I have to confess, that I’ve grown up spoiled as far as hockey in my hometown goes.
I grew up with the United Hockey League when it was at its peak, and was lucky enough to watch the prime days of the Musekgon Fury when they captured four Colonial Cups. And then after they and the league folded, junior hockey came in, and it was the best junior league in the country in the United States Hockey League.
But in the fall of 2014, I got a job covering sports out in Butte, Montana and headed west. One of the things I wondered as I made the trek out there was, “Does this town have at least some sort of hockey team I can root for?”
And it turned out I was in luck, because after a four-year hiatus from hockey, Butte was granted a team in the Western States Hockey League, the Butte Cobras.
I had no idea what the WSHL was, but a Google search showed that it had been around for 20 years, so I figured it was a fairly legit hockey league with some decent young players. I was insanely excited to not only get the chance to cover a new team with a ton of excitement around it, but I also got to be the fill-in play-by-play announcer after meeting the guy who normally did the job at the first game.
But it turns out the WSHL was not good hockey. The WSHL is a pay-to-play league, and one that isn’t even sanctioned by USA Hockey or Hockey Canada. So really, all the players they got were leftovers from the NAHL or NA3HL, or just guys who had slipped through the cracks. Or often times, players, no matter how good or bad they were, who could afford the thousands of dollars it cost to play in the league each season.
The team in Butte was…bad, to put it mildly. I’m not a big guy, I’m 5-11 and 175 lbs, but even for a junior team of 16 to 20 year olds, the Butte Cobras were TINY. I cannot find any records of the Butte Cobras when they played during my two years in Montana. But I think in the 96 games they played over two seasons, they might have won about 25 of them, and early in the second season of covering them, they fired their coach.
People back home often asked me what the caliber of play was like out there, and I often said that the team in Butte wouldn’t have been a good high school team back in Michigan. And then the rinks these teams played in, they probably weren’t good enough to be considered high school rinks.
Butte’s “arena” was an old converted National Guard building, that had a maze of hallways and just strange rooms that were turned into locker rooms or the pro shop. The arena itself was a metal barn that had six rows of wooden bleachers on one side that couldn’t have held more than 600 people, and a standing platform behind one goal. One former player flat-out called the arena a dump. It was also the coldest arena I had ever been in, when it’s a metal barn with no insulation and a “warm” winter day in Montana is like 15 degrees, there was no way to keep warm. But the ice was good, because it was so cold up there and there was no humidity ever.
Now, that’s not to say there weren’t good players in the league, while I was out there, teams from Idaho, the Idaho Jr. Steelheads, and Colorado, the Colorado Jr. Eagles, both affiliated with ECHL teams, had REALLY good teams that would come to town and just crush the poor Cobras. I don’t mean crushed as in like 6-1 or what you think of when a bad NHL game happens, I’m talking like 12-1, 13-2, 10-0. And with Idaho in the division, the Cobras were usually handed about 8-10 of those losses each year. Those were the only two teams that I saw in my experience with the league that could have played in a higher level or were actually Tier II like the league claimed it was.
One weekend against Colorado, they were down 7-0 in the first period, and my boss and I walked out of covering a game because it just wasn’t worth it to sit there for another two hours watching them get the shit kicked out of them, when we could be getting other work done.
I remember one day at lunch in the middle of the second season, while the team was struggling and they’d maybe draw 200 people a night, my boss and I sat there discussing how we’d continue to cover the team, and we wondered, “I wonder if people know how truly bad this product is.” Because it was not something I would have spent money on, and wouldn’t have gone to see had I need been forced to cover it for work.
As if that didn’t give you some idea about how much of a talent divide there was in the WSHL, the Cobras weren’t even the worst team in their own division, let alone the league. They finished next to last both years I was out there, ahead of a team called the Lake Tahoe Blue one year, then the Lake Tahoe Icemen the next. And the Cobras would win games against them by those same ridiculous margins. One year the Cobras played Tahoe to close out the season, and the team had like 12 skaters who made the trip to Butte. There was a team in Vail Colorado that lost games 30-1, stole the logo of the Niagara Ice Dogs of the OHL, then folded like a week later. That bad.
And if the play wasn’t bad enough, the league was an absolute gong show in the way it was run. There’d be 5-6 teams who would fold either during the season, or after the season ended, every year, and then somehow they’d find 5-6 more suckers who were willing to put a team down to keep the grift going. One year league management just decided the league was going to be Tier II. Nevermind that under USA Hockey and Hockey Canada, Tier II or Jr. A is supposed to be free-to-play, they just up and said they were now a Tier II league, and put it on the league logo for good measure.
So needless to say, when my now-fiance got a job in Amarillo, Texas and I found out they had a team in the NAHL, actual, legit Tier II hockey, I felt like I was going from the outhouse to the penthouse. And in a weird way, having to watch two seasons of the crummy Butte Cobras in the lousy WSHL made me appreciate having something like the NAHL to watch every weekend, and to remember how lucky I was to have hockey as good as I had it growing up in Michigan.