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Daily Dish: Alaska's Dilemma - Junior Hockey News

Published: Wednesday, 9 Jan 2013
By: Stephen Heisler  |  Web site: JuniorHockey.com

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 two teams.

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 teams. 

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 believe so.

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, enjoys today.

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 hockey community.

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. 

JuniorHockey.com is the premier website dedicated to delivering the latest news and developing stories from junior hockey across North America, as well as providing online tools for junior hockey players and prospects. With over 225,000 views each month Juniorhockey.com is the internet's leading source of junior hockey news and information. 

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.


posted Jan. 9th, 2013 - 2:31am
Sam Olson says:
Good Article,
I do think that having a rival in Anchorage would be a good thing. However I believe it all comes down to the location of which the team plays out of. Ben Boeke is a nice facility but the locker rooms are run down and would definitely need renovation to make it a possibility. The city budget is very limited and I don't believe that they would be up for donating money to help another team to succeed, as seen by their effort or lack thereof for UAA Hockey. Dempsey wouldn't work for the same obvious reason except for seating. I think the only plausible place for a team to play would be at the Subway Sports Centre out in South Anchorage. It's privately ran and they already have a good enough facility for them to potentially sell out. It's no secret that the majority of the youth hockey resides on the South and Dimond sides of town as well. It would be easier for kids to convince mom and dad to take them to a game that is only 5 to 10 minutes away. The rink also has other features that would help significantly, one being that there are two rinks, the blue side could be used as a game rink, while the red side can be used as the practice rink. The blueline pub also offers a place for 21+ to enjoy a beer while the game is in play or during intermission. The Anchorage School District could also modify their rules to allow for AP's (Affiliate players) to be used during the week when their schedule doesn't conflict. Anchorage is the hockey hub and it only makes sense to have a team in between Fairbanks and Kenai. The Alaska Aces and Alaska Jr. Aces could make a partnership by bringing a Junior team to Anchorage. The Alaska Jr. Aces have already had tremendous success with their 18AAA team by committing one to a Division 1 school and having another signed by the WHL. Fairbanks has a great market for their team and I think they can sustain after Wenatchee leaves, Kenai on the other hand is improving but still needs help in terms of travel costs. The area is really growing around the Subway Sports Center with restaurants and hotels close by that could benefit from the added revenue of pre/post game meals and reservations of rooms. We just need someone to step up and not be afraid to give it a try. A fourth team would really be a boost as well, but it is proven that mat-su area isn't an ideal place for a Tier II team. Any other ideas for a team? I would say Juneau but they would need a new facility and the airfare can be as pricey as flowing to the lower 48.

posted Jan. 9th, 2013 - 8:23am
Stephen Heisler says:
A single NAHL-Alaska entity that operates as a non-profit could easily sustain itself within the current Ice Dogs and Brown Bears budget. The additional operational expenses of the two teams moving to Alaska are washed out with the overall cost savings in regards to excessive travel.So anything earned in Anchorage and Wasilla ends up being pure profit.

Sullivan Arena on all Tuesday nights would be a huge help to the scheduling Gods. Sullivan would also bend over backwards to help this team. Tuesdays could be $2 Beer, Sodas, and 2-for-1 ticket prices. Tuesday night hockey sounds just as crazy as Thursday Night Fights did back when they got started.

Wasilla does the same thing on Thursday nights.

Teams from outside of Alaska would be able to swing through and play four games in five nights before buzzing out.

Think Tuesday at Anchorage, Thursday night at Wasilla, Friday night at Fairbanks, Saturday night at Kenai River. Fly out Sunday from Anchorage.

posted Jan. 9th, 2013 - 8:42am
Martin Breen says:

Okay, so what happens to Fresno? They seem to have a decent fan base and a very well run hockey operation. Wouldn't it make more sense for a new team to be placed in Southern California? Perhaps with help from league and discounted buy-in.

You could still grow Alaska and get the West division to 6 teams?

posted Jan. 9th, 2013 - 9:33am
Stephen Heisler says:
California simply does not have the markets/buildings for the NAHL. Everything has been explored. Do you really think that the ECHL wants to be at Cow Palace in San Francisco? Heck no. It's way too big but there are very few other options.

Same goes for the NAHL.

