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Published: Tuesday, 1/13/2004

Columbus minor league team folds

BY DAN SAEVIG
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Notes and quotes from the ECHL and other communities, thinking the only thing that may save minor league hockey from its financial woes may be a long-term National Hockey League lockout.

Jeff Marshall lost his job Thursday night.

After spending the past three seasons with the Storm, the equipment manager for the United Hockey League s Columbus Stars was told of his fate in a telephone conversation with Rockford head coach and ex-Toledo assistant Mark Bernard.

“Bernie called and asked, What are your players doing? ” Marshall said. “I said, What do you mean? ”

“He said, You just folded. Oh, you didn t hear yet? ”

The confirmation came when he went to the Ohio Expo Center Coliseum, where he was supposed to meet the visiting Elmira Jackals, scheduled to arrive for games Friday and Saturday.

“I get a call from their equipment guy,” Marshall said. “I m like, Where are you guys at?

“He said, We re in town, we re at the bar getting bombed with the players.

“I said, Don t you have a game tomorrow?

“He said, No, and neither do you. You just folded. ”

Despite leading the UHL s Eastern Conference with a record of 19-11-4, the club went belly-up, unable to pay its bills or generate interest in a town dominated by Ohio State University and the NHL s Blue Jackets.

The first-year Stars averaged an announced 973 in the 5,003-seat state fairgrounds facility that was frequently full when it was occupied by ECHL s Columbus Chill from 1991-99.

“The first time [Stars owner Joe Milano Jr.] shorted guys on paychecks was about three weeks ago,” Marshall said. “We would have our Friday pre-game meal in his banquet hall. I came in after the meal was all done. I guess he came out, had tears in his eyes and said, We re going to make it through this, don t worry about it.

“He gave the checks to [head coach] Malcolm [Cameron] and went in the back room. That s when I got there. The guys got only one of the two weeks pay they were due.”

Despite being shortchanged, the Stars kept playing. The UHL took over the operations of the last-place Missouri River Otters in December, and Marshall said his players assumed the league wouldn t let a first-place team fold.

Instead, the situation worsened.

“I got a paycheck Jan. 5, but I couldn t cash it until Friday,” Marshall said. “There wasn t enough money in the account. I called the bank that issued the check and then went there when they said there was money. Some players pulled in right after me and they were told, Sorry, insufficient funds. ”

Marshall said he s short some $4,000 between back pay, two months apartment rental, and supply and team laundry reimbursement. Now home in Sterling Heights, Mich., the six-year minor league veteran yesterday met with an attorney in hope of collecting what s owed to him.

“It s a shame a really good team had to end like this,” Marshall said. “Four of our players and Malcolm and I were going to be in the UHL all-star game this month.

“I think with the [expected] NHL [lockout] next year, [Milano] could have been a millionaire. We would have been the only hockey in town. It s too bad we didn t advertise. People didn t know anything about us until they saw on the news that we were folding.”

tStorm interim head coach Nick Vitucci said he s interested in one player from Columbus, veteran defenseman Tom Nemeth. A perennial ECHL all-star, Nemeth jumped to the UHL during the off-season from the Dayton Bombers.

Tonight in Greenville the Storm meets the Grrrowl, and Vitucci s No. 36 sweater will be retired. He s the first player in team history so honored.

The winningest goalie in ECHL history, Vitucci played for Greenville from 1998-2001. He was the team s assistant coach in 2002 when it won the Kelly Cup.

“I m kind of humbled by it,” Vitucci said of the jersey ceremony. “It s special for an organization to do that, to recognize the efforts I tried to put forth for them.”

tA failing business isn t something to laugh about, but sometimes that s all that can be done. Marshall said Columbus players couldn t help but notice that despite their record, no one was noticing them.

“They talked about it,” Marshall said. “One night, one guy asked, Is it Dress Like a Seat Night? ”



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