Here Come the Rhinos!
There have been many clever and – ahem – interesting franchise proposals across the map of professional sports. Memphis once campaigned for an NFL team to be named the Hound Dogs in honor of its most famous resident. The Miami Marlins were almost named the Flamingos. And, would you believe that the NBA almost had a member franchise known as the Boston Unicorns? As creative and bizarre as some franchise proposals have been over the years, few can lay claim to having been as colorful as a proposal for an NHL expansion team in the mid-1990’s – The Hampton Roads Rhinos.
Southeast Virginia is certainly not the first place that one would normally think of as a hockey hotbed. Even so, talk of an NHL franchise began in the early 1990’s, before the NHL began to rapidly expand in the Sunbelt. By 1994, the Hampton Roads Sports Authority had conducted a study on the viability of a team in the region. An NHL franchise seemed most likely because of the lower expansion fee charged by the NHL compared to other major professional sports leagues, and the group concluded that such a franchise could be successful thanks to the success of the ECHL’s Hampton Roads Admirals. Of course, there could be no team without an arena, and the Sports Authority recommended the construction of a 20,000 seat facility to host the team since then-existing buildings were too small.
Such a study is a long way from an actual proposal, but a formal proposal was not far away. Enter, George Shinn. In 1988, the North Carolina native successfully brought the NBA to Charlotte with the birth of the Hornets. In 1996, he turned his attention to the NHL, considering Raleigh and the Hampton Roads region as potential locations for an expansion team. Eventually, Shinn decided to make a bid to the NHL team to be located in Norfolk. The selection seemed logical since, at the time, the Hampton Roads metropolitan area was the largest MSA in the United States without a team in any of the four major leagues, but the bid was no lock. The NHL had plans of adding four teams, but competition such as Atlanta, Columbus, Hamilton, Houston, Nashville, Oklahoma City, and St. Paul made the bid a long shot.
Shinn submitted his application on November 1, 1996. He announced that the team would be named the Rhinos, and would have the rather unusual color scheme of blue, purple, and teal. He began a season ticked drive in hopes of improving the chances of his bid, with a goal of selling 10,000 by January 1, 1997. Despite a less than stellar result, Shinn and the Rhinos’ ownership team remained optimistic about their chances, no doubt buoyed by an agreement in principle with the localities in the region to build an arena to host the team.
With an agreement in hand, Shinn and his partners met with NHL officials, including commissioner Gary Bettman to pitch their idea. The presentation seemed to be successful, as some that were in attendance stated that the Rhinos had moved into fourth place alongside Columbus. Shinn had previously stated that if he were not awarded an expansion franchise that he would consider purchasing another team and moving it into the region. After his presentation, he was not the only person that considered Norfolk as a potential relocation site, as Hartford Whalers owner Peter Karmanos, Jr. said that he would consider moving his team to the area if Shinn were unsuccessful.
As bright as things now looked for the Rhinos, the roof caved in as quickly as their hopes were raised. In February, the league turned down Shinn’s bid, citing the East Coast location, the relative small size of the market, and the metropolitan area’s lack of political unity. If any hopes of a Norfolk-based team survived, they now existed only in relocation. Those chances soon dissipated when the Whalers moved to Raleigh to become the Carolina Hurricanes. With the two cities separated by a drive of less than three hours, there was now no chance of a franchise moving to the area, and the Rhinos disappeared from hockey’s radar once and for all.
In spite of the disappointing result for hockey fans in southern Virginia, the memory of the Rhinos lives on. The credit for that no doubt belongs to Shinn who in spite of overwhelming odds gave the concept a fighting chance thanks to a clever idea and an outstanding job of marketing. It is amazing how well a team that never stepped onto the ice can be remembered.