In a sad bit of fate, the United States’ two unaffiliated professional hockey leagues both saw their seasons end within an hour of each other on Saturday night.
First, the Carolina Thunderbirds scored a goal just 35 seconds into overtime for a 4-3 win and a 3-1 series victory over the Elmira Enforcers in the Federal Hockey League’s Commissioner’s Cup Final. Not much later, 14 hours down the road in Huntsville, Alabama, the Huntsville Havoc put home an empty netter to cap a 4-2 victory, completing a 2-0 sweep of the Birmingham Bulls for their second consecutive Southern Professional Hockey League President’s Cup, and third in team history.
Both were absolutely deserving champions, with Carolina proving from basically the word “go” that they were the team to beat in the FHL, and proving ultimately that nobody could do it. Huntsville started the year a little slow, but honestly was probably the hottest team in the league to close out the regular season, finishing with the No. 3 seed in the SPHL playoffs, then going 6-1 in the postseason to repeat as champions. It’s safe to say neither team fluked into winning its respective title.
Sure, you want to see upsets, and in the SPHL we had that with Roanoke sweeping Peoria in the first round, but for the good of the leagues, you want to see those anchor franchises do well, for reasons that going beyond them winning a trophy.
More than just being champions, these are the two best representatives of their leagues, the model franchises that the other teams try and aspire to be. They routinely pack their arenas, do a great job on social media of promoting the team, get out into the community and give back, treat the fans amazing with their prices and just overall outreach, and then as we noted above, put a great product on the ice for their fans and the community.
They are both literally everything you could hope for in a minor league hockey team, and the model example that these leagues should be pointing to when it comes to expansion or getting new sponsors or investors on board.
This is meant as no disrespect to the other teams in each league, because we know every team tries and does all it can to bring in fans and sponsors and to make each game as fun as possible, but these are the two who do it best, and somehow find a way to keep getting better each year. Huntsville just set the SPHL attendance record again this year, and after setting the FHL attendance record last year, Carolina brought in an additional 500 fans per game this season. Both of those things are insanely impressive in the world of low pro hockey, where even losing 100 fans a night could sink a team.
And because these are the two most visible teams in the league, that attention trickles upwards and brings even more attention to these teams and the league as a whole. For instance, EDIT: Wednesday on NBCSN there may be a segment during the Carolina Hurricanes game about the Thunderbirds. It’s safe to say that probably doesn’t happen to the other five teams in the FHL if they had won the championship, or even get considered. And shoot, earlier this year Huntsville was heavily featured in an article on ESPN about the growing popularity of hockey in Alabama.
Again, this isn’t to say that had other teams won these league titles that they wouldn’t be deserving or great champions, but for the SPHL and FHL, it certainly doesn’t hurt them at all to have your two most famous franchises as the ones that everyone is looking at all off-season.