Albany, New York is a graveyard for professional sports teams. The Albany-Colonie Yankees, the Albany-Colonie Diamond Dogs, the Albany Patroons, the Albany Firebirds, the Adirondack Red Wings, the Albany Attack, and the Albany Kick are just some of the teams that met their demise wile making there home in the Capitol District. But even with this storied history of failure, none of these franchises featured as stunning a collapse as the Albany Choppers.
Albany in the late 80's was seemingly an untapped market in professional sports. The Albany Patroons had recently won a CBA championship under Phil Jackson, the Adirondack Red Wings had won the AHL Calder Cup, the RPI hockey team drew mobs of fans to the field house in Troy, and the new Knickbocker Arena was being constructed in the heart of Albany. Initial rumors stated that perhaps even NHL teams such as the Winnipeg Jets or Quebec Nordiques would move to Albany once the arena was completed. The City of Albany tried to lure the Adirondack Red Wings into the arena from Glens Falls, but the negotiations failed. The Red Wings also foiled Albany's attempts to acquire and expansion AHL team, claiming that Albany was a large part of it's market.
Another franchise tried to land in Albany, this time from the short-lived Global Hockey League. Tentatively named the Admirals, the franchise managed to sell 3000 season tickets before the league fell under it's own weight. However, the success of the ticket sales sent a strong message to other franchise holders. Soon, one man decided to move his hockey team to Albany.
An Imported Franchise
David Welker owned the IHL Fort Wayne Komets. The Komets were doing poorly in Fort Wayne, selling only 500 season tickets the previous year. Welker would late say, "If they've already sold 3,000 out there, $10 and $12 per game for a team that doesn't exist, we should very easily get 2,000 at a $2 lower price." He quickly signed a three-year lease with the management at the Knick, and started thinking about a new name for his team. The franchise picked up a sponsorship with Price Chopper, a large chain of grocery stores in the north-east, and the Albany Choppers were born.
Seeing that they were being beat out in the Albany market, the AHL approached Albany car dealer Mike Cantanucci about purchasing an AHL franchise to move to the area. Cantanucci agreed to an affiliation with the New York Islanders, but failed in his negotiations with the Knickerbocker Arena. the Capitol District Islanders settled temporarily a the RPI field house for the 1990 season.
The preseason for the Choppers was mixed. Welker hired David Allison, but was unable to acquire an NHL affiliation. In order to gain acceptance in the IHL, Welker offered to pay for travel expenses for six Midwestern IHL teams that would play in Albany. After protests from the new Fort Wayne Komets franchise, Welker traded winger Bob Lasko to the Komets in lieu of travel expenses. In another strange move, Welker signed himself as a defensive player in order to gain access to the player's union health benefits. These would be the first in a series of strange developments in the Choppers franchise.
On October 5, 1990 the Albany Choppers debuted, losing their home opener against Kalamazoo 6-2. Their first home victory came on October 13 against Phoenix. Initially, the Choppers were outdrawing the competing Islanders, but it was still not enough revenue to keep the Choppers afloat. Three weeks after opening night, Welker lowered the price of tickets. Between the price discount and coupons found in Price Chopper flyers, center ice seats could be as little as $3. Welker also signed Mario Lemieux's younger brother, Alain Lemieux, hoping that the name recognition would draw fans.
The Albany Times-Union would run the attendance numbers for all Choppers games in the sports section, comparing it to the draws for the Red Wings and the Islanders. Some of the reporters covering Choppers games soon noticed that the team was exaggerating the attendance reported to the paper, in order to appear more competitive. Reporters started counting the fans themselves, and Welker soon stopped announcing the attendance during the game.
By December of 1990, the team began having financial difficulties. The local radio station who broadcast the Choppers games over the New York Knicks quit after three months, when it became apparent they would not receive any money. An Albany travel agent filed a lawsuit against the Choppers, claiming he was owed back travel expenses. The team's accounts were frozen. Welker traded his best player, right winger Byron Lomow, to the San Diego Gulls the day before he was supposed to be paid. While players that were contracted with NHL teams received paychecks from their sponsor teams, those who had signed contracts with the Choppers found themselves without a paycheck.
