As the FHL heads towards its 10th season as a league (seriously, can you believe that?), the league has had a number of crazy things happen over those years, and seen some great players and great teams take the ice.
But for all the great teams and players that have played in the FHL over its nine season, the league has never had a team post back-to-back championships, which is odd given how much some teams have dominated the league, including this past season.
In fact, just twice twice has a team made back-to-back Commissioner’s Cup Finals, the Danbury Whalers, who actually appeared in three-straight Finals from 2012 to 2014, going 1-2 in those trips, and the Dayton Demonz, who appeared in back-to-back Finals in 2013 and 2014, losing the first then winning the second.
Even more odd, is that most teams that win the championship, or even those that finish first in the regular season, usually get significantly worse the next season. Take a look at the first eight champions and first-place teams, then see how they did the next season:
Champion: Akwesasne, 25-16-5-1 (W-L-OTW-OTL) 2nd place. Next season: 20-20-4-1, 5th place.
Regular Season Champ: New York 25-13-7-2. Next season: 25-19-1-4, 4th place.
Regular Season and Playoff Champ: New Jersey 40-9-3-1. Next season: 23-19-3, folded mid-season in Williamsport, PA.
Champion: Danbury Whalers 24-17-4-6, 2nd place. Next season: 35-11-2-8, 2nd place.
Regular Season Champ: Dayton 36-6-6-3. Next season: 33-14-7-3, won title.
Regular Season and Playoff Champ: Dayton 33-14-7-3. Next Season: 33-14-5-4
(NOTE: It’s pretty remarkable that Dayton was that consistent over this three year run, they and Danbury were the only two that either got better, or were pretty close to the previous year’s mark.)
Regular Season and Playoff Champ: Watertown 32-13-6-3. Next season: Took year off for arena renovations.
This is the only time a team did not return the following season to defend its title.
Champion: Port Huron 29-18-7-1. Next season: 23-21-3-9, 5th place.
Regular Season Champ: Danbury 32-14-7-4. Next season: 26-22-7-1, 3rd place.
Regular Season and Playoff Champ: Danville 39-9-4-4. Next season: 19-29-3-5 5th place.
Champ: Watertown 29-12-6-5. Next season: 24-26-7-1, 3rd place.
Regular Season Champ: Port Huron 41-7-3-2. Next season: 22-32-3-2, 4th place.
So you can see, aside from Dayton’s three year run, and Danbury’s run during that time as well, of our 12 teams listed above, the large majority of them got worse the following season, and often by quite a bit.
Well, let’s start with the obvious. The FHL is the lowest of the low when it comes to professional hockey in North America. The goal for everyone in the league, from the players to the coaches to the front office to even the broadcasters is to move up, and often times as fast as they can.
Which means that if you had a great team, when the season ends every other league that’s higher than the FHL, specifically the SPHL and ECHL, comes calling to try and raid your roster of its talent, the coaching staff and the front office. And unless those people have a very special circumstance or reason where they want to stay in their FHL town, they are likely going to move up, because it’s more pay, more exposure, and just a higher league with more resources for them. It’s no different than you or I looking for a better job to improve our lives.
That or some players just flat out stop playing. Yes, this is professional hockey, but it’s a league where a large number of players are making the league minimum which is around $150 a week. That’s right, some of your favorite players are getting hit, fighting, and risking life and limb for $150 a week. It’s not hard to see why some players just want to get out and go work a job that pays more while maybe playing men’s league or something.
So what does this mean for the Carolina Thunderbirds heading into next season?
Well, for a couple reasons, fans in Winston-Salem can probably expect a vastly different looking team on the ice next year. There’s all the reasons we listed above, and then there’s this: The league is adding two, and possibly three, new teams for next season and losing zero from this past season. That means there is very likely an expansion draft on the way to help get those two or three teams some established FHL players.
We don’t know the exactly rules for the potential expansion draft, but typically teams are allowed to protect around 12 of a team’s 21 players, give or take a couple one way or the other. And who do you think those teams will want to take from first? That’s right, the record-setting, defending champions.
Between players potentially moving on and the potential expansion draft, it’s not a stretch to say that up to half the Thunderbirds roster could be new players next year, or players who maybe played in a handful of games this past season but couldn’t crack their loaded lineup suddenly getting more playing time.
Take a look at the two best regular season teams prior to Carolina from that list above, and keep in mind they were both record-setting at the time:
2017-18: Port Huron 41-7-3-2. Next season: 22-32-3-2, 4th place; 2011-12 New Jersey 40-9-3-1. Next season: 23-19-3, folded mid-season in Williamsport, PA.
Those are two teams that absolutely DOMINATED the league one year, and the next were also-rans for a number of reasons. We touched on Port Huron earlier this year and what happened to them, and it was basically what we noted above: Key players often times don’t come back and teams can’t find a way to replace them in the FHL.
Honestly, the key to it all for Carolina, at least in our minds, is if they can find a way to retain head coach Andre Niec. Niec has done a masterful job of building the on-ice product in Carolina, bringing in a number of great European players that honestly were probably way too talented for the FHL. And just as importantly, he found a way to keep almost all of those great players he brought in for the majority of the season. If he stays, he may be able to bring in more of those types of players and keep the Thunderbirds at or near the top of the FHL.
But it’s been admitted by Niec that he has interest from teams in the SPHL, and shoot, in that same article owner Barry Soskin says that in a perfect world, nobody from the team would be back next season because they had all moved up. Heck Niec doesn’t even have a contract at the moment with the Thunderbirds, a pretty standard thing in the FHL where things are usually done year-to-year, but still not a comforting fact for fans that their head coach is a free agent and can go wherever he wants.
Add it all up, and it’s pretty safe to say that one way or another, the Carolina Thunderbirds will be a very different looking team next year, and will have their work cut out for them if they want to become the first team in FHL history to win back-to-back titles.