Our friend Justin Hyde at Motoramic notes an important date in history: Twenty years ago today, the Neon twins debuted. But while I also think of the confusing Plymouth/Dodge branding, I'm also reminded of the Detroit Neon, a local indoor soccer team sponsored by Chrysler.
I was 10 years old when the Detroit Neon and the Detroit Vipers, a hockey team, made their respective debuts, but to me it was the earliest example of blatant product placement, predating things like Comerica Park and Ford Field. The Detroit Neon's logo was the same badge as the actual cars. While the Detroit Vipers' connection was far more subtle, it was another Chrysler-sponsored team that took its name from a then-new product: the Dodge Viper.
Both the Neon and the Viper would outlive their team counterparts and you can still see them on the road today, but memories of those teams are fading. Sure, we have four pro sports teams and a decent soccer team, but a quick trip down memory lane won't hurt.
The Neon was born from the death of the Major Indoor Soccer League, a 14-year-old league that closed up shop in 1992. The MISL never reached the level of the NFL or NHL, but it did provide team owners of other sports a financial incentive to keep arenas filled during off-seasons of major sports.
When the MISL closed up, some NBA team owners pooled their resources to form the Continental Indoor Soccer League in 1993. Among them was the late William "Bill" Davidson, owner of the Palace of Auburn Hills (the same city where Chrysler's headquarters are) and the Detroit Pistons. Looking to sell naming rights for a Detroit-based team that would play in the Palace when the Pistons weren't using the arena, Chrysler stepped in. With the new Neon on the way, the team was christened as the Detroit Neon.
There was one rule for CISL teams: At least half the team had to come from the region they played for. I vaguely, vaguely remember being invited to autograph signings and news reports implying that Neon players were local celebrities, but can't name any players off-hand.
Beginning in 1994, the Neon played two uneventful seasons — they were the worst in the league, actually — before the naming rights were sold to General Motors, who re-named the team Detroit Safari after the GMC Safari. Perhaps a sign after being named after one of GM's least-exciting offerings, the Safari played its final season in 1997, the same year the CISL also folded.
There's little footage of Detroit Neon online, but all of their games were aired on PASS, which some of you Detroit locals might remember as what was basically the local version of ESPN. Out of all the CISL teams, though, the Neon had the most loyal fans and highest attendance per game.
The Detroit Vipers had a more interesting run. It also launched in 1994, playing at the Palace under Davidson's oversight. It also had richer ties to Metro Detroit as part of the age-old International Hockey League.
The IHL began in 1945 with four teams across the Detroit-Windsor border. (One team was called the Detroit Auto Club.) The league served as a feeder league to the American Hockey League. Financial woes eventually shuttered the IHL in 2001, but several players made their way into higher leagues, including the NHL.
The Vipers began life as the Salt Lake Golden Eagles in 1969 before being sold to Detroit in 1994. Again, Chrysler stepped in with sponsorship, this time naming the team after the Dodge Viper.
Detroit is Hockeytown for a reason. The Red Wings were the powerhouse, sure, but the Vipers — which fed hungry Detroit hockey fans when they debuted during the NHL's 1994 lockout — held their own, too. They were consistently top-ranked in the league and beat a team of NHL all-stars in one match. Davidson also recruited NHL players locked in contract negotiations and also wooed veteran NHL players to finish their careers with the Vipers. Their pinnacle came with winning the Turner Cup in 1997, along with four division championships during their short-lived reign.
But the Vipers are probably best known for the one-off return of hockey legend Gordie Howe (pictured above with John Gruden), who signed a one-game contract to play one round in 1997. A publicity stunt for the ages, the then-69-year-old Howe hadn't been on the ice since 1980 — though he did become the only player to play in six consecutive decades. Here's video of him on the ice at that game:
Despite the Vipers' local popularity, the IHL as a whole was suffering and dissolved in 2001. A disastrous switch in coaches and a misplaced new affiliation with the Tampa Bay Lightning sped up the Vipers' demise, but the IHL was in sadder shape. Unlike the Neon, however, Viper fans here and there still rock their vinyl jackets and the occasional jersey around town.