(Photo: Jenn Quacky)
(Author’s Note: This editorial is strictly the opinion of the Author, and does not reflect any one or anything associated with him. I don’t have all the facts, but until an official statement is made, nobody does. I am free to my opinion, and give it I shall.)
Trying to process the development from start to continued-resolution of last night’s unbelievably embarrassing epidemic at First Arena feels like nothing more than a nagging headache.
For seemingly all of the sites existence, we have been staunch defenders of the Federal Hockey League, and what it really stands for – NOT the mistakes of its past.
Sadly, this is going to be a dissection of what rightfully should go down as one of the most-embarrassing nights of the league’s history.
For those who missed it, last night’s game between the Carolina Thunderbirds and Elmira Enforcers was suspended (or outright cancelled, per some reports) due to the officials leaving the game following reports of verbal, but more concerning, physical disputes from Enforcers Owner/General Manager Robbie Nichols. A number of reports stated that Nichols had to be restrained as he was throwing his arms towards officials in a hallway.
At the time of writing this, no official statement has been released by the FHL or Elmira.
All season long, Elmira and Carolina have been a powder keg of emotions, hard-fought contests, and a bitter rivalry of the best the FHL has to offer – on and off the ice. Both teams have played outstanding seasons, and their attendances have redefined precedents of the league’s history. With passionate, growing bases and an ever-interesting battle for supremacy in any calculation, it’s made for perfect popcorn-fodder for a season of high-marks for the league.
There have been incidents that have teased and made more-than-aware that something would divulge – from both team’s fan bases bitter disliking, to contests that have lead either team to frustration.
However, for this event to happen, with these two teams, at this point in the season…is a shockingly-awful blow to a league that has done plenty right in the last year.
This weekend in Elmira was one wrought with tensions, especially centering around Enforcer star Ahmed Mahfouz, and Thunderbirds goaltender Christian Pavlas.
Following a controversial goal in the first period by Thunderbirds Head Coach/Celebrity Forward Andre Niec – MUCH more on that later – that made it a 2-1 game in a weekend-long tight contest, the period ended, and officials headed back towards their locker rooms. During their time heading back, somehow Enforcers Owner/General Manager Robbie Nichols found himself not only heading to their private lockers – DURING a game, mind you, to discuss a goal – but was reportedly seen physically-assaulting one of the officials, who allegedly is also a police officer – not a great look for a team proudly boasting its support of the force.
What happened next is conflicted depending on reports, but some say that the Official wanted to press charges, while others said Nichols was escorted out of the arena. Regardless of anything, the game was suspended, and the teams subsided from the arena.
Let’s look at the real problem that lead to last night’s unwinding though. Responsibility. Ego. Status. I don’t mean to speak ill-will against the Enforcers, but if you’ve been following along with them all season, they of all teams have proven to be the most-likely culprit if something like this were to occur – and it did. What action was taken against the team – by the team or from the league – following their putting a man in the ICU after an incident at a bar in Horseheads? Nothing notable or that set a disciplinary precedent. If you follow the team’s social media or team communications, they’re not afraid to be outspoken – not necessarily a bad thing depending on your brand, every sport needs a heel, right? – but the way that they go about it is not in a light-hearted or facetious, but constantly seems to be on the defensive.
That’s neither here nor there. I understand that things get heated during a hockey game. I’ve worked in professional hockey, and yeah, I’ve seen some pretty unfavorable calls that may or may not have decided games – in one direction or another.
You know who talks to the officials about a call during a game? Your coach. Your captain. NOT your team OWNER. No matter who they are, how long they played, what they’ve done, or what happened.
NOT at least, until AFTER the game, talking with the LEAGUE.
Listen. I have an immense respect for Robbie Nichols, and I haven’t made that a secret in the past. He, along with Carolina’s Scott Brand, have brought a true legitimacy and respect to the league when it desperately needed somebody to. Outside of the big picture, he’s done a lot for the City of Elmira – feeding the homeless in First Arena during the Christmas Season, giving away tickets to the community to get them in and involved in the return of hockey, returning hockey to Elmira, and bringing two fun, fan-involved sports teams to the city.
THIS incident however, if all the details that we’ve heard (and honestly, with the negative-press from around the hockey world we’ve heard, even if not all true) is an absolutely-colossal misstep for Nichols, the Enforcers, and the Federal Hockey League.
Boundless headlines, rumors, and overall a possible assault charge? Over a goal? In a game that wasn’t even halfway over? On a SUNDAY?
Now you’ve got a bigger mess on your hands – from the email we acquired last night and the messages we received from a referee within the league. The officials are refusing to return – the final push that broke the camel’s backs.
Officiating in the FHL is far from a lucrative position. You’re not quite watching the highest-skilled hockey league, and often there are more scrums and after the play shoving than your paycheck is worth. That’s not to say these guys are the highest-graded referees from the Scott Brand School of Officiating, either, but everyone starts somewhere.
