For the first time since the days, ironically, of the International Hockey League (or other IHL), a Michigan-centric hockey league is returning to competition.
This time in the form of the Interstate Hockey League, a Southeast Michigan based Senior Hockey League.
The IHL, in its own words, is revolutionizing Senior hockey.
What does that mean?
It all starts with the passion and “old-time-hockey” philosophy of hockey aficionado and IHL Commissioner Drake MacKenzie; the epitome of a lifelong love of hockey.
Senior Hockey League’s are prone to be known for having a bevy of former high-level professional or college hockey players.
“The three existing leagues (Mountain West, Great Lakes, and Black Diamond) all focus on ex-pro, college and junior players. We don’t. There’s tens of thousands of ex high school or midget players out there that work their whole lives for what amounts to nothing,” said MacKenzie “We really feel by focusing on those players that we can not only have more draw to teams, but have a ton of teams all over the United States eventually. That’s our big difference.”
“How we run teams is different as well. The IHL will always ‘own’ each team, but appoint managers to run day to day operations. That way teams don’t fold because their manager is tired of it or whatever. That helps teams build traditions and rivalries.”
The IHL is strictly amateur. No professional players, but players who’ve dedicated their life to hockey without necessarily playing higher levels.
Much like its founder.
“I played two years of midgets. I waited my whole life to play, and in two short years it was over,” said MacKenzie “I thought ‘I can do this, but better’ and I started reading about senior hockey and the rest was history.”
You may be asking, at this point, “why?”. Why dedicate all of one’s time into creating a league of misfit hockey players in a state already saturated with hockey?
For MacKenzie, this is exactly what he feels he was called to do.
“I grew up with the Flint Generals (United Hockey League/IHL), and since I was little, I’ve always been fascinated by why teams or leagues fail or succeed. My goal is to sort of rebuild the International and United/Colonial League in senior form. I think fans would respond a lot better to home grown talent and cheap ticket prices of three to five dollars, and I’m hoping that I can help some cities be that talent.”
MacKenzie went on, mentioning hockey hotbeds that he think are underutilized.
“Troy [Michigan] and Dayton, Ohio have been overlooked or hurt by poor ownership. Fraser and Wyandotte [Michigan] have beautiful old buildings and no history there. Danbury, Connecticut has had rabid fan support, but has been trashed by the Federal Hockey League and New England Hockey League. Warroad and Rosseau, Minnesota had a deep seeded hate filled rivalry in senior hockey, and now high school.”
So, again you may ask, what’s the point?
“To put it simply, to create an professional-like league, built on home grown talent to rebuild history,” said MacKenzie “This is my dream. I get to help people play competitively and forge a career. I’ll play hockey and run leagues for a career, and that’s an epic way to live.
It’s important to note, this isn’t MacKenzie’s first time creating a Senior league, but this time around is his Magnum Opus. Last year, he tried a beta season in creating the Metropolitan Hockey League, but it wasn’t the right market to base a league out of.
“Unfortunately Flint is a dead zone when it comes to hockey. We’ve had some awful experiences there. I wish like hell we could have lasted here and eventually be back. But when we first started the league it took off,” said MacKenzie “Our first lesson was that people do wanna play competitively. Second is making sure teams pay there bills in time and on time. It sounds stupid now but when we started, I never thought people wouldn’t show up or people wouldn’t pay. That was a huge lesson.”
Persistent and knowing that there was a desire as well as a necessity for Senior hockey, MacKenzie took what he learned from the fall of the Metro, and bet on himself as he looked to restart his dream in a decades old hockey hotbed: Metro Detroit.
“When I went down to Detroit, rinks really jumped on our bandwagon. Everyone was really excited and receptive. On the player side of things, Detroit just has more and better quality.”
With rinks on board, it became time to create franchises, get sponsors, find General Managers, and get players – like any other league.
“I went down with my goalie and we visited every single rink. Looked at ice, stands, locker rooms, how the staff is, met with every general manager of each rink and got a feel for them too,” said MacKenzie “I went with rinks that really took a high interest in us, then I contacted 10 that we thought would be a good fit. The six that got back to us immediately were excited about having something like this come in. They worked us in to schedules, and some gave us discounts on time.”
Sponsors have started rolling in for the league, bringing aboard , All Black Hockey Sticks sponsoring Players of the Month and Hats, Outer Layer Skins does goalie helmet wraps at a discount, and Beer League Talk podcast for a Player of the Week naming.
