As the FHL inches closer to officially announcing the two next expansion teams for the 2018-19 season, as well as the complete league schedule (rumor is all three of those things will be released on the same day), one interesting development has turned up, something we didn’t see any of last season.
The league is reportedly in talks with a group to try and put a neutral site game in Lapeer, Michigan sometime this season, and are in the process of ironing out details, including a date for the game, and if the arena in Lapeer would allow such an event to happen.
The push is being led by the commissioner of the newly formed Interstate Hockey League, Drake MacKenzie, who hails from the Lapeer area, who had previously voiced his opinion that the market could be a viable spot for an FHL team, and one assumes that this potential neutral site game would be a test run for the market, and to show the FHL what the area has to offer.
“Lapeer is a great sports town. And had produced some amazing hockey players throughout its history,” MacKenzie said about the pursuit of the neutral site game. “Lapeer was jipped in the first go around of pro hockey. A terrible league and an worse owner. Lapeer averages more than 800 fans per game including a handful of sellouts.”
The rink in Lapeer, the Polar Palace, was home to a team in the AAHL for a stretch before the league and team folded.
Despite the issues around the league and team, the Lapeer Loggers pulled in an average of 762 fans per night in the AAHL, a remarkable number for that league, and one that certainly must catch the eyes of the higher-caliber FHL.
Now, there are a couple of issues that come to mind about if Lapeer could potentially be a future FHL market.
First, Lapeer is a town of around 10,000 people, and of the current (and rumored) cities the FHL has teams in, it would be the smallest city in the league by far, with Watertown the next smallest at around 25,000 people in town. And the city is also a mere 20 minutes away from Flint, which houses arguably the top junior league in the world with the Flint Firebird of the Ontario Hockey League.
The other issue, not so much for the neutral site game, but going forward if the league thinks the rink and town could be a viable market, is the size of the arena. Currently the arena has only 900 permanent seats, standing room for about 200 people, and a mezzanine area that can hold up to 400 people, putting capacity at 1500, the FHL minimum. The problem is that it’s unclear if the FHL wants 1500 capacity total, or 1500 actual seats that butts can go in. If it’s the latter, then you need to find a way to add some seats.
As you can see in the picture above, there’s about 8 rows of seats on the one side, then empty behind the benches and ends of the rink. It looks like you could add 5-6 rows of seats in each zone on the ends next to the player benches, then maybe some room at one of the ends where you could add seats. If you get to say, 1200-1300 seats, then have room for 100-200 standing room plus that 400 seat mezz, and you’re closer to 1900 capacity.
“The facilities at the Polar Palace are top notch,” MacKenzie said of the rink. “It’s got a lot good seating. Room for expansion a mezzanine that overlooks the rink and plenty of room for expansion. Not to mention an attached bar/restaurant.”
Finally, with six strong teams and no North Shore who would gladly move around for a game like this, the question becomes, which team is willing to sacrifice a home date and a night of revenue so the league could play a neutral site game in a potential market? The obvious answer would be Port Huron, who sits just 50 minutes away (and would be an instant rival if Lapeer did get a team), and could potentially bring over fans from the area for the game, so some fans would have the chance to see the game and not miss home date.
But MacKenzie thinks its location could be advantage, putting it within reasonable distance of other FHL teams.
“In terms of teams in the FHL. We are an hour away from Port Huron and 4 from Danville,” MacKenzie added. “Same with Mentor. A good halfway point.”
It’s a bold idea, and if the event is marketed properly, especially given the success in the stands the AAHL team had, you should easily do around 750+ fans for a game that features two teams they don’t care about.
“Lapeer is ready to take its place in hockey history,” MacKenzie concluded. “Done right. This could turn the Federal League on it’s head. I believe we would be the best fan atmosphere not just in the FHL but in hockey. Period.”
Once again, nothing is final on this, but it’s something to keep an eye on not just for this season, but potentially next season as a possible expansion market.