Before we get started, my fingerprints
are all over the foundation of Alaska junior hockey.
Dave Childers, Jack Knue, and I got
the snowball going when we formed the Alaska Arctic Ice back in 95-96 ('96 USA Jr.
C Champions). That team played the second season as the lone Alaska team in the
Western States Hockey League before we added three additional teams in 1997-98.
One of those teams, the Fairbanks Ice Dogs has been playing ever since.
I feel partially responsible for the
level of play in Alaska and will always do whatever possible to help junior
hockey find success in the state.
With that said, I know that the North
American Hockey League's Alaska teams are in a bit of a dilemma. The Wenatchee
Wild are expected to depart the league's west division for the British Columbia
Hockey League after this season. This move is likely to have a dramatic effect on the Fresno
Monsters' ability to remain in the league, leaving the west division with just
How do the Fairbanks Ice Dogs and Kenai
River Brown Bears survive? The simple
answer is to become members of one of the other divisions.
The Central Division is expected to
add Richfield (MN) and Dickinson (ND) which would bring the division to eight
The South Division is expected to add teams
to both Rio Grande Valley and Laredo. Early speculation is that the Texas
Tornado would simply move to Laredo while others are saying that the Tornado
could end up back in North Richland Hills at NYTEX. For giggles, let's just say
that the south also grows to eight teams.
The North Division already has eight
teams and all signs indicate that everyone will be returning for 2013-2014.
A quick Google search of airfares
shows that flying in and out of Dallas ($612) is cheaper than Minneapolis
($804), Chicago ($704), and Detroit ($822). I did find it very interesting that
rates to New York City ($640) are just slightly more that Dallas.
The rate variance between Dallas and
Minneapolis amounts to about $5,000 per trip. That's a savings that would
likely get washed out due to the travel distances of the south division. There
would be roughly a $3,000 savings by flying in-and-out of Chicago.
While talk of a new Chicago team has
been going from hot-to-cold, I see the market as being an important part of the
equation. The league could replace the West division with a new Midwest Division
that includes the two Alaska teams, Richfield, Austin, Coulee Region, Janesville,
Springfield, and maybe Chicago.
Another major possibility, that makes
a lot more economical sense, would be to move two teams back to Alaska. The
cost savings of limiting travel outside of the state to just a pair of trips
each season could more than cover the additional budgets of two more teams.
Anchorage is hockey mecca. With the
University of Alaska-Anchorage. Alaska Aces, and a very deep talent pool, the
area is one of the purist hockey towns on the planet. Do Anchorage residents
love the game enough to support a third major team in the market? I have to
How could it work? When the Aces moved
from the Ben Boeke Ice Arena to the high-end Sullivan Arena next-door, the
hockey folks in town thought the Aces owners had lost their minds. The team had
a marketing contractor named Patrick Flatley on staff with the sole job of making
the transition successful. Boys and girls, Flatley's successful efforts back in
the 90's is the foundation of the success the Aces, and even JuniorHockey.com,
Flatley's vision was to give hockey
fans something they did not even know they wanted. Cold beer being poured at
the seats became a signature of the Aces success. Aces games became social experiences.
Veteran players like Tim Molle, Keith Street, Dean Larson, and even brothers
Vern and Wally III were icons of Aces' history.
A new Anchorage NAHL team could also
find success by giving area fans something else they did not know they wanted;
Tuesday Night Hockey at Sullivan Arena. Combining an innovative schedule with a
firm commitment to developing home-grown talent and community ownership would
be a winner in this market. I believe that Anchorage supports this team enough
to sustain itself if the Alaska group of teams can reduce operational expenses.
The same model works in Wasilla at the
Menard Memorial Sports Center IF the arena can come up with a pricing structure
that does not handicap the team. I like Thursday Nights Hockey for the Mat-Su
Valley because it would seldom interfere with other area youth hockey
schedules, and could quickly become the must-go-to event for the area valley
Each team could effectively be operated
with a budget under $300,000 a year or $1.2M for all four teams. Without
selling a single additional ticket, sponsorship package, or even adding owners,
this is a number that could be covered by simply adding the budgets of the Ice
Dogs and Brown Bears now.
There has also been talk over the
years of combining Fairbanks and Kenai River into a single non-profit entity.
Maybe those discussions should be taken further by adding Wasilla and
Anchorage. Marketing and business could be collectively managed leaving hockey
operations to each Head Coach / General Manager.
This would be a logical approach that
could ensure Alaska Junior Hockey is no longer dependent on the whims of the
Wenatchee's, Fresno's, and Dawson Creek's of the junior hockey world.
I feel that the single entity approach is the only sustainable long-term solution for junior hockey in Alaska.
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Stephen Heisler resides in Puerto Penasco, Mexico with
his wife, Maria, and their two children, Sonia and Tomas. Tune in to his Mexico
based Classic Rock Station, GoPenasco Radio.