The View From Wisconsin

Just a random set of rants from a Sports Fan from Wisconsin.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

What happened?

Twenty years ago, ground was being broken at the corner of North Fourth and West State Streets in downtown Milwaukee on a building that was supposed to make the future of sports in the city bright.

The Bradley Center was essentially donated to the city by Lloyd Pettit and his wife, Jane Bradley-Pettit, for the purpose of keeping the Milwaukee Bucks in the city. However, there was an additional purpose, one that was unstated but overwhelmingly obvious when you considered the layout of the arena.

The place was built to be the home of an NHL hockey team.

Twenty years later, it seems almost absurd that anyone thought the NHL could actually make it to Milwaukee and succeed. But, at the time, it looked like everything was in place for it to happen.

In doing some research on other topics, I came across the whole series of articles from the Milwaukee Journal about the attempts of Admirals owner Lloyd Pettit to secure a team. I was surprised at some of the things that were done and said, and actually saw the reasons why there is no team from Milwaukee in the NHL right now.

The first reason is simple, and is the one most obviously talked about having changed the NHL in the 1990's: Wayne Gretzky's trade in August of 1988 to the Los Angeles Kings. The decision to put the greatest player in the NHL in a "non-traditional" hockey market made the decision to do so in other markets - Tampa, Miami, Atlanta, Raleigh, Nashville - that much easier. If the Great One goes anywhere other than LA - New York, for example - there's no impetus to put teams in the Southern US.

In 1990, though, when the winds of expansion were starting to blow in the NHL, the "rebirth" of hockey in SoCal had yet to happen. Howard Baldwin was pushing to get an expansion team in the Bay Area, concentrating mostly on a new Oakland Coliseum arena (which never happened, by the way). Meanwhile, up the ways a bit on I-94 in Bloomington, Minnesota, the Gund brothers were tearing their hair out over their lousy arena deal at the Met Center. They were bleeding money, and wanted out of the "state of hockey" as soon as possible.

The NHL, though, didn't want the North Stars to move and leave Minnesota without a team. So, in a very sly bit of negotiation, the Gunds convinced Baldwin, the former owner of the Hartford Whalers, that he'd be able to get a hockey team in a stable market if he took the Stars off their hands. The Gunds could then walk into the untested Northern California market and be the "guinea pig" of the NHL. Of course, the Gunds probably already knew about the deal for a new arena in San Jose, which ended up putting them square in the middle of Silicon Valley. Baldwin didn't know about Silicon Valley, though, and decided to make the trade - the Bay Area expansion team (which would eventually be known as the San Jose Sharks) for the Minnesota North Stars (which would eventually move to Dallas).

That "trade", by itself, didn't have an effect on Milwaukee getting a team, though. It was what happened after the "trade" was announced in May of 1990 that threw the chances awry. John Ziegler and the NHL announced that the Sharks would get to choose half of the players in the Stars system, while the Stars would keep the rest; both teams would then get to choose players provided from the rest of the NHL's rosters in an expansion draft.

When you think of it, that is one heck of a sweetheart setup. The Sharks get to choose the best prospects from the Stars organization, and some of their best players, and then they get to choose some castoffs from other teams in the league. What made this bad for Milwaukee was the knowledge that any future NHL expansion teams would get only half this deal - the castoffs from other teams.

After Lloyd Pettit went to New York in late September of 1990, and realized the NHL was dead set on putting a team in Florida, he realized that he'd be losing money hand-over-fist for the next several years. Jane realized that, too - and they decided together in early October not to pursue an expansion team.

There was some hope after that that the city could convince an existing team to move to Milwaukee, but that went out the window after the NHL saw the money that Compuware's Jim Rutherford and the Blockbuster/trash baron Wayne Huizenga were willing to throw around. And, of course, there was that silly movie that Disney made about hockey that got the company's CEO, Mike Eisner, all excited about putting a hockey team in Anaheim.

The final nail in the coffin of the hopes of an NHL team in the Brew City came from an unexpected source: the very league for which the Pettits' team was playing. The International Hockey League made a statement of sorts when they decided to put teams in the NHL's back yards - literally. The Chicago Wolves' inaugural season in 1994, along with the IHL's proclamation that they would try to expand every year through 2000, got new NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the Board of Governors upset.

That was when the NHL decided to gradually put the IHL out of business by requiring teams with IHL affiliates to consider placing their players with AHL teams - or in traditional AHL markets (read: the Northeastern US). And, as Lloyd Pettit was a staunch supporter of the IHL, the Admirals were destined to go down with the ship - which is what happened in June of 2001.

It's strange, now that we look back: Milwaukee isn't considered a "hockey town", the IHL overexpanded and was hurt by the NHL's expansions, and the Admirals - now in a different league under different ownership - are a minor-league affiliate of a team based in Dixie.

So much can change in twenty years. This is simply proof.