The Albany Choppers have to be one of the worst business decisions a minor league franchise has ever made. From 1952-1990 the Choppers were the Fort Wayne Komets in Indiana, a team that is an institution in Fort Wayne to this day. But in 1990, owner David Welker decided to move the franchise east to the New York State capital of Albany and turn them into the Albany Choppers.
The move to Albany didn't go well.
As part of the agreement to let them move east -- further east than the IHL had ever been -- they had to pick up the travel tab for some of the teams coming to visit them. They also faced competition from local college and AHL teams in the area, and played to small crowds in a 15,000 seat arena. Given all this financial pressure, the Choppers would fold after only 55 games in Albany.
To remember the legacy of the Choppers, here are 25 fun facts about them...
- The team was owner in part by the supermarket chain, Price Chopper, and acquired their red and blue color scheme from the company. This might be the first and only example of a supermarket centric hockey team.
- In July 1990, the Choppers hired former Stanley Cup winner with the New York Islanders and Olympic Gold Medalist Ken Morrow to be their General Manager. Maybe Ken knew what was to come, because by August 1st he parted ways with the Choppers.
- Right around the same time the Choppers announced their move to Albany, the AHL announced they were placing a team in nearby Troy, NY, the Capital District Islanders. Unlike the Choppers, the Islanders had an NHL affiliation (I’ll let you figure out with which team), which helped defray their salary costs. Although due to playing in the AHL, the Islanders did have to pay territorial rights fees to the nearby Adirondack Red Wings of the AHL.
- The Choppers almost didn’t move to Albany in the first place. Something called the Global Hockey League had planned to play in the Choppers’ arena, the Knickerbocker Arena, and play in a trans-continental league with teams as far as Miami and Berlin. It won’t surprise you to learn that idea fell through and thus, the Choppers had a home in Albany.
- The Choppers were the only team in the IHL located east of Michigan with opponents as far away as San Diego, Salt Lake City, and Phoenix. The IHL agreed to let the Choppers move to New York on the condition they picked up travel costs for some of these teams.
- Owner David Welker was confident his minor league team could play the part in an NHL size 15,000 seat arena. “We’re going to do things you couldn’t even think about doing in a small building,” he told The Post-Star before the season started.
- October 6, 1990 the Choppers open their season at home against Kalamazoo, losing 6-2. The Choppers draw only 3,011 fans. In Troy, the Capital District Islanders don’t do much better with 3,355 but it probably feels better as they play in a college sized arena at RPI.
- That’s probably the high point of the year. The Choppers draw only 1,892 against Muskegon the next night and later in October the local paper opines that barely 1,000 fans showed up for a game. This video shows just how dang empty the arena was.
- OK, one more highlight. On October 15th Michel Couvrett records a hat trick for the Choppers, with Dale Henry putting together a five point night. Albany beats Milwaukee 6-3.
- By November, the Choppers are on a seven game losing streak. Making their bad attendance problem worse must be the scheduling, with multiple games coming on Monday nights.
- Desperate to boost attendance, the Choppers are trying anything. On November 14th they host Frat Night, which… Yeah. They do draw 3,229 fans. They also host a “Closest to the Keg” competition as frat members shoot pucks at a keg during intermission. One of the competitors moons the crowd.
- November 22 – success! The Choppers break a seven-game home losing streak with a 4-2 win over Kansas City.
- The Choppers share Knickerbocker Arena with a number of teams, one of them is the New York Kick indoor soccer team. Arena officials aren’t having a great season, either. They forget to put down insulation between the soccer turf and the ice, and turn off the air conditioning. The Kick play a very soggy game a few days before Christmas.
- In January, things really start to unravel for the Choppers. They are sued by a travel agency for $21,500 in unpaid bills. It’s always a sign that the end is near when the lawsuits start coming.
- On the ice, they’re 15-26-3 with the second worst record in the IHL and a -42 goal differential. The Choppers are averaging 2,380 fans the lowest of the three area hockey teams.
- OK, now the financial situation is getting dire. The non-NHL affiliated Choppers players don’t receive their January 28, 1991 paychecks. The players vote on January 31 to play their game in spite of this missing money. Ironically, the game is against the new franchise in Fort Wayne that started up with the Choppers left last summer.
- In desperation mode, owner David Welker puts his star player and team captain, Dale Henry, on waivers. Hoping that no one claims him and he goes free to potentially AHL teams, he does this at 1 AM. Nonetheless, Milwaukee claims Henry in the morning and by this point Choppers coach Dave Allison is trying to convince his owner not to give away their best player. They come to an agreement where the Choppers trade their own player for their own player. They give Milwaukee Alain Lemieux in exchange for Henry.
- Lemieux, the brother of Mario, ends up being the Choppers’ leading point scorer with 41 in 33 games. He had taken the prior season off from hockey.
- On February 1, Welker announces that there is a group of local buyers for the team. “I’ve been on this pretty heavy all week” he told the Post-Star. “The nice thing, for the Albany area, is that it looks like the team will be there for several years.” He goes on to say that if the deal falls through, there is another group interested in taking the team to Dallas.
- Two weeks later on February 14 the Choppers fold as Welker is unable to secure a deal with any buyers. Coach Dave Allison reacts by saying “I’ll probably have to go home and find a real job.” Allison wouldn’t go home; he would go on to coach the Richmond Renegades of the ECHL for the rest of the season. He was still coaching as of 2018.
- The IHL declined to step in and save the Choppers, letting them fold instead. It is the first time an IHL team has folded mid-season in nearly 30 years. The Choppers final record is 22-30-3 with 191 goals for and 212 against in 55 games.
- “I knew as early as September it was going to be a disaster” Welker said to the Post –Star. “They told me the building would be lined with people trying to purchase season tickets. That first day we sold two. I knew we were in big trouble.”
- Adirondack coach Barry Melrose, now of ESPN fame, called the folding ‘poetic justice’. “We’re in a rival league so as far as that is concerned, I’m glad. They shouldn’t have come into our area. But as a player, I hate to see any players – any people – out of work.”
- The Capital District Islanders decide to honor Choppers season tickets. They reportedly received about 200 of them.
- Lots of Choppers had or would gain NHL experience over the years. Among the most successful was Paul Laus who would play for the Florida Panthers for a decade, and Torrie Robertson who played 442 NHL games, and Mike Blaisdell who played 343 NHL games.
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