With the struggles that every low-pro hockey league seems to have, there is always talk from fans of any league about possible mergers.
Almost weekly, someone in the FHL/SPHL world brings up merging the two leagues, and honestly, that makes no sense because aside from Carolina (and possibly Elmira), nobody else in the FHL has the arena capacity, fan base, or budget to be able to make a move up to the SPHL.
But what about LNAH? This is one that on the surface could work, and a question about merging the two leagues as posed to us on Twitter the other day, leading us to wonder if a merger between two similar low-pro leagues would work.
@BusLeagueHockey curious with the lnah taking a hit and the FHL trying to be more legit could you see any possibility of a merger? I believe from my understandings the talent level is on par. It’s a long shot i know.
— Krak Rex (@TheKrakRex) November 15, 2018
At first glance, if you didn’t start digging at all, it could work, both leagues usually have around six teams, draw anywhere from 650 fans up to 2,200 fans, and operate on roughly the same type of budget.
So yes, if you were hoping to merge the two leagues together, the optics sort of seem to fit and could possibly be a match that helps both teams. For both leagues, it would mean more stable teams and more opponents to play against, while also giving each league a more legit footprint in other countries, so more players to try to draw from.
But that’s about where the reasons why this could work end, and where a TON of questions about the logistics that go into making a team or league work come into play.
LNAH is a league that basically never leaves the greater Quebec area, even trips to Berlin were only a couple of hours outside the city. While the closest team if a FHL merger happened would be roughly four hours away in Watertown. Trips to Winston-Salem and Danville would be 14 and 15 hours respectively. Elmira would be fairly close at 6-plus hours, but Mentor and Port Huron would clock in at around nine hours.
FHL teams are used to this travel and have it built into their budgets, but LNAH teams save a TON of money because of the lack of travel in the league. They play a game, home or away, and are sleeping in their beds that night. Very rarely would they need hotels in LNAH, and now, suddenly their travel budget is through the roof, both for buses, hotels, and food.
It would be a logistical nightmare, more for the LNAH teams than the FHL, but it would still be added expenses for teams in the FHL to have to make that trek a few times a year.
The first thing that would need to be sorted out is schedule.
The FHL plays a 58-game regular season this year, while LNAH only plays 36 games. Who wins out in this situation? Obviously, hockey fans would want the 56-game schedule, because that’s 20 more games to pay attention to over the course of the season, and 10 more home games for you to attended and cheer on your team in-person.
But there’s a reason LNAH has only 36 games. The players are paid more than the FHL so it’s fewer games and weeks where you are paying salaries, and by only having 36 games, you cut down you on the number of games, practices, and hours you need to pay for while renting out the rink.
You could do a situation where you split the difference and play something like 46 or 48 games, but then you have FHL fans complaining they lost out on 10 games and at least five home games, not a winning situation for them.
And then LNAH teams would likely complain because they need to pay for more ice time, and more travel for those additional 10 games, plus the additional player salaries they would need to fork out during that time.
And that brings us to the biggest issue that would come up during all of this:
Money, in TONS of ways
Keep in mind that before we even get rolling on all the money issues, you’re trying to merge two leagues that have razor-thin profit margins, and then suddenly teams are trying to match budgets and salaries with two different currency types
But beyond Canadian vs. American dollars, let’s start with one that would be the biggest mess to sort out, and would create all sorts of arguments between players and team owners on both side: Player pay.
The FHL pays its players a weekly salary, with around $150 a week being the league minimum, and teams having a salary cap of about $4,400 a week, or, a player average of $244 a week if a team played to the max salary cap each week, not likely in the FHL. While LNAH players are paid on a per game basis, and teams have a salary cap of up to $6,800 PER GAME, or around $350 per player, per game if a team played each game to the salary cap max.
So much like the schedule, there would be tons of arguments about which league’s pay structure you would adopt. You know the owners would fight HARD for the FHL model, because on a given weekend, the FHL would be paying its up to three times less than LNAH. Meanwhile, the players would be clamoring for the LNAH pay model to have more stability and get better value for their services, and making it more worth their while to get the hell beat out of them for 36-plus games a year.
Then thee’s what happens if you choose one over the other: Take the FHL model and you save a TON of money over the course of the season, which would be needed with the added travel to LNAH towns, but the LNAH teams are likely getting worse players because you’re suddenly telling the players they’re taking up to a 75% percent pay cut on a nightly basis, AND having to take that pay cut while potentially playing more games.
But if you take the LNAH model, you may get better players in the FHL, but then your expenses are through the roof, and you’re operating on an SPHL-like budget, which most teams in the FHL simply cannot afford, resulting in likely losing at least four teams from the FHL.
Or, if you want this at season-long numbers, a FHL team at max salary each week would spend $114k on player salaries alone, while a LNAH team playing at max salary each game would cost nearly $250k in salaries, even with the shorter season. But remember, FHL has WAY more travel expenses than the LNAH, so LNAH can afford to pay more.
OK, but could you make this work?
Let’s try, and we’ll call this the FHL-LNAH Compromise League, or the HLC, Hockey League of Compromise, and try to get each league and its teams satisfied.
