The Moose officially began life when the International Hockey League (IHL) awarded Kevin MacLean and Roger Sturgeon an expansion franchise on December 20, 1993 to begin play the following year at the Saint Paul Civic Center. The Moose qualified for post-season play in their inaugural season thanks only to the IHL's permissive playoff system and they were easy pickings for the eventual league champion Denver Grizzlies in the first round. The Moose's logo, designed by Richard Valentine of Valentine Design, proved to be the team's biggest asset. With the top-rated logo in minor-league hockey, the Moose would account for 20% of all league merchandise sales. Off the ice, however, the team was haemorrhaging money and with the threat of the NHL's Winnipeg Jets relocating to the Twin Cities, the owners wanted out.
Two ownership groups sought to bring an IHL team to Winnipeg to fill the void left behind by the Jets' departure after the 1995-1996 season. The Shindleman brothers first purchased a conditional interest in the Peoria Rivermen, then a group led by Jeff Thompson and former Jet Thomas Steen purchased an interest in the Moose. At a fateful Board of Directors meeting, the IHL awarded the Thompson group relocation rights to Winnipeg. As a lame duck franchise, the Moose played out their second and final season in Minnesota before dwindling crowds and missed the playoffs.
Soon after the team's arrival in Winnipeg, dissension among the new partnership left Mark Chipman, a last-minute entry in the Thompson group, in charge of the Moose. He would eventually rise to become the team's de facto general manager and the unofficial Hockey Czar of Winnipeg. Chipman's first hire was former Canadiens and Nordiques coach Jean Perron, who was given a three-year contract to be the Manitoba Moose's first head coach and general manager. The litigation surrounding the contract would last much longer than Perron's tenure with the Moose.
With a late start, Perron did his best to restock the roster and, ready or not, the team made its debut on October 4, 1996 at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee. The Moose's shootout loss that night would become the first of many and their lack of success in the penalty-shot contest would quickly become one of their hallmark characteristics. Curious Winnipeg hockey fans, jilted by the loss of the Jets, showed up in good numbers initially, only to see a losing team racked by turmoil. In early February, Chipman fired Perron and took the reins himself, though he would officially name Randy Carlyle as the new head coach and general manager. With Carlyle behind the bench, the Moose began winning, but it was a case of too little, too late to save what had been a tremendously disappointing season. The Moose were one of only three clubs in the 19-team IHL to miss the playoffs and a chance to make some serious headway with the fan base was lost, perhaps permanently.
For their second season in Winnipeg, Chipman and Carlyle were forced to rebuild the roster almost from scratch on account of the rash of IHL players defecting to Germany. They succeeded in adding some players who would become fixtures in years to come, but the team would not be much better than they were the previous year. The Moose made the playoffs almost by default and were subsequently swept out of the first round by the Chicago Wolves. Worse yet, many fans, after checking out what the Moose had to offer last year, didn't come back. An exasperated Chipman even took to the phones personally to cajole them back. Unfortunately, the low attendance that would plague the Moose for the remainder of their tenure at the Winnipeg Arena was hardly surprising given how little they did to market the team. Even though all the empty seats would prove him wrong, Chipman persisted in the apparent belief that the product should sell itself.
The Moose were able to bring back a number of key players from last year's squad and they made some valuable additions over the off-season to produce a roster of muckers and grinders sprinkled with skill that would produce by far their best team since moving from Minnesota. The Moose spent much of the year near the top of the standings and won their first-round playoff series against the Milwaukee Admirals in dramatic fashion. Unfortunately, it all came crashing down once again as the Wolves took out the Moose in straight games for the second consecutive season. Few fans noticed as attendance continued to fall. Late in the season, the Moose resorted to papering the house at fire-sale prices by giving out tickets to Pizza Hut customers. Games that were called “sellouts” were really “giveouts” as, on most nights, roughly half of the seating area was unoccupied. It was but one of a number of desperate and feeble ploys the Moose used to attract fans that predictably failed.
Long on character, but short on skill last year, the Moose opted to load up on the latter during the off-season. Instead of challenging for the Turner Cup, however, they would struggle mightily. The incredibly frustrating season would see the Moose back into the playoffs, only to lose in straight games to the Long Beach Ice Dogs in the first round. There was a microscopic increase in attendance, but the Moose were still largely off the radar as far as the Winnipeg hockey fan was concerned. Once again, it was back to the drawing board.
During the off-season, Chipman would attempt to forge an alliance with the NHL's Vancouver Canucks, but his efforts would be stymied for the time being by his insistence that Carlyle remain behind the bench. The Canucks had wanted Stan Smyl coaching their prospects, but Chipman would stick by his favorite crony and the Moose would continue as an independent team for what would be the IHL's final season. With fan support bottoming out and seemingly unwilling to make the effort to sell tickets themselves, the Moose turned to their fans to hawk tickets with the introduction of the “Team Builder Program.” It would be another embarrassing failure for the Moose as a much-improved team played mostly in front of empty houses. The Moose spent much of the year in first place, but the late-season departure of goaltender Johan Hedberg for the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins triggered a downward spiral and Carlyle's stubborn insistence on playing a woefully ineffective Ken Wregget in goal nearly cost the Moose a playoff berth. With his team on the brink of elimination in the first round of the playoffs, Wregget suddenly found the Fountain of Youth and led the Moose to an improbable comeback, only to run out of miracles in the next round as the Wolves defeated the Moose for the third time in four seasons.
Move to the AHL
Soon after the Orlando Solar Bears captured what would be the last Turner Cup, the Moose, along with five of their IHL brethren, joined the American Hockey League (AHL), bringing the curtain down on the 56-year-old IHL. Hellbent on becoming a Canucks affiliate, Chipman was forced to relent and allow Smyl to coach the team. He would keep Carlyle on the payroll as the ceremonial president before his favorite crony moved on to begin an NHL coaching career a year later.
As a new member of AHL, the NHL's primary development league, the Moose would continue to struggle at the gate and play in front of sparse and apathetic “crowds.” Only when the team moved into Chipman's new arena would fan interest pick up. The novelty effect of the new building and the dream of that arena someday hosting an NHL team would keep the turnstiles moving, but by the time they left Winnipeg in 2011, the Moose had cemented their place in history as the city's most unwanted house guest.