The 1990s marked a time of seismic change in hockey: The Iron Curtain fell, providing a massive influx of talent from Eastern Europe, NHL franchises migrated from Canada and traditional markets in the Northeast and Midwestern United States to new ones and the League embarked on a rapid and ambitious expansion plan to the Sunbelt and beyond.
That atmosphere proved ripe for exploitation by the right kind of visionary minds. Enter Bill Davidson and Rick Dudley, the former, a glass manufacturing mogul who presided over a pro sports empire, and the latter, a respected talent evaluator with progressive ideas about how to run a pro hockey enterprise.
Together in 1994, they gave birth to the Detroit Vipers, an independent International Hockey League franchise that cut a rollicking, phoenix-like path through the decade. Playing out of the Palace at Auburn Hills, the home of the Davidson-owned Detroit Pistons of the NBA, the Vipers used the Pistons' charter plane for travel. While other minor-league franchises rode buses for hour upon hour, the Vipers whimsically flew to road games as close as Kalamazoo, 140 miles away -- or about a 15-minute flight.
Their top-notch facilities included a hot tub and a sauna. Former player Stan Drulia recalled a game in Cincinnati the night of one of the famous Evander Holyfied-Mike Tyson boxing fights. The players asked the pilot to wait long enough after the Vipers' game before returning to Detroit so that they could visit a local establishment and watch the fight first.
"Those are the privileges you appreciate and we were able to take advantage of," Drulia said.