As far as schedule, let’s shoot for the middle between 36 and 56 games, and say we are aiming for a 48-game schedule, 24 at home, 24 on the road over a roughly 22-week season. How those games would be split up between let’s say a 10-team league, five from each league, is beyond me. Maybe you play a home and away 2-game series against each team in the league, which would be 36 games. Then your remaining 12 games against only your former FHL or LNAH teams, or whatever six teams are closest. This way you see way more teams than just the same five over and over again.
This schedule also give fans in LNAH towns more home games, but not a TON more, and gives the FHL a shorter season to cut back on practices and games for a more affordable lease.
As for pay, let’s try to keep it closer to the FHL model, but we do need to bump it up to try and draw in better players, and since we’re playing fewer games, we can afford to do this.
Let’s say we go with that LNAH model of a $6,800 salary cap, but instead of per game, it’s per week. $6,800 divided among 18 players means average pay is around $378 a week per player, if a team maxes its cap space. A team playing a full season at the max salary cap would spend just under $150k on player salaries a season, a roughly $35k increase for FHL teams, but again, better players are coming in on that salary and they are paying less for leases because of less time needed for practices and games, and a savings because they have less road trips to pay for, so things come out about the same. With this, FHL teams may need to bump up ticket prices, but not more than $1-2 a game, and with better players, it will be worth it.
For LNAH it would be a $100k decrease in salary expenses, but they would have added travel expenses and more rink time to pay for. So again, were pretty close to even here overall. Their ticket prices would likely stay the same since expenses are about the same, but they now have more home games to make up the difference.
And honestly, that’s the only way I could see something like this working, but even then, I don’t see it happening for a myriad of other reasons that would have to get worked out as well, most of which I can’t even think of right now.
But, if you wanted something that sort of merges both leagues or at least exposes them to each other, maybe you have an end-of-season series pitting the two champions against each other in a best-of-5 series, or put together a pair of all-star teams from each league and play a best-of-5 challenge series.
3 thoughts on “Would a merger between FHL and LNAH happen, or even make sense?”
All the talk about travel also makes me wonder if all the leagues from SPHL down might not impart a noticeable improval in franchise stability by buying the appropriate number of buses and putting their drivers on the league payroll. You could put team liveries on them and change at the halfway point in the season so each team gets up there as advertising.
Aside from money, I see two main reasons why a merger between LNAH and FHL could never work. The first one is the purpose of those leagues. The FHL is a developmental league. A majority of players are youngsters coming from D3 college programs or junior leagues who try to get called up at the AA level. LNAH is a total opposite. Players tend to be older and are mostly guys that had careers in the ECHL, AHL, NHL or in Europe and chose to come closer to home to play a couple more seasons before retiring.
The other reason is distance. You spoke about travel costs but it goes beyond that. The LNAH is a semi-professional league, meaning that a majority of players have day jobs during the week. Games are played on Friday and Saturday nights and anything more than a Friday afternoon road trip would make it impossible for players to get to games. Many players choose to play in the LNAH because the trips to away games are relatively short. Having to play in Ohio or North Carolina would make a lot of the older players reconsider being part of that league. Also, trading between Quebec based and US based teams would be nearly impossible. It is already complicated within Quebec when, for instance, players based in the greater Montreal area with families and day jobs are traded to Jonquiere or Riviere-du-Loup, 5 hours away. Some of them choose to retire rather than join their new teams because of schedule conflicts. It would be even more difficult to convince a player to drive Montreal-Elmira back and forth every weekend.
The Berlin experiment probably was the first and very last attempt to base an LNAH team south of the border. As for the FHL, they need to consolidate what they are already doing, to provide a credible A level developmental league north of the SPHL territory.
No reason for the FHL to ever merge with the LNAH. One of these leagues has a real future, the other does not. The FHL model can be applied to many regions in the United States, including ones that are not buying in to Tier III junior hockey as their option. I could see a day where there is an FHL division in the Northeast, one in the Southeast, one in the Great Lakes, one in Texas (and thereabouts), and perhaps even one in Montana. Some of that would take a lot of Tier III junior teams folding, but that’s what’s happening. This would be many years in the future. But, an SPHL-lite model (which is what the FHL is starting to approach) makes it much more possible for cities to consider building 2,500-seat arenas that are more hockey-centric but which can occasionally be used for other things. There are a number of markets in Texas with aging arenas and those markets aren’t going to support ECHL or AHL teams and I’m not certain they can support SPHL hockey. But, if the city can construct a more reasonably sized arena that can also be the hub of youth hockey (and possibly even develop real youth hockey programs in some of these markets).
This to me is also the answer in Dayton. Dayton is incapable of supporting ECHL hockey or higher. Dayton does not really need another arena that seats 7,000. It would not be able to adequately support USHL hockey, either (I promise). But, would an arena of 2,500 or 3,000 built specifically for an FHL team be more doable? Yes.
The same thing could apply to Lexington and Louisville, Kentucky. Are either of them really going to build arenas large enough to house ECHL or SPHL teams when they already have huge arenas for the NCAA basketball teams? No. But, a smaller hockey-specific arena that seats 2,500 to 3,000? Much more doable. Throw Owensboro, Kentucky, into that though, too. Same for Charleston, West Virginia.
No reason for the FHL to tether itself to the LNAH and stunt its potential growth.