Monday, December 22, 2008

Suncoast Suns Burn Out, 12/19/73

In 1992, the Tampa Bay Lightning began their inaugural season of play in the National Hockey League. One might naturally assume that the Lightning were the pioneers of ice hockey in the Tampa Bay area. Incredibly, professional hockey was being played in St. Petersburg a full two decades earlier.

Long before the Lightning's founding father, Phil Esposito, ever imagined bringing hockey to Tampa Bay, the minor-league Suncoast Suns patrolled the ice of the Bayfront Center in downtown St. Pete. Founded in 1971, the Suns played in the Eastern Hockey League during the 1971-72 and 1972-73 seasons. The Bayfront Center, with its intimate environment and clubby post-game atmosphere, was the place to be seen, and even actor James Garner got involved in the action by purchasing a small share of the club.

In February 1973, the Suns, along with teams based in North Carolina and Virginia, voted to leave the EHL and form a new league, the Southern Hockey League. Neither the EHL nor the new Southern Hockey League would be considered anyone's idea of world-class hockey -- imagine the Paul Newman film "Slap Shot" to appreciate the "rough and tumble" product on the ice.

The team hoped to benefit from playing in the new league in several ways. Travel expenses, for one, would be reduced considerably without trips to the northeast. The league would also form a relationship with the burgeoning World Hockey Association, which would supply the SHL with some of their minor leaguers.

Ed Rood, a prominent Tampa attorney as well as the Suns secretary and treasurer, felt this arrangement would bolster the league's reputation.

"We're pleased about being able to join a league such as this," Rood said. "It will only help to make hockey more popular in the South, and here in the Bay area."

The Suns, with a sluggish 9-22 mark on the ice, were just two months into the 1973-74 campaign when things started to unravel for the franchise off the ice. Rood and other Tampa-based investors in the team, who hoped to lure the New Jersey Knights of the WHA to Tampa, began pulling their financial backing for the team. Hemorrhaging money, the team's remaining owners, led by Steve Kirby and Chuck Mackey, were forced to find someone willing to buy the franchise.

As the Suns prepared to host Roanoke for a two-game series, the deal that would have transferred ownership of the team fell through. On December 18, Suns general manager Paul Caron announced in a news conference that the Suns needed an economic bailout -- $30,000 by 9 p.m. the next night -- or would face having to cease operations.

"Raising $30,000 will allow us to sustain our operation an additional 30 days," Caron said. "This 30 days will allow us the necessary time to locate long-range investors."

The team called on the public to save the team, providing phone numbers for fans in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties willing to lend a hand.

"We're calling our fund 'S.O.S.,' Caron said. "That's 'Save Our Suns.' "

Apparently, a 7-year-old girl even called to donate $2.50. It wasn't enough. The Suns were able to raise a little over $18,000, well short of the amount needed to sustain the franchise.

On December 19, 1973, the SHL announced the dissolution of the Suncoast Suns. T. David Lamm, executive secretary of the SHL, called the announcement "a tragic thing for hockey and for the West Coast of Florida." The SHL had its own financial mess and were in no position to take control of the franchise. The league, therefore, had no choice but to fold the team.

League president Norman Curtis blasted Suns fans, saying in a statement that the team's failure could be attributed "due to the lack of interest by fans in the St. Petersburg area in hockey, at least in a non-contending (hockey) team."

Curtis wasn't entirely wrong in his assessment. Support for the Suns waned considerably during the season. The team struggled to win games, and often looked bad trying. Fans were bitter that crowd favorites from prior seasons, such as Cliff Pennington, Andre Lajeunesse and Marty Desmarais, were not brought back. Attendance at the Bayfront Center dipped below 1,000 for the last eight home games leading up to the team's death knell.

Lamm believed, however, there was plenty of local support given that the team managed to solicit more than $18,000 in a day's time.

"It shows that there is interest in the area," Lamm said. "I'm sorry the Suns couldn't have been a contender. It might have been different."

Tampa Tribune columnist Tom McEwen accurately predicted in his postmortem on the Suns that hockey would someday return to the Bay area - bigger and better than ever.

"The hockey playing Suns were a little before their time in our place," McEwen wrote. "In time, they'll be regarded and recorded as the pioneer hockey team in an area, that when that chronicle is written, will again have its own, prosperous, major league hockey team."

It took almost 20 years for hockey to return, but return the sport did. Now 35 years since the demise of the Suns, the area can claim its own prosperous - though presently victory-challenged - NHL team in the Tampa Bay Lightning.

No comments:

Post a Comment