After a wild season and off-season that saw one team fold in the middle of the season, and another team fold that was kind of swept under the rug because hey look over there, two new expansion teams! It appears things have FINALLY settled down in the FHL.
It took longer than expected, but the past week has brought two new teams, and a league schedule, so really, all that’s left for the league this off-season is rounding out rosters and getting players ready to take the ice come October.
But for the league as a whole, the work is never done, and with momentum building, how can the league capitalize on that, and continue to build for 2018-19 and beyond?
There’s a few things we hope to see the league do, and not necessarily in this order.
Have a regular season and off-season with no disasters
This means as few things.
First, have a regular season where all the teams play the same number of games. That has never happened in league history, which seems insanely weird and unfair in a sport where you get points for each win, that one team might have more chances at getting those points than other teams. So let’s see all the teams play 58 games this year. We get that weather happens, particular with five northern teams, but find a way to reschedule them. It helps that North Shore is gone, and that you likely won’t have a team like Cornwall fold because they didn’t draw enough fans to pay for future road trips, so this could be the year that happens.
And then once you have a complete regular season with everyone playing 58 games, have an off-season where no teams fold, or relocate, or are renamed. In the league’s history they have had ONE year where all of the teams who took the ice the year before came back, that was in 2014-15 when the superfecta of Dayton, Danbury, Watertown, and Danville all returned from the four-team league in 2013-14. And that may not even count because that year Watertown changed from the Privateers to the Wolves. Other than that, the league has never had more than four teams from the previous season return, but never had less than three. So it would be nice to see all six teams come back next season.
Because once you do that, it makes our next topic much easier, and not a must-have situation where you need it to keep the league going.
Commissioner Kirnan was pretty straight-forward at the Elmira press conference, saying that he hopes the league can be like the old IHL was in its prime. It’s a bit of a confusing statement, because while the league was arguably at its best was when it had around 8-10 teams, and not 16+ towards the end.
Nevertheless, you know the league wants to add more teams, and fans want more teams, so they don’t see the same five teams over and over again at home games. Scott Brand mentioned way earlier in this off-season that the league could potentially add FOUR teams for the 2019-20 season, with an eye on the south, and the middle ground between the northern teams and Carolina.
But it’s tough trying to find towns that don’t already have hockey, or don’t have hockey within say 30 minutes, that also have a rink of 1500+ seats, and hasn’t been burned by past leagues before. In the south, the biggest challenge is just finding arenas that can make ice, so it won’t be easy, but they do have a few leads.
The most obvious expansion candidate at the moment, and from a couple of people we’ve chatted it with it sounds like a done deal, is Battle Creek, Michigan, who were rumored to be an expansion candidate this off-season, but held off to expand the arena seating and add more amenities that a pro team would need.
Beyond that, we’ve heard there have been discussions in Salisbury, Maryland, a town of around 35,000 on the opposite side of the bay from DC and Baltimore, so it is a prime area that could support a team.
The league also is reportedly still eyeing Ashville, North Carolina after that hit a dead-end this off-season due to the Arena there not wanting it, and the Agricultural Center there (Which is way more FHL-friendly sized) being booked for most prime dates already.
Beyond that, there is talk that Charleston, West Virginia has been in talks and may try to speed up its timeline to get a more FHL-suitable arena. Anderson, South Carolina has also been mentioned, but has some arena questions, and then there has been talk that with Elmira in the fold, Danbury, Connecticut, a long-time FHL town, could return. But the issues there remain the same of expensive workman’s comp for players, and then the question of if the Danbury Ice Arena even wants another pro team. We’ve also heard another town in North Carolina has been in talks with the league.
I’d keep a close eye on Battle Creek, Salisbury, and then two teams in North Carolina, because it is no secret that the league wants more teams near the Carolina Thunderbirds, so northern teams don’t have to make as many treks down there, and so the Thunderbirds have regional rivals.
And if teams, owners, or markets seem sketchy and you have concerns, DON’T DO IT. You don’t have to expand just for the sake of expanding. If only two of those markets mentioned above seem legit, then only take two of them. If you bring all six teams back and add two more, you have eight and that’s a perfectly fine sized independent hockey league. Enough where you’re familiar with each team, but not to where you get tired of seeing them all the time.
Now, you probably want to make sure that at least one would be near Carolina to help them out, and if Battle Creek is your other one, that’s perfect geographically, but you can’t leave them out on an island with a team in like Florida or something.
Find a way to promote the league more
I don’t know how exactly you go about this, but you have to find a way to make more people, both fans and potential players, take note of the league, because that in turn brings in more fans, and potentially more and better players.
Maybe it’s finding a way to make the games more fan-friendly for people who can’t go in-person. Make the streaming option easier and more affordable. There is rumor they are trying to figure this out, because paying at last year’s rate of $5 a game is absurd even for just your own team. At $5 a game, you would pay $145 this season to see every road game of your favorite team, or $290 to watch every game home and away. For comparison’s sake, the NHL package is like $130, and that gets you every game for every team, that isn’t on national TV or in your local coverage area. And they have a few more teams than just six, and play a few more games than the FHL does.
They already have two neutral site games, add more of those. If you’re trying to expand to four markets next year, play games there. Give the potential fans in those arenas a chance to see what they’re getting, and make it different teams in each market. Make it a big deal when those games come to town and do your best to pack the place as full as you possibly can.
Shoot, have an All-Star Game. A reader brought it up on Twitter last night, and it would be a fun idea to bring back. They tried one year in Williamsport but it was not well attended. So hold it in a neutral site that might have a team in the future, or at the home of the team with the highest attendance. Find a way to showcase these players. Make it five skaters from each team, then the Top-4 goalies in the league, and there you go, three lines for each team, maybe there’s some prize money on the line, but do SOMETHING so fans can truly see the best players.
Support the Troops
This one is a given, but it never hurts to bring it up.
And that’s it. That’s a one-year plan for the league that really isn’t that hard. Avoid having a team fold, either in-season or during the off-season. Find strong, viable expansion markets that won’t be a one and done, while also helping the already established teams. And then make your product more available for fans to take in.
If the FHL can do those things, they suddenly look really legit, and if a team does happen to fold in the future, they aren’t scrambling to add 2-3 just to get back to six teams and keep the league going.The FHL business idea is a good one that SHOULD work in many markets, now it’s a matter of making that happen, and that will take the work of everyone in the league.