We don’t want to say we told you so, but, we told you so.
After 10 games, the owners of the LNAH’s newest and first United States team, the Berlin BlackJacks, have pulled the plug on the city’s second attempt at pro hockey, citing a lack of sponsors and fan support.
To use a term Black Jack (the card game) enthusiasts might understand: BUST.
From the Berlin team website, posted Friday:
At the beginning of the season, after two seasons when the audience and the sponsors were present, the arrival of the LNAH was seen with a good eye in Berlin.
Unfortunately after a pre-season game and five regular-season games the crowds are not what we hoped for.
Several attempts have been made in recent weeks to find solutions to remedy the situation.
Following these attempts it’s not enough to continue the season.
In these circumstances, the Berlin Blackjack team is in the hands of the League as of this Friday. This decision was made in the best interests of the League and the team.
The league itself acknowledge it at has taken over the team, and in their statement, said that Saturday’s game against Cool FM St. Georges had been cancelled. Here is the league’s entire statement, translated from French:
The North American Hockey League announced today that it now owns the Berlin Blackjacks. The owners of the US dealership made this decision in the best interests of all.
Despite many efforts to find sponsors and attract supporters to Notre Dame arena, the situation had become too difficult to continue the season.
The match scheduled for Saturday night against Cool FM St-Georges will not take place. All hypotheses are then studied to determine what will happen to the Blackjack concession.
Commissioner Jean-François Laplante is working hard to find the best possible solution on this issue. He hopes to make an announcement early next week.
Vp LNAH communications
The BlackJacks were 2-7-1 at the time of the announcement, last in the league in points, and last in the league in goals scored.
The biggest question, and one it seems we’ll hear the answer to next week, at least according to the LNAH statement, is what happens to the team and players? Just 10 games in, they still have more than two-thirds of the season to go, and completely dissolving the Berlin team would mean the league plays the remaining schedule with just five teams, meaning one team sits out every weekend, and likely messes up the schedule with teams probably not getting to play an even number of games.
To take a page from the FHL last season when Cornwall folded, they may just award forfeit victories to the team they were scheduled to play, giving everyone a (fairly) equal number of wins on the schedule.
Or, perhaps also like the FHL last season, they make a traveling team that only plays road games so the surviving five teams can complete their home schedules. Either way, LNAH has a mess on its hands.
We here at Bus League Hockey had our reservations about this team from the start. Here’s what we said about the move in our initial post the day the team was announced back in July:
To be completely honest, this move raises a ton of questions, because Berlin will have the smallest rink in the league, by far, and struggled with fan support while in the FHL. The four teams whose capacities were listed on Wikipedia were at 2476, 3037, 2500, and 3500.
Berlin’s Notre Dame Arena claims a capacity of 1680, which would make it the smallest in the league among those listed, but even that number may be exaggerated, as most pictures show that the rink only has about 6-8 rows of bleachers on one side of the rink, closer to around 1000 actual seats in our experiences.
Berlin will also have to deal with higher player salaries in the LNAH, around $200 to $500 a game, significantly more than the $150 in the FHL, but LNAH does only play a 36-game regular season.
And here’s what we said later in the summer when we ranked the expansion and relocation moves across the low-pro and junior leagues we have interest in. For the record, we rated their move 5th out of 7, and probably should have been lower in all honesty. Emphasis mine:
I wanted to rank this one higher, I really did.
If this were just based on the quality of play a town was getting, this might rank highest on the list. I’m happy for the people in Berlin that they get another shot at pro hockey and in a fun league like the LNAH. But of all the teams that we’re listing here, this is the one I have the most concerns about, and worry that it could blow up the fastest.
The biggest issue is if Berlin can support this team. It’s not a big town (10,000 or so), and just doesn’t have the facility size needed for a big fan base. The rink can’t hold more than 1000 seats in it (anyone who tells you it’s 1680 like the Berlin River Drivers claimed is lying), and they’re going to a league with higher player salaries (but lower travel costs), and fewer home games. So a league that’s in the ballpark of FHL costs and fewer home games to make up the money, that’s cause for concern.
Plus the league isn’t exactly steady. Yes, LNAH is better hockey than the FHL, but they’ve had 40+ teams in their 22 seasons, and had to put out a post on the league site saying, “Yes, we’re playing in 2018-19.” Which is never a good sign.
And as you can see in our second full paragraph above, those concerns turned out to be exactly true.
The crowds seemed to be the biggest issue, and since LNAH doesn’t post attendance figures (hasn’t for the past couple seasons for some reason), I did some sleuthing, and according to some in Facebook groups and on team fan pages, they were maybe drawing 600 a night, which is definitely not enough to survive in the short-season, more expensive LNAH, but right on par with what they were averaging when the FHL was in town from 2015 to 2017.
Berlin was previously home to the short-lived, but longer-lasting, Berlin River Drivers of the Federal Hockey League for two seasons, lasting from 2015 to 2017. Fan support (and a ton of other reasons that vary depending on who you talk with about the team) sunk the team after two years, with the River Drivers averaging 629 fans a night in their final season, sixth in the then 7-team FHL, and 600 fans a night in their inaugural season, fifth in the 6-team FHL that year, per the FHL site’s attendance numbers.
So regardless of if the BlackJacks play out the rest of the season under league control, they will be the second pro team to leave Berlin and the Notre Dame Arena this decade.