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Vipers, Ice Dogs looking for return to finals

Though the Grizzlies surrendered the Turner Cup after a two-year title reign, Utah hockey fans can take some solace in how things turned out in the International Hockey League last season.

The Detroit Vipers, whose roots trace back to the old Salt Lake Golden Eagles, claimed the top prize by outlasting the Long Beach Ice Dogs 4-2 in the IHL championship series. The finalists enter the 1997-98 campaign, which begins Saturday, as marked teams in the 18-team league's two conferences.A look at the league:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Northeast Division

Detroit Vipers: The only franchise in professional hockey to record more than 100 points in each of the past three seasons.

Grand Rapids Griffins: Second-year franchise has once again sold more than 7,000 season tickets.

Orlando Solar Bears: Have won more games (105) than any other team in the IHL over the past two seasons.

Quebec Rafales: Picked up Long Beach goaltender Tom Draper (2.30 goals against average) in the off-season.

Central Division

Cincinnati Cyclones: The team moves into The Crown, a 16,000-seat arena, that just underwent $14 million in renovations.

Cleveland Lumberjacks: Enter season without a primary National Hockey League affiliate for the first time since 1986-87.

Fort Wayne Komets: The league's longest-running franchise enters its 46th season on the heels of its first playoff miss since 1974-75.

Indianapolis Ice: Defending division champions welcome back goaltenders Marc Lamothe and Jimmy Waite.

Michigan K-Wings: After losing an IHL-record 18 extra sessions in 1995-96, the Kalamazoo crew went 14-7 in shootouts last season.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Midwest Division

Chicago Wolves: Right wing Rob Brown is one of just three players in IHL history to score 100 or more points in four consecutive seasons.

Kansas City Blades: Eleven regulars, including five starters on offense, welcome new coach Paul MacLean to the fold.

Manitoba Moose: After losing its beloved NHL Jets to Phoenix, Winnipeg suffered through a no-postseason debut in the IHL.

Milwaukee Admirals: Al Sims, who coached Fort Wayne to the 1993 Turner Cup championship, returns to the league after spending 1996-97 with the NHL's San Jose Sharks.

Southwest Division

Houston Aeros: Will the Planes continue to climb? Houston improved by 30 points last season and reached the conference finals.

Las Vegas Thunder: Right wing Patrice Lefebvre has averaged 100 points per season since joining the storm in 1993-94.

Long Beach Ice Dogs: Won 30 of their last 31 games at home en route to winning the division and conference.

San Antonio Dragons: The Midwest Division champions switch divisions to join Texas mate Houston in the Southwest.

UTAH GRIZZLIES: Newcomers Tony Horacek, Fred Knipscheer and Kip Miller lead the Grizz into their new den - West Valley City's E Center.

SLAP SHOTS: The IHL season opened Thursday with Chicago beating Manitoba 3-0 in Winnipeg . . . Independence has become a way of life in the IHL as only three teams (Utah, Michigan and Indianpolis) are primary affiliates of National Hockey League teams . . . The IHL will experiment with three rule changes for at least the first month of the season. The rules include penalizing players who knock the puck from their own defensive area out of play (two-minute minor); eliminating line changes on neutral zone face-offs; and using the defensive blue line instead of the red line to determine icing.