Is The FHL’s Loose Approach Key To Its Survival?

Disclaimer: this column strictly reflects the views of the author, and not of Bus League Hockey as an entity. Unless I say so.

Photo: Winston-Salem Journal

Did you hear about this? I don’t know if you heard, but yesterday the FHL golden goose Carolina announced their out-of-left-field decision to start every game at home with an overtime tie-deciding shootout.

Ensuring a skills competition before the puck drops. A guaranteed shootout every game.

Obviously, this was met with…mixed reactions from fans, to say the least. Yours truly included.

Even the first tester of the rule this coming weekend, Port Huron coach/Captain/GM Joe Pace Jr. was reportedly unsure about the rule on last nights coach’s show, before putting out the greatest hockey promo in history.

However, as I was lying in bed last night, I couldn’t shake the thought of one thing:

What if the FHL is meant to survive as the heel of hockey leagues?

I don’t mean that as an entity against other hockey leagues, or trying to cut ties with them or fans, but rather as the black sheep.

The FHL is, with no disrespect intended, still viewed as fringe professional hockey / glorified beer league.

Thunderbirds GM & quintessential voice of the FHL Scott Brand is two things: a pro wrestling fan, and a bold marketer who has results at every level to back up his often unusual tactics.

It’s pretty well-known around the hockey community, but it’s worth mentioning again: people called Brand crazy for his idea of the Hybrid Icing, and now it’s internationally-used and recognized.

Does that mean the Shootout Start is a great idea of will stick? Absolutely not. It does mean though that the FHL is open to dynamic proposals.

Most importantly, I think, is the role the FHL could be transitioning to – as the outlier league.

Brand had an interesting quote in his interview with The Hockey News yesterday, which said that he’s not attracting hockey fans, but NASCAR, Football, and Wrestling fans, and that the only way to turn them into hockey fans is with attraction to familiar sports entertainment events. This isn’t rocket science if you’re hockey in the south, but the first legitimate and bold step that actually affects the “integrity” of the game.

He even joked about ‘probably never being welcomed back to a rink in Canada’. But, maybe this is ultimately the question that rung in my head all night:

Why does that matter?

Nobody gives ‘A’ Hockey the respect it [may or may not] deserve(s) anyway. The FHL is paid beer leaguers, the LNAH is goons and a gong show, the SPHL is just a feeder as the “Should’ve Practiced Harder League”. All of us here in low-level pro deal with the same stigmas and lowered-value vision of outsiders.

Yes, it takes time to build legitimacy and respect, but here’s the whole thing of that:

Low-level teams don’t HAVE ENOUGH time or resources to build legitimacy.

Changing perception is a literal-endless effort.

Trust me. I’m the Director of Marketing and Brand Manager of the second-worst single-season record in SPHL history, that is in year two of a rebrand from a franchise that was devalued and forgotten about entirely despite existing for 16 years. Older than both the FHL and SPHL, but still relatively unknown. It’s an uphill battle everyday, but we have the benefit of an owner who sees things through to the end and is willing to spend and put in the effort – financially and physically – to build a profitable, respected franchise.

Rarely is that the case at these levels. Teams and leagues don’t have the time, resources, means, finances, or ability to build legitimacy and be financially-sensible.

Does that mean the FHL is lessening its product or turning into a ‘circus’ to make a quick buck? Not the Scott Brand-lead FHL. Not after his and many others tireless effort to find the right ownership and viable expansion teams this off-season and build the strongest top-to-bottom league the FHL has seen in maybe ever.

While the timing, team, and overall idea is odd, it also oddly makes sense. Why wouldn’t Carolina be the team to push the envelope and attempt something like this? Who else could get away with this and still be viewed as non-desperate and legitimate?

You see, at this level of play, fans aren’t (always) going for the love of the game – they’re going for affordable entertainment in a community atmosphere. I’ve been to a Carolina game, I’ve been to (and marketed) quite a few SPHL games. Hell, I was born in and raised in hockey cities, in one of the biggest hockey states. You want entertainment, you want a memory, you want to want to come back.

Maybe this is what the FHL needs to embrace. If you want to see high-level legitimate hockey in North Carolina, you’ve got a pro team in every corner of the state. What’s drawing you to one over the other? What signifies you as different?

Well, Carolina certainly sound their niche. When I heard about the idea weeks ago, I laughed, but it got me talking a lot about the Thunderbirds and the idea. I was personally disappointed it didn’t happen on its initially planned launch date of Saturday, but with everything surrounding that game, maybe it was a blessing in disguise.

Brand has said it himself, the decision of if this is a fringe idea or a permanent rule this season is entirely on the fans.

And that’s the key. Fan engagement and draw.

The whole reason Rovitz and I started this media leader of low-level hockey coverage is our passion for these forgotten leagues and to give the fans the true coverage they don’t get.

Fans.

Scott Brand understands this mentality, and has delivered on his promises to turn Winston-Salem into a hockey city, and grow the FHL.

This season has been marked as the most-crucial for the future of the league by myself and BLH on umpteen occasions – Build a stable league with legitimate franchises and owner, retain everyone, and grow next year. So far, that looks more than plausible. Now the time comes to diversify and transition from a joke to a product.

The FHL can do this in one foul-swoop in this way: they can’t insult you if you’re laughing at yourself. What I mean by that is that the FHL can control its own perception going forward. Not the perception of bad hockey with dime-a-dozen franchises, but the perception of a stable hockey league with some unique – but fun! – rules.

Again, perception is reality, but when you control the message and product rather than let fate and luck decide it, you have the power of perception.

I may be unfavorable of the whole idea of the Shootout Start, or even any of the other future idea that may be cooked up, but I know the league is becoming strong, and know that this rule is just a unique part of what it can become.

The FHL can be a strong league and a strange league. I think this is the direction we’re heading in, and maybe that’s the direction we need it to go.

At its core, it’s still hockey, just with a little hot sauce. If the FHL can overcome nine years of bad luck and umpteen failures, when it finally turns the page, maybe it deserves a chance to have some fun finally.

Only time will tell if it’s good for the Brand.

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