The players began holding votes at game time to determine if they would play without pay. Each time, the players decided to play. Defenseman Curtis Hunt told the Schenectady Gazette. "The guys are frustrated that they're not getting paid, but it's more of a pressure thing. At some point, though, we're going to have to take a stand."
The Choppers no longer could afford staple hockey equipment. Pads and skates were showing their wear and tear. While equipment was sometimes ordered and shipped, the team was unable to pay for the shipping, and these supplies were returned to the distributors. During one contest against the new Fort Wayne Komets, right winger Jimmy McGeough was selected to take the last overtime penalty shot because he was the only player remaining with a hockey stick.
Down in Flames
Welker petitioned anyone who was involved in Albany hockey to supply needed funds, or purchase the team outright. At one point, Welker offered the franchise to Albany County Executive Jim Coyne, as well as a handful of other powerful positions and businessmen. Rumors flew that the team would be snapped up and moved by the end of the season. In one last desperate attempt to raise cash, Welker approved a fire sale, placing the entire Choppers roster on the IHL waiver wire. Before GM Jim Salfi could retrieve his players, the Milwaukee Admirals claimed Choppers captain Dale Henry. David Allison said, "I was pretty ticked off about it because that was our captain. He was one of our best players. But by the letter of the law, he was Milwaukee's property, but they let us trade Alain Lemieux for Dale Henry. So we ended up trading our own guy, our leading scorer, to get our captain back."
These latest shenanigans prompted Price Chopper president Neil Golub to yank his sponsorship of the team. He even threatened to sue the franchise over the name 'Choppers' claiming it was a trademark of Price Chopper. Golub claimed that Welker had not called him since the beginning of the season, and was quite annoyed at the business practices at the franchise.
On February 14, 1991 the team was completely out of money. There was no way to pay for the Choppers upcoming road game in Milwaukee, and all fundraising options were exhausted. Despite winning six of their last nine games and making a serious playoff run, the Albany Choppers locked out their players, and dissolved.
The IHL readjusted the schedule quickly, providing an opponent for Milwaukee, and rearranging the rest of the schedule to fill the Choppers absence. The Knickerbocker Area also adjusted, filling dates with concerts and shows. Capital District owner Mike Cantanucci showed mercy on fans of his former competitor, offering trade-in tickets for Islanders games to those who already had Choppers tickets.
Players soon found themselves on other teams, with some of them working up the ranks and playing in the NHL. David Allison moved to the ECHL, and also moved up the ranks, eventually coaching the NHL Ottawa Senators. While the Senators were at the bottom of the standings during his tenure, he often told his players that it could be worse: they could be the Albany Choppers.
David Welker would never own another hockey team again. He stayed in Fort Wayne, running his father's gravel business. When creditors came to collect debts from the Choppers, he was forced to declare bankruptcy. He never even received his medical coverage from his "play" with the team.
Albany hosted several hockey events after the Choppers demise. In 1992, the Knickerbocker Arena hosted the NCAA Division I Hockey Championships, NHL exhibition games, and USA Olympic Team exhibitions. However, these events failed to sell out the Knick, and were soon referred to as the "Curse of the Choppers."
In 1993, the Adirondack Red Wings agreed to let an AHL team into the Albany market. Very quickly, the Capitol District Islanders, who had quietly been playing at the RPI field house, jumped on the opportunity. They changed affiliations, this time to the New Jersey Devils, changed their name to the Albany River Rats, and moved into the Knick. The River Rats management studied the failures of the Choppers, and made some adjustments. Curtains were hung, covering the upper deck seats and giving the Knick a comfortable small-venue feel. Opening night in 1993 was the first time the Knick had been sold out for a hockey game.
GP W L OTL GF GA PTS
Albany Choppers 55 22 30 3 191 232 47