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Published: Monday, 6/4/2001

IHL to fold today after 56 memorable seasons

BY DAN SAEVIG
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE

It may be the only place where the Fort Wayne Komets are ahead of a Toledo hockey team.

Section nine of the 2000-01 International Hockey League's Official Guide and Record Book is seven pages long. Alphabetically, the chapter features the records of 70 inactive clubs ranging from the Akron Americans to the Windsor Staffords.

There won't be a 2001-02 edition listing the nine Turner Cups won by the defunct Toledo Mercurys, Blades and Goaldiggers or even the four playoff titles won by the hated Komets.

Late this morning, the IHL itself will become an inactive chapter in hockey history.

After 56 seasons, the league is waving a red (Port Huron) Flag. Having been financially stung more times than Paul Bright was when he owned the Toledo Hornets, the `I' has sunk like the boat piloted by the long-lost Sarnia Sailors.

By noon today, the American Hockey League will have announced a major expansion that is expected to include the adoption of six orphan cities from the IHL; Milwaukee, Chicago, Houston, Salt Lake City, Grand Rapids and Winnipeg. The end result - one Triple-A caliber league for top National Hockey League prospects.

Surely, Len Fontaine's toupee will spin on his head, Ted Garvin will curse from his grave, and Dino Mascotto will pull that trademark red handkerchief from the back of his pants and wipe a tear from his eye at the news that the one-time Double-A quality IHL has fallen like a (Des Moines) Oak Leaf in October.

“That's something,” said Mascotto, a hard-hitting defenseman who played for the IHL's Blades and Hornets and now lives in Toledo. “After 56 years, that's unbelievable.”

The downfall began in the early 1990s when misguided league management decided that markets like Orlando, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas were more attractive - and more lucrative - than places like Muskegon, Kalamazoo and Flint.

What started out in 1945 as a four-team amateur league in the Detroit-Windsor area had grown to a high of 19 clubs by 1996. Instead of riding in a car or bus to games, costly coast-to-coast flights for aging ex-NHL'ers making up to $150,000 a year had become the norm.

“Nobody traveled by air when I played,” said Norm Grinke, who came to Toledo to skate for the Mercurys in 1948 and decided to make his home here.

“Did they have airplanes then?” Mascotto, 68, jokingly asked the 78-year-old former defenseman.

“Most of the guys didn't even have cars,” Grinke said. “Our bus was like a stretch limo. Each weekend, one guy got to take the bus home. That was a big treat.”

For 37 seasons, from 1947 to 1986, Toledoans were treated to IHL action. Except for one year (1949-50) spent in the Eastern Hockey League and another (1962-63) when there was no franchise, the Sports Arena hosted memorable personalities like Moose Lallo, Len Thornson, Ken Ullyot, John Flesch and that great philosopher, Paul Tantardini.

“One night, `Tanner' scored a couple of goals,” recalled ex-'Diggers captain Mike Greeder, now the rink manager at Sylvania Tam O'Shanter and the new hockey coach at St. Francis de Sales high school. “A reporter asked him what he thought of that. Paul paused and said, `All we are is a bunch of french fries in a pot of grease.'”

Old IHL salaries certainly didn't provide enough to buy much more to eat.

Mascotto remembers annual compensation of $3,500. “When I signed here, I got a baloney sandwich,” he said. “Toasted. That was my bonus.”

Garvin was one who ate well. His name appears on the Turner Cup as a coach four times, including 1975 and 1978 in Toledo. Terrible Ted also played in the IHL as a high-scoring forward for Sarnia.

A showman for the fans and media, Garvin liked rough players. But as a player, he really wasn't tough.

“It stopped right here,” Grinke said with a smile, pointing to his lips.

Talking wasn't the only thing Garvin liked to do.

It was the 1984-85 season and the 'Diggers were on the ice ready to start practice.

“Our trainer, Chuck Hart, came down to the glass and said, `Greeds, Teddy's on the phone,'” Greeder remembered.

“I pick it up,” said the 44-year-old, placing an imaginary telephone by his ear and switching to a raspy voice. “`Mike, Ted. I was a little late at The Willows last night. I won't be coming down there. You just run 'em through the business for about 45 minutes and then you go over and have a team meeting at the Players Club.'”

Next to playing hockey, many in the old IHL liked the camaraderie of the meetings best of all. On some teams, Bud Weiser was the honorary captain.

“Me and (goaltender Lorne Molleken) were the first ones there and the last ones to leave those meetings,” Greeder said. “We had to keep track of everybody.”

People like Blake Stephen.

One night in Flint, a 300-plus-pound biker in a leather jacket reached over the penalty box glass and sent a full cup of beer in Stephen's direction. Normally one not to turn down a cold one, the 5-9, 190-pound winger decided he'd prefer to pour his own.

“Blake got up on the penalty box bench and pulled this guy over the glass,” Greeder said. “On the (team) bench, we kept asking, `Should we go, should we go (and help)?

“(Toledo coach) Billy (Inglis) said, `Nah, Blake's got this under control.' The cops had to pull Blake off the guy.”

After 56 years, the memories are hard to shake loose. Mascotto remembers the night Blades' coach Terry Slater painted the entire dressing room red in hopes his team would go crazy like a bull. Grinke recalls the days when he was a coach in the `I' for the Grand Rapids Rockets and his players used to rush to the bank to cash their checks before the money ran out.

Still others remember the prediction made by veteran Don Westbrooke when he joined the expansion Goaldiggers in 1974-75. If the team won the Turner Cup, Westbrooke said, the championship-hungry hockey fans in Toledo would surely burn the town down.

After stunning the Saginaw Gears in Game7 of the finals on the road, the Goaldiggers bus inched its way back into town. From a distance, the city was aglow. Tiedtke's was burning to the ground.

Today, the IHL meets the same fate as that memorable department store.



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