That does not mean you can use your position as a TEAM OWNER, and worse-off, a FACE OF THE LEAGUE, to openly criticize officiating IN THE MIDDLE OF A GAME, in their own space. Does not. 100 percent unacceptable.
Even if nothing came out of that, no physical altercations, no stoppages in play, I would still expect the FHL to hand out at LEAST a game suspension or a fine for inappropriate conduct from a team official towards officials.
You know what, there’s my other point too – how on earth does Nichols even have time to really be watching the game, let alone go down and ponder with the officials?
Team owners that I’ve seen and worked with in the SPHL are often too busy spreading the good word of their organization to the fans in attendance, putting out fires around the arena (see also: GM’s job), and generally busy maintaining overall operations. How he had enough time to be able to study the play to the point of making a case (including possibly a future assault-case) to go and meet the officials regarding it is beyond me.
How the league could possibly allow Nichols to come back this season would be beyond me. Although on a different-scale, precedents need to be set. When the Ontario Hockey League saw Flint Firebirds’ Owner Rolf Nilsen suspended for five-years and fined for $250k for conduct “deemed contrary to the best interests of the players, the Team, and the OHL”.
I’m not saying that damages of this regard occurred or need to be applied, but this situation proves further detrimental every time new information is unveiled.
Something must be done for the Federal Hockey League to put down a hammer of justice and show that it supports its officials, and will not allow for clown show, ridiculous antics to continue. A lifetime ban for a fake-fight and a beer on the ice seems a bit much if we don’t see similar action taken against Elmira.
There needs to be action, and the longer the league waits, the worse it looks. I commend the league for gathering all the info before any decision, but something needed to be said immediately, saying “we are looking into the situation, and will make a formal review and decision in the coming days as information is collected from all parties”.
While they are the main at-fault aggressors for the actions of last night, and are the main critique of everything that has occurred, I need to reference an event that certainly didn’t help lead to the circumstance…
In one of the most nonsensical and embarrassing moves of the season for the team, Carolina – already claiming the league’s regular-season championship and top-playoff seed – opted to respond to the weekend’s clamor by signing noted-competitor Head Coach Andre Niec to a one-game celebrity contract. Thunderbird fans responded across forums and Facebook groups saying they “hope he’d put Mahfouz in his place”. One of the claimed reasons for this signing was “low-roster of players”, which I don’t believe for a single moment, not for pro hockey and not in that area of the US – ESPECIALLY with many NCAA D3 hockey seasons just ending. A downright mind-numbing move for an organization who prides itself on professionalism, exceptionalism, and setting the standard for the league, and league’s above it. It is no secret I am close with the Carolina organization and have a great respect for what they’ve done, but I can’t help but be embarrassed by such a move – regardless of the outcome of the game.
Why does that even matter to bring up in context of the game? Outside of its utterly ridiculous – and frankly unnecessary – nature, Coach Niec would be involved in the allegedly controversial goal that resulted in the outrage of Owner Robbie Nichols.
That’s not to say that, if the skate were on a different player, the situation wouldn’t have catamounted into the same meltdown. We can never say though, because it didn’t happen. What divulged, with Coach Niec – the sole coach on the roster for the Thunderbirds, by the way – happened how it did.
I don’t mean to exasperate blame on another party, especially one that at the end of the night is not responsible for the events that occurred, but I need to say what I need to say.
Carolina knows the eyes of every believer and doubter of the FHL are on them. They have responded with unbounded sell-out crowds, long winning-streaks, and continuing to pursue growth of the league. However, for as much good as they’ve done and do, there are disappointing things they’ve done as THE representative of the league. Signing their head coach to play in a major rivalry game after a gritty, powder keg contest is the most heinous.
I’m sorry. Carolina fans will most-definitely disagree with me, but seriously think about this. Thunderbirds fans talk so heavily about being the class and brass of their league, and that they’re more than deserving to move up to the SPHL – and for most reasons I tend to agree with these claims. However, these ridiculous Celebrity Contracts need to be done away with. Before ANYTHING happened on the ice or with the game, I had an awful feeling the second I saw that the team decided to let Niec play in the game. It’s amateur, and we’ve more than said the same thing about how foolish it is when a team like Port Huron has their leading-scorer also be their coach.
I’ve been told Celebrity Contracts from the Thunderbirds are only used to positively promote certain nights or fundraisers, and at home I can at least understand that from a contextual point-of-view. However, in an already ready-to-burst road weekend, this is NOT the time for such a contract.
At the end of the day, this event will go down as a massive failure for an overall successful season of the Federal Hockey League. Can the league recover? It has before, but this is just another notch on the post for league-naysayers.
Obviously no league is without its faults – but The Federal Hockey League seems to have more than most, and when it finally gains momentum this season, takes a pair of damaging blows, both occurring from their newest member who has shone the brightest.
The hockey world awaits the aftermath of a shot in the foot; a bloody Sunday in the Fed.