By Lindsay Toler
By Chad Garrison
By Brett Koshkin
By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
By Riverfront Times
By Danny Wicentowski
By Pete Kotz
The WHA was a far cry from major-league baseball. Several franchises started on shaky financial ground and folded within a few years. The Zamboni broke through the ice at the league's first game. League officials forgot to buy a trophy for the first championship and ended up scrambling for the best available one the night before the deciding game. The league was known for a rough-and-tumble brand of hockey. John Hewig, the team's public-relations director, ordered the Stingers not to shave for a few days, then took publicity photos immediately after practice so they looked like wild men. "It was a tough man's league," recalls Jim McVay, a promotions and ticket-sales manager for the Stingers who is now president and CEO of the Outback Bowl. "I remember seeing those gloves come off in warmups. People would come early, because you didn't know when the action would start."
There were cheerleaders in the stands, but crowds of fewer than 5,000 fans in a 16,000-seat arena were routine, a fact the team disguised from television audiences by installing randomly colored seats. The inaugural game was particularly depressing. "It was the day after the Reds had won the seventh game of the World Series," recalls marketing director Hewig. "Ten thousand people who had tickets to our opening night were drunk in the middle of town somewhere." When a bus wasn't sufficient, the team traveled to road games in an ancient turboprop charter plane with a top speed of 200 mph, journalists, players and, sometimes, the owners all riding together.
The team tried various promotions with mixed success. Turkey Night, for example, was not a particularly proud day in franchise history. The promotion was the brainchild of Rudie Schaffer, the former Browns business manager, who was helping the Stingers at the behest of DeWitt's father. "Rudie said, 'I think it would be a good deal to have a Turkey Night right around Thanksgiving time,'" DeWitt recalls. "I said, 'That's fine. Give out some frozen turkeys.' And he said, 'Oh no. We'll give out some live ones.' I said, 'Really?' He said, 'Yeah. I did that in Boston.' I think he was working for a racetrack up there. He said it worked out great -- people loved it. He had stories of somebody taking a turkey home on a bus. He said it was just a really fun deal."
Not so at Riverfront Coliseum. Fans sitting in the lucky seats were supposed to chase 25 turkeys around the ice, using burlap bags to capture their prizes. But few accepted the privilege, leaving the turkeys alone on the rink. "They were slipping around on the ice," DeWitt recalls. "We were in the stands, kind of cringing." He leaves the story at that, the tale told in classically understated tone. Hewig, the PR director, remembers DeWitt's restrained demeanor at the time. "I think the next day he said, 'I don't think that went too well, did it?'" Hewig recalls. "He never, ever yelled. He'd very calmly say, 'We shouldn't have done that.' And it wasn't 'John, you shouldn't have done that.' It was 'we.'" Former Stinger employees rave about DeWitt. "I would say absolutely he was the best boss I ever had," says Hewig, who went on to work for the New York Knicks, the Hartford Whalers and the New Jersey Devils before retiring.
The Stingers didn't do well in the standings, but in following a leaguewide strategy of raiding Canadian junior leagues and locking up young players before the NHL did, the team landed players who went on to Hall of Fame careers. Mark Messier began his big-league hockey career in Cincinnati as an 18-year-old, as did Mike Gartner, who went on to score 708 goals in the NHL. The handful of fans who were present that night can tell their grandchildren about seeing Wayne Gretzky score his first pro hat trick against the Stingers at Riverfront. But all the talent in the world didn't help. "They'd bring in Gordie Howe and his two kids, and they'd draw 3,000 people," Terry Flynn, a former sportswriter for the Cincinnati Enquirer, recalls. "They should have filled the joint."
For four years, DeWitt concentrated almost exclusively on the team, spending each day in his office at the coliseum and, according to Heekin, devoting 90 percent or more of his time to the Stingers as opposed to outside business ventures. Flynn says DeWitt remained upbeat despite the obvious. "He pretty much always kept, publicly, a very positive outlook -- 'We hope to be able to do this, da, da, da, da, da' right up to the end, when the team folded up and didn't move to the NHL," the sportswriter says. "I wrote stuff and other people did -- all you had to do was look at the numbers and you knew they were having problems, because you knew how much they had to make. You take a look at the payroll, you know what the tickets are, you know what their break-even point is, and they're not even close. Most nights, they're getting killed."
In the end, the team's investors got their money back, but just barely, DeWitt says. The NHL paid the owners a $3.6 million indemnity, ostensibly for players and other assets but also to prevent any lawsuits from blocking entry into the more established league, a prospect DeWitt and Heekin now say they could not have afforded, given NHL franchise fees, player salaries and Cincinnati's proven reluctance to support big-league hockey. Heekin and DeWitt say investors just about broke even on the team itself. Profits came from the coliseum, which was sold for $21 million in 1997. "I would say, in total, the combined investment of the building and the hockey team was not a good one," DeWitt says. "But it was OK. Everybody got their money out. I mean, at the end of the day, the building was sold a year or two ago, but that was years and years and years after we built it."