be true with San Jose (however, they are first in the AHL), and Winnipeg is a hockey-craze city, so that may be a longtime exception.

      Refer to this site for the Phantoms’ attendance numbers:

      1. Even in their final season, which was their lowest average attendance, the Philadelphia Phantoms were 6th out of the 29 teams in the league. The attendance falling those last few seasons was a league-wide phenomenon not a localized issue.

    2. *Replying to your newest comment*

      But we have to look at the numbers for a specific team, not the rest of the league. However, I know and can see your argument has a good backing. In my opinion, it wasn’t only because the arena was old, but also because there was a downward trend of fans in Philadelphia.

      No matter what, I still miss the team being in Philly. Have you been to Allentown for a game yet?

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