Dangle Sauce Hockey contacted the league, and is providing jerseys, gloves, pant shells, and socks – all included in the $700-800 player fees.
As for the players, that came all through social media, and Facebook Marketing.
Finding GMs was never an issue for the IHL.
“I’ve found usually it’s not the ex pro/junior/college guys that do above and beyond. It’s the guys that never had the chance to show their stuff. The right guys always seemed to find us,” said MacKenzie “Macomb’s General Manager Harley Pawley played one year last year, and has worked hard to get better. This is the best he’s done and goes all out for his team. Canton’s GM Kris Bolan is just as impressive – they simply want to play competitively in front of people, and build a brand.”
Some franchises, like the Hadley Nepessings (named after Lake Nepessing, the largest inland lake in Lapeer County) have made the transition from the fringe-MHL of year’s past, now to playing as one of the founding members of the IHL.
It’s for this reason that they’ll represent the IHL in November when the league has its first ever meeting with the Great Lakes Hockey League’s legendary Fond Du Lac (Wisconsin) Bears.
“[This] gives us instant credibility. Fond Du Lac is a model senior franchise. They fill their barn every night, and they’ve been around for a long time,” said MacKenzie “For our boys, that’s a great lesson of what we can be.”
With six confirmed teams (possibly eight in the coming months) competing this season, a bevy of sponsors and partners, and a major cross-league match up already in stone, the expectations are realistic, but high for the IHL.
“Stability. This is our last beta season. We consider our first season [Metropolitan Hockey League] as a beta season as well. Different lessons learned there.”
That’s not all Including expanding the league across the country.
“After this I plan on putting teams in Minnesota and New England, and as long as things stay stable we can do that,” said MacKenzie “Think of the Canadian [Major] Junior system. There would be the Central League (Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois) Eastern League (New England) and Western League (Minnesota). They’d play inside their own leagues, all operate under the IHL moniker, then each league champion would play each other in a Memorial Cup-style tournament.”
Mackenzie has also said that he’d be interested in having at least one game a week live streamed for fans to be able to see the product, and to create a broadcast program through the league.
For a league like this to survive though, there has to be retention and player interest of course, but the league itself needs to be profitable. The IHL believes there is an interest and ability to buy in for fans.
“Absolutely… if you market it right. You’re not selling this to hockey players: you’re selling this to causal fans. It’s all about the event; not just on ice, but the whole atmosphere. That’s the other way we are revolutionizing hockey,” said MacKenzie “The hockey is still fast, the hits are big, there’s more fighting – Some of these lower level guys can really throw them, I had 11 fights just last year – more passion. It’s just a weird mix that’s entertaining.”
“To be clear, I hate beer league hockey nine out of 10 times. It’s lost it’s competitive feel and there’s nothing to play for. I want something to take my girlfriend and family to.”
Family-friendly, entertaining hockey environment on-and-off the ice. The lifeblood of low-level hockey.
Senior League’s have proven that they can retain and be profitable. The GLHL has been around since 1937, and has the third oldest trophy in sports in the Gibson Cup.
UPDATE: We have been informed that the GLHL no longer competes for the Gibson Cup, rather that it is competed for between the Portage Lake Pioneers and Calumet Wolverines exclusively. For more information on the “Stanley Cup of the North”, visit their website.
The Rocky Mountain and Black Diamond leagues have had a long history of bringing in former professional hockey players from the FHL up.
It’s not just Senior Men’s hockey that MacKenzie is concerned with though, but feels there needs to be more opportunities for women’s hockey in league’s like his.
“Competitive girls hockey for adults is almost nonexistent: Michigan has an epic women’s league, New England used too, and from what I’ve seen Minnesota has a couple teams. They should have the same opportunities guys have for me.”
The IHL under MacKenzie has big plans: immediate expansion, women’s Senior hockey, and in the future…a tournament between the to-be Big Four Senior leagues?
“Absolutely. I think our league could hold our own against the GLHL and MWHL. From what I’ve seen the Black Diamond League, they look like they would kick our [expletive].” *laughs*
Exhibition games will be happening all summer long with the next on June 1, leading up to puck drop in the Fall. We’ll keep you up to speed on what develops with this league, and we look forward to November 3 in Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin.
If you’d like to donate to see the Interstate Hockey League last, consider donating to them. There are some very favorable rewards, especially with expansion in the works.