Disclaimer: this is strictly the opinion of the author.
When I talk to any hockey fan from a hockey-centric community, they always spout about their favorite NHL team, their love of the game, and hoping they win the cup next year.
Though often, if you talk with them a bit longer, you’ll learn that their love of the sport expands simply past the penultimate level of the NHL, and works its way down to an alphabet soup, professional hockey franchise that might not exist anymore.
Especially in the Midwest, this is an evident case.
Now let’s make sure one thing is entirely understood and on the table: I know the Federal Hockey League isn’t the UHL or IHL, and realistically never will. The SPHL isn’t the Central Hockey League, but could be on its way up.
So, why are these leagues treated like more of an inconvenience than a, and I dare say this, a luxury.
Hear me out.
I come from the not-too-small community of Flint, Michigan where professional hockey lived for over 40 years, and now houses an Ontario Hockey League team. Flint had the right size facilities and the right fan support to be able to lift itself from the last-endeavor IHL, now to being in a premier hockey league like the OHL.
Not all cities have this luxury, mainly facility-wise, but can have that level of fan support. Let’s talk about the FHL.
A city like Port Huron used to compete in the ranks of the UHL, CoHL, and NAHL. That’s all in the past. Now, they’re the prime example of the perfect combination arena and city size, that is further complimented by fan support, to make the Federal Hockey League the perfect fit. This is a city that’s seen higher level hockey, but loves its FHL team, because it knows that’s what it can afford.
When you think of hockey cities, you may have never even heard of cities like Danville, Illinois or Watertown, New York. These are not traditional hockey markets.
In the FHL, they’re perfect markets. These small, quiet suburbs get some remote taste of professional sports, something to wrap the community up into and give them pride. This has backfired on occasions, like Berlin where despite the popularity, the arena just wasn’t enough, or Cornwall where the fans weren’t just passionate enough.
But, look at Winston-Salem. This was a community left for dead in the eyes of professional hockey, after over a handful of failures in the realm. Those days appear to be long gone, as the community regularly fills The Annex, and the Thunderbird red and black infests the city.
The SPHL jumped into a quickly emerging hockey hotbed and has been the foremost leader in southern hockey since, where the ECHL rarely treads. They’re creating a truly unique brand of hockey, and they’re growing. Previously unconsidered markets and untraditional markets meet for a “region of misfit toys” that work harmoniously. Who could’ve predicted that Huntsville, Alabama would be a gold mine for hockey, and use that success to continue to expand in the community? This league is special and getting better.
So what? This is why we should care and support these leagues?
No. Here’s why.
Once these kind of leagues are gone, they’re gone nowadays.
In the earlier days of what is modern independent professional sports, we could afford to neglect these kinds of low level hockey because new leagues were a dime a dozen, and for every one that folded, three new ones could pop up anywhere in the U.S., making it hard to care of grow truly too attached to any team or league. In case you haven’t noticed, leagues aren’t popping up anymore. Startup costs and the financial risks is way too big now.
Does the FHL and maybe the SPHL have this pop and drop problem? More so in the past, sure, teams were being relocated or folding much more noticeably. But the leagues have survived. Hell, even for as many pessimists and naysayers as there are of the FHL, that league has still lasted for nearly a decade. The SPHL? Almost two.
Naysayers of either’s brand of hockey, on or off the ice, always point to the AHL and ECHL model of success, while simultaneously ignoring the roots of those leagues are intertwined with independent/low-level leagues not too different from the ones of today.
Remember that in the heyday of the IHL (original), they were competing directly with the AHL as the feeder league of the NHL, and at one point even went after the NHL in terms of direct competition. Eventually, during the downfall of the league, the AHL ate up the better markets, like Grand Rapids.
The CoHL/UHL became a not too unfamiliar ally to the NHL, too. During their, coincidentally also as the IHL, downfall, the ECHL scooped up their markets for expansion.
The CHL’s end of days came in the final league consolidation, and finalized ECHL markets.
All the major professional minor league leagues owe their roots to lesser hockey, and the reason they’re still around is a combination of NHL affiliation, poor decisions from big dreaming leagues, and location.
During all of the final stage consolidations, the FHL and SPHL stood. Yes, the SPHL had its own Frankenstein conception with a number of alphabet soup leagues, too. The FHL came from nowhere and continues to redefine what a hockey market can be.
Now, both leagues stock is rising, and in my opinion the SPHL is quickly becoming a palpable competitor to the ECHL, with taking similar size markets and making them profitable at much cheaper costs. The FHL is heading into an age of legitimacy under the Scott Brand marketing guide.
There’s that, too.
Independent/minor league sports are launch pads for ideas, careers, and communities.
Take a look at the minor league baseball model, where you have nearly 200 minor league affiliates of the MLB, without even mentioning incredibly successful independent leagues like the newest United Shore Professional Baseball League. These communities welcomed in these clubs, and they became one in the same with the city. Even an SPHL city, Fayetteville, is building now a multi-million dollar beautiful baseball stadium to welcome in a Single-A baseball team.
The FHL and SPHL are not affiliated, and likely never will be. However, these are teams that send players up to the ECHL in their own backyard, that compete and draw fans, and provide a product and a need.
In the world of affiliated sports, things are very…polished. Which is obviously a great thing, but has its drawbacks. It’s systematic, and prevents bold risks to be taken. Namely, from a marketing stand point. When people think of Minor League Sports, it’s always about the promotions, both within the arena and the appeal of the host city. I went to a Lansing Lugnuts (Single-A baseball) Jimmy Buffett night last year, that was essentially Hawaiian shirts and tall alcoholic beverages for cheap. The crowd was packed and loving it. Before the game, the family and I explored the local bar scene and restaurants, supporting the tourism of the town.
I’ve had the luxury of being able to do this in hockey communities, too, and the experience is always fun.
In the “wild, Wild West” days of professional hockey, there were more leagues than players. New leagues popped up twice a year and there was always new hockey to watch.
Those days are gone.
Today, we have two affiliated leagues, and two unaffiliated “A” leagues. That’s it. If one goes under, it most certainly spells doom for another.
This is something that most don’t understand. Many, many support the Southern Professional Hockey League as the legitimate, perfect “A” league hockey. Too often though as well, it seems as though the notion is that there should be only one “A”. The SPHL needs the FHL as a feeder. Having a development professional league that can send players up to the ECHL in place of your guys, but also move players up to you, is a valuable asset to have.
The SPHL brand is incredibly valuable, and will continue to be as its outreach gets bigger. The FHL is in the right direction now with Scott Brand helping run the show.
These leagues will always fall under most radars because “they don’t matter” with no NHL prospects or affiliation.
If you want to see raw passion, on and off the ice, turn your head to independent hockey. These players make roughly a few season to lay their body on the ice. They play to keep the dream alive and continue pursuing their love of the sport. The product may be different, but the passion and effort is unparalleled.
You know the term “use it or lose it”? If we don’t suppose and keep these leagues alive, we won’t see independent hockey restarted or legitimate for many years. We live in a time where, yes, we are lucky to have both these leagues exist symbiotically.
Don’t take these for granted if you have the choice.