A Hockey Town is Born: Through the Denver Grizzlies, Denver proved it belonged in the NHL

This story originally appeared in Mile High Sports Magazine. View the full digital edition.

Within the history of Colorado pro sports, the Denver Grizzlies professional hockey club occupies a footnote, or perhaps a few sentences. The team, after all, played just one season (1994-95) in the Mile High City before the arrival of the Colorado Avalanche sent them packing to Utah.

It would be easy to lump the Grizzlies with the state’s long list of failed pro hockey experiments: the NHL Colorado Rockies, Colorado Flames, Denver Falcons, Denver Mavericks, Denver Invaders, Denver Spurs, Denver Rangers, Colorado Gold Kings and Rocky Mountain Rage.

Such treatment, however, overlooks the Grizzlies meteoric success, both on the ice and at the box office.

In its one season in Denver, the Grizzlies won the IHL championship and the Western Conference title, posted the best regular-season record (72-20-6), and won awards for Coach of the Year (Butch Goring), Regular Season MVP (Tommy Salo), Playoff MVP (Kip Miller), Rookie of the Year (Salo) and Best Goaltender (Salo).

More importantly, however, the Grizzlies averaged 12,094 per game at McNichols Arena. By the season’s end, the team had played before nearly half a million fans in Denver.

In pro sports, that level of popularity traditionally comes after years of brand building, on-field success and fan cultivation. The Grizzlies, however, created it virtually out of thin air.

The success did not go unnoticed. When NHL executives scanned the country for the next great hockey market, the Grizzlies had already put Denver on the map.

“Eventually the NHL would have come to Denver,” said former Grizzlies CEO Bernie Mullin. “I believe without [the Grizzlies] it would have taken a lot longer.”

Stretching a Shoestring

The backstory to most professional sports teams involves demographics research, marketing strategies and other nuts-and-bolts business. The Grizzlies’ story begins with a similar yarn.

David Elmore, the owner of the Colorado Springs Sky Sox Triple-A baseball team, saw 1990s Denver as a perfect market for hockey, due to its growing population of young families. Elmore, who is also a successful real estate developer, had the resources to launch a team, however he needed a manager to oversee the project.

In the early ‘90s, Mullin oversaw the launch of the Colorado Rockies as the team’s senior vice president of business. It was a time-consuming job, and required Mullin to oversee dozens of tasks, from the sale of corporate sponsorships and hiring of staff, to the initial construction plans for Coors Field. But in his role, Mullin was never given a chance to meddle with the on-field product. The team’s baseball operations kept a strict delineation between business and baseball.

When Elmore met Mullin at a Rockies event, he saw that Mullin wanted to play more of a managerial role in sports. Without hesitation, he told him about his hockey plans.

“Bernie wanted to test his own ideas,” Elmore said. “I told him he’d be his own boss and could put everything together.”

Mullin recognized the opportunity to steer the ship as a CEO, and agreed to come on board. But he told Elmore that based on Denver’s bleak past with hockey — no less than seven pro teams had failed — he did not want to rush the project. Mullin wanted to work for at least a year on the project before launching the team. Elmore agreed.

The night of the Rockies’ final game at Mile High Stadium in 1993 — which saw the team set a new MLB attendance record — Mullin took the new job.

“I skipped the postgame party and packed up my office,” Mullin said. “That next Monday, it was myself and an intern – and we were working.”

Mullin endured a busy year building the team, which was launched as a feeder affiliate to the New York Islanders. Mullin first organized exhibition NHL games at McNichols Arena to generate leads for potential ticket buyers. He then built a staff and front office.

He hired Islanders great Robert “Butch” Goring away from the Las Vegas Thunder as his head coach. Goring was given carte blanche to build a team of veteran team leaders, and young up-and-comers with NHL ambitions.

Goring benefitted from having access to burgeoning talent, including Salo, who was the Islanders fifth-round draft choice, University of Minnesota grad Chris Marinucci, and Derek Armstrong, who joined the Islanders in 1993. Goring brought on veterans Kip Miller from the Kansas City Blades, Jeff Sirkka from the Rochester Americans and NHL veteran Doug Crossman.

“I had the full support from [Mullin],” Goring said. “We got together a group of guys who had talent and experience.”

Mullin then set to work designing a brand, fielding leads and marketing the team. While Mullin had enjoyed a $250,000 annual marketing budget with the Rockies, his budget for the Grizzlies was just $3,000.

