Should Washington Have Major Junior Hockey? You Bet

Cup'pa JoeIn 2007-08, the United States Hockey League will welcome its 13th franchise into league play: Fargo, North Dakota (as of this writing unmascoted) will join the buzz-generating development league, skating in a brand-new 5,000-seat rink. The team will be led by former Fighting Sioux bench boss legend Dean Blais, who’ll serve as coach and GM. Blais led UND to national championships in 1997 and 2000. Not a bad resume for a USHL coach.
The USHL was established in 1961 and briefly hosted professional hockey players. It returned to its present fully amateur status in 1979. By virtue of its amateur status it has a leg up on attracting prime young talent these days, as players can skate there a year or two and retain their NCAA eligibility. CHLers, of course, forfeit their NCAA eligibility.
The USHL languished in obscurity until about 2000, about which time American participation in hockey began extending well beyond its traditional geographical locales. Today the USHL isn’t quite†a full-fledged rival as a development league†for the CHL — but it isn’t as far behind as you might imagine. Dean Blais’ joining the party suggests as much. But don’t take my word for it; check out the league’s link to the lengthy list of players drafted by NHL clubs just this decade.
The league is concentrated compactly in small outposts of winter-sports-challenged regions of the upper Midwest: basically, Nebraska and Iowa, plus franchises in Chicago, Green Bay, Indianapolis, and Columbus. Its rosters are being fed increasingly by Sunbelt States who exposure to NHL hockey is leading to dramatic and unprecedented spikes in youth hockey participation. But don’t take my word for it; check out Inside College Hockey Online’s “State of the Game” breakdown from last season on the U.S. origins of D-I hockey players. Thirty two Californians skated on D-I teams last season. Increasingly the USHL is serving as a fruitful apprenticeship between Midget and top-level intercollegiate hockey in the States.
The pipeline for Major Junior hockey talent in the States is irrefutably promising and on the upswing. And at present, in its tiny geographical haven, the USHL is cluttering, virtually annually, the NHL Entry Draft’s top few rounds, leading a lot of folks in American hockey circles today to ask this question: what would happen if the USHL continued to expand . . . especially if it went to the unconquered, comparatively hockey-mad East?
Fargo, incidentally, boasts a population of 74,000. Washington of course isn’t anywhere near as hockey-crazed (except in its per capita tally of puck bloggers); it hasn’t, for instance, hosted a World Under-20 tourney. But soon it is hosting a Frozen Four, and with a GMA population exceeding 5 million, does D.C. really need to be puck crazy to support another hockey team? This is a region that has, with reasonable success, hosted an AHL franchise (in Baltimore) in the past. Worth noting, I think, that attendance was strong at both the Baltimore and Landover arenas during many of those years.
My theory-dream here is premised on far more than a selfish interest in expanding my access points to live hockey. I think it’s in the Capitals’ best interest to see more high-caliber hockey take root in the region. Just as hockey players need development leagues, so too do fans: millions of puck-uninitiated in these parts need an affordable access point to the fast-paced and poorly-covered-by-the-press game on ice. Too many families today simply cannot afford NHL hockey. I still want them in hockey rinks; get them there and they’ll get hooked, and hooked hockey fans will find their ways into Verizon Center eventually.
Philly spectacularly supports both the Flyers and the Phantoms, and my wager is that if the USHL placed a franchise there it’d thrive as well. A USHL team, with its unsalaried rosters, needn’t fill as many seats as CHL clubs to reap profits. And like the CHL, the USHL contests its games disproportionately on weekends. Try marketing quality live Friday and Saturday night hockey in an intimate setting in these parts and charge an admission of, say, $15 and $20, and see who comes out and salutes it.
This hypothesis becomes more intriguing when you consider greater Washington’s fast-rising status as a puck-talent-producing region. Vienna, Va.’s, Garrett Roe skated last season for the USHL’s Indiana Ice (63 points in 57 games).†Marylander Phil Axtell, now entering his sophomore season at Michigan Tech, skated for Cedar Rapids. If he’d had the opportunity to remain at home and skate for a hometown team in the USHL, would Luke Lynes have migrated all the way up to the OHL’s Brampton Batallion?
Yes Washington is in its infancy as a hockey playing capital, but its achievements in a short period of time are nothing short of remarkable. One of the more intriguing stories I’ve heard at area rinks this summer relates to DeMatha’s emergence as a hockey recruiting force. There are high school teams way up north, the account goes, that today want nothing to do with the Stags.
Having a Junior team compete here, and bolster hockey’s general profile, is the logical evolution of our game that is fast growing among D.C.’s athletic families.

