April 5, 2013

Premier League could reshape juniors landscape

By Bill Keefe

The Boston Junior Bruins and South Shore Kings have developed a strong rivalry in the EJHL. (Photo: Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

Hockey players and coaches love routines and structure. Each day has a schedule that creates a weekly rhythm that flows throughout the season and from season to season.

But as the routine of tryout season rolls around, questions abound as to what junior leagues are going to exist next season and what they will look like.

Will the Eastern Junior Hockey League be around? Will the new United States Premier Hockey League launch next season? Is the North American Hockey League coming east? Will Atlantic Junior Hockey League teams be pursued to move? What of the feeder leagues, the Empire, Eastern States and Metropolitan junior leagues?

The Eastern Junior Hockey League has been the leading junior league in the Northeast for nearly two decades. That its status is unknown is a seismic shift that will have aftershocks that affect other leagues and teams down the line.

As of press time, it seemed no one, including league officials and team principals, knew how it will all shake out. One thing is for certain: Junior hockey in the Northeast will not be the same.

“There is zero clarity what’s going to happen,” said one league official. “So many crazy things could come out of this, it is an understatement.”

All the instability and shifting dynamics, combined with a passionate game and an impact on people’s financials, has led to strained relationships. “Bad blood” and “a lot of animosity” were two depictions of the feelings between the group starting the Premier League and the remaining EJ members.

EJHL members Boston Junior Bruins, Islanders Hockey Club, Jersey Hitmen and South Shore Kings announced in November they were creating a new league, the United States Premier Hockey League. The idea, a press release said, is to provide a new national opportunity in hockey and further the founders’ goals of player development in line with USA Hockey models. The press release stated the organizations would sponsor an additional team and continue to field a club in the EJ. It also stated they would have both Under-16 and Under-18 components. The plan was to begin play in 2013-14.

Four teams have committed to the USPHL at both the junior and Midget level. In January, the Premier League announced that EJ members Bay State Breakers and Portland Junior Pirates would join the junior league along with the Connecticut Yankees. Later in the month, the PAL Junior Islanders, a partnership of the NHL’s New York Islanders and the Atlantic Junior Hockey League’s Suffolk PAL, were accepted as the eighth junior member.

Five teams were brought in at the Midget level only: EJ members New Hampshire Junior Monarchs, Rochester Stars and Springfield Pics as well as Selects Academy and Providence Capitals.

USA Hockey denied the Premier League for sanctioning next season because its application did not meet a deadline, although the Under-16 and Under-18 leagues are approved, according to one coach with knowledge of the situation.

Many Eastern Junior teams also have clubs in the Empire Junior Hockey League, which serves as the top feeder to the EJ, the Eastern States Hockey League, and in two new leagues this year, the Under-18 U.S. Elite Hockey League and the Under-16 Eastern Junior Elite Prospect League.

That means a lot of people are wondering what’s going to happen. Is the Premier League going to play independent this year? Will it seek sanctioning from the American Athletic Union? Will the EJ pursue joining the Midwest-based but nationally scattered North American Hockey League? Will there be one more year of a full EJ? Will the EJ pursue Atlantic and Metropolitan teams to replace departing teams … that is, if they do depart?

People associated with the Premier League indicated decisions were being made in the final days of February. An EJ official said a meeting was scheduled with all current 14 EJ members for March 4. Hopefully, there will be answers after that. “It changes daily,” said one coach on the future junior landscape. “Every coach is asking other coaches, ‘What have you heard?’ ”

One unlikely action is a defection of Atlantic teams. There is a $350,000 buyout for teams to leave the Atlantic, according to one source.  Ironically, the Premier League has a $350,000 buy-in, the same source said, to ensure organizations were financially strong.

Rumors persist that the Premier League would skirt USA Hockey and pursue sanctioning from the AAU, which is largely an insurance policy, but the Maine Hockey Journal quoted Hitmen coach Toby Harris as saying, “We aren’t doing AAU.”

It is possible the Premier League plays as an independent this year. It is also possible that the Premier League pursues sanctioning from USA Hockey for 2014-15, which sources said is the plan, and teams play another year in the EJ.

Of the teams not going to the Premier from the EJ, there appear to be two groups, one source said. One group wants to remain as the EJ while another wants to pursue forming an Eastern Division of the North American League, akin to what the EJHL South currently is. In that circuit a band of Southern teams paid into the EJ to be a part of their brand, play in some showcases, but they largely play against themselves in their own league. That is what is being proposed for the North American League, but some teams are not convinced it’s worth the fee or any added travel, according to two involved parties.

A hurdle in joining the NAHL is USA Hockey’s criteria for Tier 2 junior hockey. The United States Hockey League is considered Tier 1 while all other USA Hockey junior leagues are Tier 3. Neither Tiers 1 nor 2 may charge players while Tier 3 relies on tuition. Requirements regarding facilities, among others, would also be difficult for Eastern teams to meet.

The Empire, Eastern States, U.S. Elite and Eastern junior elite leagues are in serious limbo. Each stands to lose substantial membership with up to six teams in each league potentially withdrawing and playing somewhere else next season.

These leagues also present a unique situation. In these leagues, teams from organizations on either side of the Premier and EJ split at the top junior level may still compete against each other further down the ladder. For example, both the Philadelphia Revolution and New York Apple Core have teams in the Empire and Eastern States, as do the Bruins, Islanders and Breakers.

“This is ruining hockey in the East,” a coach said. “We need to get rid of teams, not add teams.”

A coach on the other side of the issue cited the success and experience of the organizations going to the Premier and said he did not think it would be a problem getting players.

Conflicting viewpoints will carry the day for some time in junior hockey in New England.

This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

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