When it comes to the fun, exciting, hectic, and unpredictable world of unaffiliated minor league hockey, our friends out east get to have all the fun with the Federal Hockey League and the Southern Professional Hockey League.
In fact, there is not one team in the United States that plays unaffiliated minor league hockey, and really, since the demise of the Central Hockey League in early 2014, there hasn’t even been an attempted at putting a team out west in an unaffiliated league.
And even the old CHL was mainly in the central part of the country (duh), so not since the demise of the West Coast Hockey League in 2003 has there truly been a western indy league.
But why? Why in areas where the game is growing, has NHL teams, more AHL teams than ever before, and even a couple ECHL teams, along the right weather and growing populations, is it that independent pro hockey won’t come to town?
We try to answer that question.
Geography and lack of available towns
While there are towns out west that fit the mold of what an SPHL- or FHL-type league would need, they are insanely spread out, and would create travel nightmares for teams.
Let’s say you want the Continental Divide Hockey League with teams in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, and Utah. Well, those states are close together and neighbors, but a trip from say Western Montana and Missoula, even to somewhere like Casper, Wyoming can be over nine hours when the weather is good, and during hockey season, the weather is not going to be good in these places.
The goal of any low-pro league like the FHL or SPHL is to have some sort of region that you keep it to, or at least a travel partner that you can play and be back in your own bed later that night. And even though those towns are in the same region, and in neighboring states, it’s an absurd drive.
For two years I covered a team in the Western States Hockey League, who only played divisional games except for their annual showcase event in Las Vegas, and the closest team from the one I covered was just over two hours away, then there was another about three-and-a-half…and then the other four were in Seattle, Boise, Lake Tahoe, and southwestern Oregon. All of those were at least 7-plus hours away, and up to 14.5 in good weather. And this was a Tier 3 junior league that did all it could to cut cost, yet that was the closest they could get that division.
And that applies for other areas like California, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico as well. Yes, there are towns that fit the mold of what you’re looking for, but it might be 6-plus hours from the nearest team, and with a league needed at least six teams to be considered legit, your entire budget would be travel. Look no further than indoor football leagues like Champions Indoor Football and the Indoor Football League for an example of the travel you might have in a league like this.
Even if you had something like say the Big Sky Hockey League with teams in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, not every town on your prospective list of teams is going to get or want a team for a variety of reasons, and so you might drive right through what seems like a town that should have a team, but doesn’t, and then you have a few more hours to go.
The other problem in this is that many of the towns we’ve discussed already have teams in either the NA3HL or the WSHL, for a couple of reasons.
Our idea for a Big Sky hockey league would feature Montana’s six big cities: Billings, Missoula, Great Falls, Helena, Bozeman, Butte and then maybe two in Wyoming and two in Idaho. Every city we mentioned in Butte save for Billings already has a team in the NA3HL, and both big cities in Wyoming, Casper and Cheyenne, have teams in the WSHL, so you can’t go in and put a pro team in a town that already has junior hockey, just ask the Cornwall Nationals.
Lack of viable rinks
In my travels around the WSHL and these NA3HL towns, one thing that always stood out is that while they have populations of 25,000 or more, their rinks were nowhere near adequate for pro hockey, even if it were something like the FHL.
First, most of the rinks wouldn’t come close to the needed capacity of say, 2,000. And they’re also just plain not nice enough for a team either, or lack the needed amenities for a team and fans. The beer “stand” might be a card table with coolers, or the snack bar requires you to leave the arena area and wait in a line for who knows how long because they have one window to serve people and 750 people in the building.
The rink in Butte was the worst dump I’ve ever seen, six rows of wooden bleachers on one side of the ice and a standing platform so capacity could maybe hit about 800 people. Even the nicest version of these rinks, like in Medford, Oregon, it was six rows of brand new, elevated bleachers that went goal line to goal line uninterrupted, a great WSHL rink, but not nearly big enough to house a pro team.
And it’s that way with every other rink in these leagues, thus why they have teams in the NA3HL or WSHL. Of all those teams I listed above in Montana, MAYBE the rink in Helena could pass for a pro team rink, and at that it would take some work.
Yes, most of these towns do have a big arena or civic center where they COULD play games, but those are massive places that might hold more than 5,000 people, and in our FHL-type league where you need 750 to 1000 fans and will likely average right around those numbers, it makes no sense to pay more for a building that doesn’t always have ice, isn’t entirely meant for hockey, and will have 4,000 or more empty seats a night. Again, we’re trying to save on costs here, and paying to play and practice in a building with 6,000 seats makes no sense.
Lack of quality regional players
Yes, hockey is growing in the west, but the number of players out there is still fairly low, especially compared to the areas where the FHL and some parts of the SPHL are.
And it’s not just the low numbers, but lack of college and quality junior programs as well. Even NCAA Division 3 players are growing in quality, but almost every school at that level is out east or maybe in Wisconsin and Minnesota. In the west, you have a couple NCAA D1 teams in Colorado, Arizona state, and then a ACHA programs scattered all over. Yes, the ACHA has made strides over the past few years, but if almost all of your players are coming from that level, it’s a tough sell, as the FHL has at times learned.
Really, the most quality play out there that you might be able to pull players from is the major-junior WHL. But if you’re a strong player in that league, you’re likely going at worst to the ECHL or a league overseas, so you’re be getting maybe some fourth liners and backup goalies who want to keep playing hockey.
It’s also tough to try to recruit players to move across the country to play low-pro hockey where they’re getting $150 a week, as opposed to a guy from New York maybe wanting to give it a whirl in Elmira or Watertown, so if things don’t work out, you’re home later that day, and not facing a 30 hour drive if you’re cut or released.
Could a league like that work?
Again, if we’re starting this new league up from scratch, you’d have to go with the FHL model as opposed to the SPHL model. The FHL costs about one-third of what an SPHL team might, and we need to save every penny we can with this.
But you’d also have to wait out either the entire WSHL or NA3HL folding, or maybe just a couple western divisions, and then at that you’d have to convince those towns to get back into hockey with a new pro team.
All of this is possible, but not likely in the near-future.
So unfortunately for our hockey-starved friends in the west, I wouldn’t plan on getting your own SPHL- or FHL-like team anytime soon.