We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again, one of the things we love most is when leagues or news fall into our lap, or show up out of nowhere and sends us scrambling to learn more.
That kind of happened yesterday while I was reading a piece on junior hockey that casually mentioned in one line, “It looks like the USACHL is going to play this season with four to six teams,” or something along those lines.
Now, the USACHL isn’t exactly a new idea or one that came out of nowhere, it had been talked about for years originally under the name C1HL but never materialized, and then talk switched to the USACHL, which, going to the league website, does appear to be set to take the ice this fall, with three teams listed on the league site and three more spots listed as TBD.
Now before we get into the teams and that, you’re probably wondering, what in the world is the USACHL?
It stands for USA Central Hockey League, and looks to be a competitor to the NAHL, playing as a tuition-free junior league, and as the name suggests, in the central part of America. The league’s homepage states:
WELCOME TO THE USACHL, THE TUITION FREE TEXAS STYLE HOCKEY LEAGUE.Our philosophy is to entertain our fans and sponsors and support our players allowing them to get an education by playing the game they love.With the puck dropping in October of this year, the USACHL will bring incredible hockey back to Texas.
From what I’ve heard, the league aims to be different from the NAHL by only taking players who are 18-and-up, so they’re going for older players, ones who may have slipped through the cracks, or maybe cuts from NAHL teams. Or just plain lots of Texas players, since they’re bringing incredible hockey back to Texas. Nevermind that the state already has teams in the NHL, AHL, ECHL and NAHL already. The league is also reportedly going to play entirely by NHL rules, a slight difference from the NAHL who plays by USA Hockey rules, which vary slightly from those at the top-level.
It sounds a bit like the old SWHL, which allowed players to play hockey while they went to local or community colleges, working on their education while also giving them a chance to potentially be recruited by colleges with hockey programs. For reference, the SWHL lasted less than two years, folding in the middle of its second season.
The league did respond to an email, saying they are non-pay-to-play league, and that they will be using NHL rules, but no mention of the age limit.
The league was founded by Rick Kozuback, a former coach the junior and minor league level, and is headed by President Troy Mick who was president and GM of the Salmon Arm Silverbacks of the BCHL, and VP Terry Christensen who has 30-plus years of experience in D1 hockey, junior, and pro hockey.
From the looks of the three teams they have officially announced so far, Rio Grande Valley Killer Bees, Laredo Bucks, and Wichita Falls Force, they are aiming to hit up markets where there was CHL hockey and where the NAHL failed (RGV and Wichita Falls) and markets that just never got a chance after the original CHL folded (Laredo).
President Troy Mick responded to our requests today and said that the league is, “…in the process of closing 2-3 more teams in the next 10-14 days.”
RGV and Laredo were both announced back on March 21, while Wichita Falls was announced on just June 28, and literally just this morning announced they will be the Wichita Falls Force.
The league site claims the teams will play a 48-game regular season, with each team playing 24 home games.
Now, I don’t necessarily think this is a terrible idea for a league, because the NAHL and USHL alternatives in the country are either the USPHL’s NCDC out East, or the pay-to-play WSHL which is mainly west but does have teams in Texas and Oklahoma. Other than that, you’re either paying to play, or playing in one of the provincial leagues up in Canada, so this does fill a market. And give them credit for making it a free league, because the last thing the hockey world needs at the junior level is more pay-to-play leagues that are just going to fail.
But here’s the issues I have with it: I don’t really know what kind of quality of you’re going to get with this league, and in Year 1, I can’t imagine it’s going to be very strong. Maybe they are able to lure some guys who get cut from NAHL teams, but that isn’t exactly the “incredible hockey” they claim up above.
And then add-in that these are questionable hockey markets in terms of fan support, plus the question marks about the quality of play, and you wonder if people will show up for this brand of hockey.
RGV lasted just two seasons in the NAHL, averaging about 1500 fans a night, not bad in the NAHL, but not enough in the division that travels the most and when you’re the southern-most team. The pro version of RGV averaged well over 4000 fans a night, but it clearly didn’t translate to the junior game.
Wichita Falls was a long-time NAHL town, with a team from 2003 to 2017, and in those years they were pretty steady in attendance, averaging around 1800 a night before plummeting in the final season, averaging just over 1100 fans a night.
Laredo was also a strong CHL market for most of its existence, averaging more than 5000 fans a night before things fell off at the end, with attendance dipping to 3573 the next to last season, then just 2358 in the final season, 2011-12, so maybe the lack of hockey will bring back fans, but it will be interesting to see if they support this product. They reportedly tried to join the NAHL after the CHL left, but never were able to strike a deal to bring a team to the area.
Again, these are all markets that had hockey, and started off strong in fan support, but then saw it dwindle, or drop off sharply when switching from pros to juniors, so I really question how much fan support these teams might have.
I’m guessing they try off-set this by making it Texas-based, creating rivalries and hoping fans come out for that, and by playing entirely in Texas it may cut down on costs, but Texas isn’t small, and teams might travel farther in-state than the entire NAHL East Division does for any road game.
I also question fan support for the most simple reason of all: Tickets to this are EXPENSIVE for an unproven junior league that might be trying to cash-in on NAHL cuts. Each team has the same season ticket prices, at four tiers: $480 for low center or front row ends, $360 for offensive zone sides, $240 for lower ends, $200 for upper ends. And those are early-bird prices.
For comparison’s sake, here’s the NAHL South Division season ticket prices, which keep in mind, include four more regular season games than the USACHL, plus two exhibition games.
Amarillo Bulls: Glass $406, Sides $350, Ends-Corners $266
Topeka Pilots: Glass $400, Sides $325, Ends-Corners $250
Lone Star Brahmas: Glass $547, Club $404, Plaza $309, Terrace $238
Shreveport Mudbugs: Platinum $600, Gold $510, Silver $360, Bronze $330
Corpus Christi Ice Rays: Platinum $588, Gold $490, Silver $378, Bronze $287
Odessa Jacklopes: Ice $670, All You Can Eat $400, Prime $350, Main $179
So even against a more established league, their center ice seats are high, their offensive zones are high, but their end seats are pretty affordable. But again, the play in the NAHL is going to be better, and you’re getting four more games, plus two exhibitions.
That’s a really tough sell, and you have to really want to go see hockey to pay those prices, which are even higher on a per-game basis if walk-up on the day of the game.
The other reason I’m skeptical about this is because it’s July, the season is supposed to start in October, so let’s say 100 days and make it late October. And they have three teams. That’s not a league. They are aiming for three more, and are trying to drum up interest in these teams, make logos, hire coaches and staff, scout and sign players, all in 100 days. For comparisons sake, the NAHL Draft was two months ago, and most teams are wrapping up their main tryout camp or have already had it, and are prepping for training camp with their final rosters next month. So this league is really behind the 8-ball, even with starting six weeks after the NAHL.
I really hope this works, or that they find a business model that keeps this viable, or perhaps most selfishly, I hope that of the six teams (or four) that they get at least two that are strong and viable, and maybe the NAHL South absorbs them into the division so you see more than the same five teams over and over each year.
Either way, it’s an ambitious idea, and I give them credit for making it a tuition-free league, but the combination of product quality, price, and then just a lack of teams as the season start date approaches has me really skeptical this is going to work.