“We had to get innovative with our promotions — even our TV commercial was put together like that,” Mullin said. “We reached out to a local animal society and got stock footage of a Grizzly bear walking through the mountains.”

These were the days before viral videos and social media, so Mullins’ pursued an unflashy and straightforward campaign. He signed a small cash deal with Pizza Hut to promote Grizzlies games on pizza boxes. He hired staffers to give away free tickets to schoolchildren. The team placed a Jacuzzi alongside the rink, and gave ticket upgrades to fans that agreed to roar like a bear.

Mullins’ best move, however, was to fill the office with young 20-somethings whose ambition to work in sports overshadowed their tiny salaries. One of his early hires, Kelly Williams, took grassroots marketing to new levels. Williams drove around town in a Grizzlies-branded van teaching roller hockey lessons. She gave hockey clinics at area schools, and organized meet-and-greets between kids and the players.

At the end of each lesson, Williams pushed players to purchase tickets, which only cost $15. If they didn’t buy, Williams often gave them a free voucher.

“It was all about getting butts into seats,” Williams said. “We gave so many tickets away.”

Another early hire was Mike Haynes, who now anchors the television play-by-play desk during Colorado Avalanche games. Haynes, who had done public relations and play-by-play in the Colonial Hockey League, was living in his parents’ basement at the time. He signed on for a $19,000 a year salary.

“There was this big room of sales people on the phones, just cold-calling people to sell them tickets,” Haynes said. “Everybody was young and single and had the time and energy to put in a lot of hard work. I didn’t realize it at the time but it was a really special group.”

Ticket sales were helped by the team’s fast start. The Grizzlies won eight of their first 10 games, before making another surge in January. By the time the team entered the playoffs in February, the Grizzlies enjoyed regular media coverage by the print and local TV stations.

By that point, even the players had developed a following.

Armstrong, who was 21, hung out in the neighborhood around Denver University, and remembers the moment when things changed.

“I would drink at the Pub on Pearl and the P.S. Lounge. It was fun, because nobody in town knew who we were at first, so we could go to bars,” Armstrong said. “It changed after the first few months; people started to know the Grizzlies.”

Remembering The Team

On a hot evening this past July, a few dozen former Grizzlies players and staffers met at Brooklyn’s Bar across from the Pepsi Center to tip a few drinks and recall old stories.

The evening marked the 21-year anniversary of the team’s launch. Old staff photos showcased the soaring bangs, loose-fitting sweaters and acid-washed jeans that were ‘90s chic. Old coworkers introduced their families to one another, and marveled at how long it had been.

Mullin and Elmore shook hands with their former employees. Goring, now a TV color commentator for the Islanders, drained beers with his former players.

Staffers recalled the team’s grassroots feeling. Someone recollected that their desk had been little more than a door propped over two stacks of cinderblocks. Haynes recalled working 16-20 hours each day in his temporary office outside of the arena. Williams said the team had just one computer.

“And nobody knew how to use it,” Williams recalled. “There was no such thing as branding or target marketing.”

A video montage rolled, showing the team’s progression through the regular season and onto the playoffs. As the team progressed from quarterfinals, to semis, to finals, the staffers came along en masse, and filmed their experiences on an old camcorder.

After the video’s final scene, which showed the team hoisting the IHL’s Turner Cup, the mood abruptly changed. Old coworkers remembered learning of the NHL’s plans to move to Denver, and the doom it spelled for the Grizzlies.

Elmore’s wife and business partner, Donna Tuttle, recalled the last-minute search for a new home for the team. Eventually, a lifeline came from the Delta Center arena in Utah.

“We really didn’t know what was going to happen,” Tuttle said, recalling the 11th hour scramble.

The team’s victory party back in Denver was ultimately bittersweet. The team sold more than $100,000 worth of merchandise on its final night, as fans swarmed to grab mementos.

Many of the players followed the team to Utah. Only a handful of staffers did. The majority found jobs in other cities, or remained in Denver. Mullin became the vice chancellor of athletics at Denver University, before running the NBA’s successful Marketing and Team Business Operations unit. Haynes signed on with the Avalanche. Williams worked in local radio.

As the evening wore down, Mullin addressed the room one final time. Now the CEO of his own sports media firm, Mullin acknowledged the disappointment of seeing the team move on after its one successful year. But the experience, he said, helped pave the way for hockey to stay in the city.

“It was the most fun, most enjoyable and quite frankly the biggest success of my career,” Mullins said. “We proved what a great hockey market Denver could be.”

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