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12 Responses to Should Washington Have Major Junior Hockey? You Bet

  1. sk84fun_dc says:

    It is great to see the USHL’s rise helped, as is the BCHL, by the ablility of players to retain their NCAA eligibility. Can’t say I see the USHL in the DC area anytime soon, but it is August so keep dreaming for the future.
    And credit to the hosts, Greater Washington Sports Alliance and the US Naval Acadmey, for pursuing and being awarded the Frozen Four for 2009.
    When mentioning pro hockey history, can’t forget (or maybe one can) the Chesapeake Icebreakers short stay in the region as a member of the ECHL. I do not have the same positive outlook about what attendance would look like for a lower level pro team or junior league in this area, but I agree it would be a positive for hockey in the region to expose more fans and young players in the area to hockey below the NHL level.
    About the VA/MD/DC guys mentioned: Phil Axtell is not returning to Mich Tech. Last I heard, there was a possibility he was transferring to Northern Michigan. And no mention of Patrick Cullen, another local player headed to the USHL, Indiana Ice, and committed to RPI for 2008.

  2. Junior Hockey In Washington?…

    On Frozen Blog says yes…….

  3. Great post. I’d LOVE to see some sort of semi-pro team in or near DC. If you remember back 10 years or so, we also had the Icebreakers, an ECHL team that played at the Showplace Arena. You could buy a ticket for a game and sit anywhere you wanted. Before they moved to Florida, I used to catch quite a few of their games. Now you have to travel to Richmond, Hershey, or Philadelphia to catch a game. I attended a Philly Phantoms game last year and had a blast… that could be because I spent a decent amount of coin at McFaddens across the street before the game too! Anyways, we have a couple of rinks that could support a few hundred folks I am sure. Non-hockey related, southern Maryland is also having a minor league stadium being built in the Waldorf area. It would be great to hockey finally play catch-up!

  4. herbie_verstinks says:

    1) Travel costs are almost certainly prohibitive for a USHL franchise in DC. There’s a reason why all the current franchises are clustered in the midwest. A better bet is for a DC team to join the NAHL or other east-coast junior league.
    2) Big cities too often don’t do well with non-major league sports teams. Potential spectators have too many other things to do to bother with “the minors”. What else are folks gonna do in Souix City or Omaha except go to USHL games?

  5. langway says:

    In the meantime, there’s the Atlantic Junior Hockey League’s Washington Jr. Nationals. The talent pool isn’t quite as high as the USHL but there have been a few noteworthy prospects that’ve played for in the league over the last few years (in particular, the aforementioned Patrick Cullen and ’07 Sabres second-round pick TJ Brennan). It, too, has served as a pool for NCAA talent.
    They play their home games at Kettler and you can view the league’s schedule here. There’s also the Washington Jr. & Little Caps who call Kettler home.

  6. topshelf22304 says:

    Overall, you’re right….the next logical step to hockey’s growth would be to have either US Juniors or NCAA D1 hockey grace our area. I can’t wait!
    I do have one differing opinion though. This area (mid-Atlantic) will have a better chance of supporting NCAA D1 hockey than major US Junior hockey. In my speculative opinion, the demographics better support the college sport over juniors. College sports has a better brand/cachet and would draw more on this area’s emotions and dollars than minor league sports do.
    And the college hockey moevement has already started. Navy is going D1. Liberty will likely go D1 within the next 5 years. There are schools within the region that have the facilities (a practice rink within a 10-minute drive and access to a game rink that seats >3,000) but do not have the fan base to become profitable or self-sustaining. Schools such as Maryland, Georgetown, GW and NC State come to mind. None of them have hockey on their radar, but if hockey continues to grow, more fans get hooked and the $$$ can justify it, it can be a possibility within the next 15 years.

  7. topshelf — I appreciate and share your perspective. I’ve been hearing the “Navy to D-I” claim for 5 years now. An Admiral appears to be sitting on his hands on the matter. Liberty, although not particularly close to D.C., is an interesting program to mention. I’ve heard it has strong skaters and a strong club program (like Navy and Penn State) for some years now. The school apparently has a fairly national student body, which is how you draw strong skaters among them. If Navy and Penn State break for D-I status soon, I wonder how long Maryland can stay out of the game. I always thought Cole Field House would be a terrific place to watch hockey, from a pure spectating point of view. Problem is, it’s too old — it would need modern air control systems.

