The Superior International Hockey League's Minnesota Iron Rangers were out-shot 101-24, while getting shutout 14-0, by the Thunder Bay North Stars Wednesday in Thunder Bay. There's so much more to the story than whatever the scoreboard and statistics sheet has to say.
The Iron Rangers are one of the few United States based team that are ultimately competing for the same hardware as the British Columbia Hockey League's Wenatchee Wild are chasing, also known as the Royal Bank Cup. Hey, don't laugh, it's a possibility more real than what you could imagine.
The 2012-13 Minnesota Wilderness captured the SIJHL championship and Dudley Hewitt Cup (contested against champions from Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League, Ontario Junior Hockey League, and host team) before advancing to the 2013 Royal Bank Cup. That Minnesota team advanced to the semi-finals, losing to the eventual champions (Brooks Bandits) in overtime.
A lot has changed since that season. The Wilderness jumped to the North American Hockey League the next year and all hell has broken loose in the years that followed.
The changes to the level of play are mind-blowing to say the least. Leagues have been consolidated and USA Hockey has embarrassingly lost control of one of the most important rungs on the developmental ladder.
Yes, I blame unlimited outlaw expansion and USA Hockey's poor management of the game for the on-ice failures of the Minnesota Iron Rangers. The saddest part of that problem is fact that most of the dismantling came while the level of play was being overseen by John Vanbiesbrouck.
I was pretty excited when the First Team National Hockey League All-Star was named USA Hockey Vice-President and Chairman of the Junior Council. The expectation was that having a real "hockey guy" in that position would give junior hockey in the United States an upper-hand on the world stage.
What happened instead is incredible. When Vanbiesbrouck came into power, the Junior Council presided over expansion and did a fairly good job at keeping the yahoos out of the game. Now that same council is overseeing just a fraction of existing junior leagues and teams operating in the United States.
I miss (former Junior Council chair) Dave Tyler's iron-fisted leadership. I can only smile when imagining how he would have redirected all the interesting characters.
The sad part is knowing that Tyler's influence is long gone and the inmates are running wild. The Iron Rangers are a Canadian Junior Hockey League team that has a hard time filling the roster. How does that even happen?
It's time that United States based teams, trying to compete at that level, be forced to same Tier II standards of operation that the North American Hockey League teams must follow. That will be fairly easy to do for the other Minnesota team competing in the SIJHL. The Thief River Falls Norskies regularly draw in excess of 2,000 fans for their home games and are not as dependent on player fees to fund operation of the team.
The same cannot be said for the Iron Rangers.The team has failed to draw more than 176 in all but one home game all season. That's not going to work.
So what's the solution? Aside from making sure the operator has the resources necessary needed to fund the team for each season, USA Hockey should have a serious interest in making sure that such teams are competitive.
Aside from the Norskies, the Soo Eagles (Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League), Buffalo Jr. Sabres (Ontario Junior Hockey League), and Wenatchee are the other American teams in the CJHL.
"About 35% of our budget is covered by the player fees," Soo General Manager Bruno Bragagnolo said on Thursday. "Having to maintain USA Hockey Tier II standards would be difficult for us." In the Eagles' defense, most of the teams in the NOJHL also have player fees. The same goes for the Buffalo team in the OJHL.
Wenatchee is an entirely different story and has quickly emerged as one of the premier teams in the BCHL. It's well known that the Wild eclipse USA Hockey Tier I standards.
The five teams all have to adhere to both USA Hockey and Hockey Canada rules as well. For example, CJHL teams are not allowed to roster players from outside the continent, while USA Hockey junior teams are allowed 2-4 imports from anywhere in the world.
The Canadian leagues also restrict the number of players their U.S. based teams are allowed to have outside of their home territory.
"We are limited to eight states," Bragagnolo said of his team's restrictions."Wenatchee only gets four."
The SIJHL also limits the territory of the two Minnesota teams.
The five United States based CJHL teams need to collectively seek support from USA Hockey. That support should include getting the same four imports as the NAHL and United States Hockey League.
I get that going with a strictly free tuition structure will be difficult for some of these teams, but it's more than obvious that trying to compete in the cluttered pay-to-play market is no longer going to work.
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