Last week, the roster of the NHL’s newest expansion team was filled, as the Vegas Golden Knights added to their roster through expansion draft, entry draft, and several trades. It’s an event that brought back memories for fans who remember the last few times it happened — some success stories, like the Nashville Predators, and some, well… not so much, like the Atlanta Thrashers.
In fact, most of the NHL’s forays into expansion are a mix of those two categories — for every Flyers, there’s a California Golden Seals; for every Capitals, there’s a Kansas City Scouts. But, while people delve into why these franchises ended up the way they did, there’s some consolation that they at least got the chance to hit the ice.
This was not the case for the Hampton Roads Rhinos.
Before you inevitably say to yourself, “wait, what,” yes, there was indeed almost a team called the Hampton Roads Rhinos, and it was the most 90’s thing that never happened. Think Foxtrax wearing a Wild Wing jersey on steroids.
You see, back in the early 90’s, the region of Hampton Roads, Virginia was on the rise, one that began with the opening of Norfolk’s Waterside festival marketplace. This growth would lead to the region becoming the States’ largest region without a team in one of the big four leagues. And it’s not as if the region was without sports — the Virginia Squires had a shaky existence in the defunct ABA during the 70’s, but more notably the ECHL Hampton Roads Admirals were a current success, having won back to back championships, and featuring future NHL star Olaf Kolzig.
A report from the Hampton Roads Sports Authority in 1994 would change this, however. The report stated a pro sports team, namely an NHL franchise, could find its way into the area, on the condition that a 20,000 seat arena would be constructed.
It was enough for George Shinn to take notice. Shinn had brought basketball to his home state of North Carolina in the form of the Charlotte Hornets, a city that, like Hampton Roads, had not fielded a professional team yet. And like Charlotte, Shinn was ready to make a splash.
Rise of the Rhinos
Fast forward to 1996, when the NHL was preparing what would be its next expansion. The last one had yielded the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and the Florida Panthers, both teams that had been successes in their own ways, with the latter making its first Stanley Cup Final that year. This time, several cities had their eye on an NHL team. Minnesota was looking to replace its North Stars after an attempt to acquire the Winnipeg Jets fell through. Ted Turner was looking for the NHL’s return to the Peach State. And that was just the tip of the iceberg: Houston, Nashville, Hamilton, Oklahoma City, and Columbus were front-runners.
It was in this climate that on November 1 1996, Shinn unveiled the Hampton Roads Rhinos, with its oh-so-90’s teal, blue and purple, and its logo, featuring the team’s mascot, appropriately called “Rhockey.” Everything, especially the name, was Shinn’s idea.
A season ticket drive would follow, with the goal of selling 10,000 by January 1997. “The key to this is the season tickets,” Shinn was quoted as saying, “without everybody embracing this, it won’t work.” The drive would be widely promoted in the area, from t-shirts, to hats, to even Pepsi cans. Despite eventually only reaching 5,160 by the intended date, Shinn and the Rhinos remained optimistic. After all, they had wooed Hampton Roads, and with their arena deal set in place — a 20,000 seat arena that would be located in the heart of Norfolk — they were on their way to woo the NHL.
In January 1997, Shinn and Co. arrived in New York, ready to make their official pitch to commissioner Gary Bettman and the rest of the NHL officials. To them, Shinn used one word to describe the bid: “underdog.” During the pitch, Shinn, Hampton Roads Partnership president Barry DuVal, and Norfolk mayor Paul Fraim showed videos displaying the region, as well as showing some detailing Shinn’s success with the Hornets. Shinn would follow this by handing out copies of a letter from the Charlotte-based NationsBank, promising that they “would finance any and all money necessary to accomplish this goal.”
“We never had another question about financing after they read that,” he would comment.
The only problem, it would seem, was the uncertain co-operation between the cities that made up Hampton Roads. But Shinn would assure the NHL that this would all be taken care of.
Once an unrealistic goal — the pitch ended with the Rhinos arguably as one of the front-runners. While some reporters weren’t fans of the idea, among the impressed was Peter Karmanos, then the owner of the Hartford Whalers, who were on the verge of relocating.
Karmanos, who had previously mulled about relocating the Whalers to Detroit (a move vetoed by arch-rival Mike Ilitch) and Columbus, was taken by Shinn’s pitch, and made Hampton Roads his #1 destination in the event that the team would not be one of the four selected.
However, as things were looking as good as ever, things went downhill fast.
The End of the Road
In late January, despite Shinn’s assurance that the arena would only cost $1.50 per resident, the heads of 15 local governments refused to ask their taxpayers to fund the yet to be built arena. To the the NHL, who had several sure-thing arena deals in place with the other bids, this uncertainty would become its kiss of death.
That February, the dreams of seeing the Rhinos’ purple and teal among the four expansion spots ended. The four spots would go to Nashville, St. Paul-Minneapolis, Atlanta, and Columbus, with the Hampton Roads region being snubbed for a number of reason, namely its small market and the shaky political unity of the region. And as a small hope remained that the Whalers would set up shop in Norfolk, those dreams would vanish with the team’s official move to Raleigh, North Carolina as the Hurricanes — too close in proximity to Hampton Roads.
As such, without a professional sports team set, the proposed arena — and any plans for the Hampton Roads Rhinos — would be shelved for good.
Years later, Shinn would have one more brush with the area, as Norfolk would become a frontrunner for the relocation of the Charlotte Hornets. Ultimately, this would prove to be a last gasp from the area, as the team would move to New Orleans in 2002.
Today, hockey does remain in the Hampton Roads region, in the form of the Norfolk Admirals. The club, renamed to its home city, would jump from the ECHL to the AHL in 2000, winning a Calder Cup in 2012. However, the team would relocate out west to San Diego in 2015, forcing the Admirals to return to the ECHL, where they currently serve as the affiliate of the Nashville Predators, one of the teams that prevented the city’s NHL dreams.
And, while the Admirals are still moderately successful, as much as an ECHL team can be, one has to look at the Predators as what might have been. Nashville has made hockey their own, with many stories during their Cup run this year focused on the rise of the sport in the Southern city. One wonders if things went different, the Pittsburgh Penguins would have faced against the teal, purple and blue of the Hampton Roads Rhinos.