Some of you may remember that a while back we did a short history of the Pinebridge Bucks, who gained fame because they played at the top of a mountain, in the middle of nowhere, and in a town of about 2,000 people that was in a county that had around 15,000 people in it.
Every piece of research we found said it was the smallest town to ever play host to a pro hockey team, including this piece from the county’s historical society, written in 2017.
Well, it turns out that claim could be disputed, possibly by two former FHL towns. Because during our research for a piece on if any other past Federal Hockey League cities could return to the league (SPOILER: No.), it turns out that at least one, and possible two past FHL cities could lay claim to being smaller than Spruce Pine was when they hosted the Bucks.
The first is the tiny resort town of Alexandria Bay, New York, located about 30 miles up the road from Watertown, home of the Watertown Wolves.
Well, before they were the Wolves, the franchise played for three seasons in Alexandria Bay at the Bonnie Castle Recreation Center, whose population in 2010, the first year of the FHL, was listed at 1,078, about half the size of Spruce Pine when they played host to the Pinebridge Bucks.
And the Privateers actually drew pretty well for such a small town! Averaging 608 fans per game in the first year, then bringing 841 and 880 a night before moving to Watertown and becoming the Watertown Privateers, and eventually the Watertown wolves.
So, just over 1,000 people, case closed, right?
Well, this is where the dispute comes in, because the question becomes, is Alexandria Bay its own separate town? Because according to our research, it’s listed as a village, but it’s located within the town limits of Alexandria, New York, which has more than 4,000 people in it. And at 4,000 people, it probably doesn’t even crack the Top-3 for smallest towns to host professional hockey.
But if we’re just talking Alexandria Bay, then yeah, it has a major argument to be made that is it the smallest place to host professional hockey.
The second is the Pennsylvania borough of Belle Vernon, home to the short-lived SWPA Magic/Steel City Warriors. Well, Belle Vernon claimed a population or around 1,062 in 2016 which would make it JUST a tiny bit smaller than Alexandria Bay, and again, about half the size of Spruce Pine.
The debate in this one is that it calls itself a borough, and its neighboring borough or North Belle Vernon is around 2000 people, plus a borough to the north and one across the river that have more than 12,000 people combined in it, not to mention a neighboring unincorporated area that has another 2,000 people in it.
But the bigger problem with their potential claim: The Rostraver Ice Garden where the Magic/Warriors played, is not at all in Belle Vernon, but about 8 miles away off the highway. So can Belle Vernon really claim to be the host when the rink isn’t actually in the town they claimed to play in? It’s really more of a regional team, thus the SWPA and Steel City names, and a region that has around 25,000 to 30,000 people in it if you count up all the boroughs.
Personally, I think we can throw Belle Vernon out, because the rink there is not at all in the borough, and the entire region has a population that’s more in line with the current FHL cities.
As for Alexandria Bay, if we’re counting that as its own town despite them being located within another city, it appears they have a major case as the smallest town to host pro hockey.
Now, if you wanted to say that Spruce Pine, NC is the smallest populated region to host a team, that’s completely fair, because there are virtually no other towns near them, while Alexandria Bay and the Belle Vernon-region have thousands over other people just outside the city/village/borough limits.
Either way, it’s an interesting argument, and crazy to think that professional hockey ever came to towns and regions that were so small.