Fresno will likely remain in the WSHL, drop the player-fee to nothing, and absolutely dominate the league. Let's face it, every market wants a winner. If Fresno is beating up on Ontario, Valencia, Long Beach, San Diego, and Bay Area every weekend, those are teams that Fresno folks already recognize. Remember, fans were packing Selland Arena for WSHL games before the NAHL team came to town and I don't think they are going to give a hoot once the NAHL is gone.

posted Jan. 9th, 2013 - 9:45am
Christian Poulsen says:
Stephen, this is always interesting...is the owner/owners of Kenai and Johnstown the same?...and Fairbanks?...trying to think and I forget

posted Jan. 9th, 2013 - 10:10am
Stephen Heisler says:

Right now Fairbanks and Kenai River are operated by separate non-profit entities but collectively operate another called NAHL Alaska. I am proposing that they combine their operations and acquire two additional teams. Doing this would substantially lower the overall costs by more than $100,000 a year. That is without a single penny of revenue generated from Anchorage or Wasilla.

posted Jan. 9th, 2013 - 10:57am
Christian Poulsen says:
Dilemma is right...another yearly scheduleing dilemma is the problems for HS age players created on the long road (air) trips to the lower 48...gotta agree that however it gets done on the business end of it, Alaska needs its own Div, or league, or join the BC too?...
...the west and northwest will have Junior Hockey, but the NAHL?, we will see with the "cornerstone" "movin on out"...
...maybe the WSHL (AAU) ends up with it all...
...but heck, i'm still waiting for LA to have a new football franchise, or the Rams to move back!

posted Jan. 9th, 2013 - 12:13pm
Lori Orchow says:
I'm thinking Ogden will end up in the NAHL next season, and I think Idaho should consider it, as well. If those two teams joined the NAHL it would make travel easier on everyone, and they have great organizations and fan bases.

posted Jan. 9th, 2013 - 12:15pm
Stephen Heisler says:
Lori, I'm sure that Ogden would be welcomed with open arms, as long as they were footing the bill for travel like the Alaska teams have been forced to do for 25 years.

posted Jan. 9th, 2013 - 1:16pm
Andrew Hochstein says:
With the NAHL office in Frisco why are they looking at moving the Tornado? and how much longer can we expect Topeka to remain in the South? Those 3 round-trip bus rides to Corpus can't be cheap. Also, why is Wenatchee moving to the BCHL? They seem to be one of the "flagship" organizations of the NAHL.

posted Jan. 9th, 2013 - 1:37pm
robert hutch says:
Andrew I agree about moving the Tornado out of the Dallas-Ft.Worth area.Moving the Tornado to Laredo will be risky at best. I understand moving an established and winning program to Laredo may help jump start the franchise there.I know the Bucks looked into going junior when they still had the CHL team and when presented to their STH's how they felt it was met with a resounding no.I just feel Laredo is not a good junior market.Now the Rio Grande Valley would be better pick.With the right promotion it would be a strong market.As for Topeka if Rio and Laredo come in Topeka would be out of the South I would think.

posted Jan. 9th, 2013 - 1:45pm
Andrew Hochstein says:
Well Robert the last year the Gorillas were in Amarillo about 85% of the STH said 'NO' to a junior team coming in. The management then told us to our face that the Gorillas weren't going anywhere and they would be here for years to come. 3 months later they closed the doors and moved the team. That's the best thing that's ever happened to hockey in Amarillo. All 2.5 seasons of the Bulls so far have had higher average attendance than the last 3 seasons of the Gorillas. Tickets are cheaper, players play harder, and the action is better. You being an IceRays fan I'm sure you know exactly what I'm talking about. I think if Laredo would give the NAHL a chance I really think they'd like it. Plus the added bonus of renewing rivalries with Corpus, Rio Grande, Odessa, and Amarillo. Laredo has NO hockey team....what do they have to lose?

posted Jan. 9th, 2013 - 2:35pm
Christian Poulsen says:
Well one things for sure, its interesting...In every league it is a given that it changes...
...but heck, i still know the Baltimore Ravens were the Cleveland Browns and the NJ Devils were the Colorado Rockies etc. etc. etc....Geez, even back to when the the KC Chiefs were the Dallas Texans (i think!)
...but my long term memory kicks the !@#$ out of my short term memory
...so I'm using Pointstreak and trying to remember and write down the new, the "gone dark" and the "moves" in the NAHL the last few years...about got it...Andrew, or anyone, was Amarillo a "new" NAHL team or did they move there from ? (like Owatonna "moved" to Odessa)

posted Jan. 9th, 2013 - 2:45pm
Andrew Hochstein says:
Christian, the Bulls ownership group bought the Albert Lea Thunder in early 2010 and relocated the team the Amarillo for the 2010-2011 season.

posted Jan. 9th, 2013 - 3:05pm
Christian Poulsen says:
Thx...and cool...besides the town rivalries, the "franchises" have history (Albert Lea vs Owatonna)...i got a whole list of stuff like that...(geez, and my wife asks me: "don't you have something to do?"!

posted Jan. 9th, 2013 - 5:43pm
Wayne Wickline says:
STHs will always say "no" but will show up to see what the NAHL is all about. The Tornado are too important to this hockey area to move. I would wish the T's would allow a far crosstown rival NAHL team to play out of NYTEX. Rivalries build fan bases.

Speaking of rivalries, have I posted on the all South NAHL? Just move everyone down to former CHL WPHL cities.

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