  8. topshelf22304 says:

    Navy – They’re committed – last I heard the rink is still under construction. I would give them 2-3 years once the rink is built to go D1.
    Liberty – they’re also committed, they didn’t build a $10M rink to play ACHA hockey. They have great fan support and they have a very strong pipeline into Ontario in addition to the decent players they get from around the country. They would not have a problem recruiting in NCAA D1. Their niche would be religious kids, but lots of Canadian kids would love to spend 4 winters in Virginia.
    Penn State – will likely never go NCAA D1 because of Title IX. Their only hope is to create a women’s team and hope the school promotes both to D1. They definitely have the facilities and support.
    Maryland – tough one here. Cole can be updated or they can play in Comcast. The problem is that their market is saturated. Maryland fans, not known for their loyalty, cheer for basketball and then football…how many fans would have money left over for hockey? (And that’s straight from the horse’s mouth.)
    Until hockey in general expands beyond its niche following, college hockey will grow very slowly. It’s constrained by Title IX and the fact that it’s ridiculously expensive. Budgets run ~$1M season. A D1 program would need to find a very rich donor to endow the program, or pull in about $1.5M in ticket revenue to be self-sufficient. This area isn’t there yet -but it is improving!

  9. jrhockeyfan says:

    In order to make the USHL a viable option (because of travel considerations)for almost any eastern city the league would need to create a new eastern division or create an eastern division via merger with the AJHL and or the EJHL. Another idea would be for the EJHL and AJHL to restructure and form a new Tier 1 junior league that would serve the Eastern U.S. players. Eventually the U.S. could have multiple Tier 1 junior leagues which would serve regions of the U.S. like the Tier 1 junior leagues in Canada. The D.C. area and the entire Southeast is producing more and more high quality players. Some which have been mentioned already but also others from the D.C. area like Andrew Panzarella(USHL,Des Moines),Fred Bergman(USHL, Des Moines),Michael Clemente(U18 National Team Development Program),Craig Kitto(U18 National Team that just competed in Europe), H.T. Lenz(Shattuck-St. Mary’s Prep in Minnesota, 2007 U18 Tier 1 National Champions and now playing in the BCHL with Merritt). Former Capital Mark Tinordi has worked at some point with each of these players since retiring and becoming involved with youth hockey in the area. Their are probably a number of players playing for Mark on the Washington Junior Nationals who are capable of playing Tier 1 Junior Hockey but for one reason or another have decided to play closer to home, including his son Matt who played in the NAHL last year.

  10. ThunderWeenie says:

    I’d love to see junior hockey in DC. I don’t live there, but I love the city, and travel there regularly. If there were a USHL or other junior team there, I’d definitely buy a few tickets and check it out.
    The point about travel is a valid one, though–even in the relatively well-heeled CHL, teams often travel by bus. You’re also talking about a lot of high-school-aged kids who can really only spend so much time on the road. Maybe NCAA D-1 hockey is a bit more realistic. I don’t get to see it on TV all that often here in Canada, but when I do catch it, its always a blast.
    BTW, just as a point of interest, major-junior hockey isn’t totally unknown in the eastern United States. The CHL has 4 teams in the eastern US–the OHL has two in Michigan and one in Pennsylvania, while the QMJHL has a team in Maine.

  11. Kyle Whitney says:

    Axtell has transferred to Northern. He is on campus now.

  12. blitzen says:

    Major Junior hockey would be a great way to introduce new fans to the sport. Here in Canada’s national capital region (includes Ottawa and Gatineau), we have two major junior teams as well as the Ottawa Senators and all seem to do well. Many of the CHL arenas do not hold a lot of spectators but with revenue sharing all seem to be able to pay the bills including the travel. The 67s are at the edge of the league geographically and do a lot of long road trips; I believe most of the travel in the Q and the W involve really long trips.
    The key seems to be to make it family friendly (both cost and entertainment wise) and get the kids hooked on hockey. As they get older, they will start getting really involved as fans for the NHL team. You see a lot of Sens sweaters on kids at 67s games.

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