February 29, 2012

From NEHJ: Federal Hockey League goes back to the future

By Brion O’Connor

“If we get 1,200 or 1,500 in there, the place feels packed. It’s a small barn, an old school hockey arena, with bleacher seating. The fans are right on top of you, and I can hear every conversation that’s going on behind me. It’s old-time hockey. It’s almost like going back to the ’70s, in those old-time rinks.” 

The Cape Cod Bluefins boast a roster of mostly Massachusetts players, including Luke Frey (New Bedford, Mass.). (Photo courtesy of Cape Cod Bluefins)

— Marc LeFebvre, 1000 Islands Privateers coach, Federal Hockey League

When I first moved to New Hampshire from New Jersey, I heard whispers of a brand of hockey that was too good to be true. Legendary teams such as the Concord Budmen, Manchester Blackhawks, the Eastern Olympics and the Berlin Maroons, competing in the New England Hockey League and the Can-Am League. It was barroom hockey, rollicking and wildly entertaining, played by burly, larger-than-life characters. 

“I remember going to the Everett Arena,” says Tom Champagne, who grew up in Concord, N.H. “In the days before Plexiglas, it was wire mesh, and you could smell these guys. You’d get sprayed with the shavings. You could see the blood. You’d be right there, and the guys would be right in front of you.”

It was hockey’s version of the Wild, Wild West. But despite the obvious draw, the leagues struggled to survive, and ultimately folded. However, many still talk longingly of those days.

“I remember going with my father. We’d have to stand in line to get in, and it would be standing-room only,” Champagne says. “The arena had this high dome, and halfway down was full of smoke. A lot of these guys were playing professional hockey. A lot of them came down from Canada. They were recruited, people got jobs for them. That was the place to be for a game on Saturday night.”

That style of hockey has all but disappeared. But not completely. The fledgling Federal Hockey League has resurrected many of those ghosts, on the backs and the talents of young — and not-so-young — players who continue to ply their craft in small hockey barns throughout New England, New York, New Jersey and beyond.

With teams in eastern Massachusetts (Cape Cod Bluefins), Connecticut (Danbury Whalers), upstate New York (the 1000 Islands Privateers), New York City (Brooklyn Aviators), New Jersey (the Outlaws), Delaware (the Federals), Illinois (Danville Dashers) and Quebec (Akwesasne Warriors), the league has a broad geographic footprint, and high expectations to match.

“The league and officials are really pushing, and they’re talking to new teams for next year,” says Aviators coach Rob Miller, a Staten Island, N.Y., native and product of New England college hockey (University of Southern New Hampshire and Salem State). “Things are good, but you’ve got to get the right people and the right organizations, and then you build it from there.”

The 32-year-old Miller says he’s “seen it all” in his 10 years as a professional player and coach, which included stints in Europe and the Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL). But working at the Single-A level, far below the National Hockey League, and below the American Hockey League, the East Coast Hockey League and the Central Hockey League, means adapting quickly to a landscape that changes faster than a frozen pond during a flash thaw.

“The biggest positive from last year is that we finished the year and had two rounds of playoffs. That was good,” Miller says. “This year, the challenges are finishing the year with all the teams and playing all the games. That’s a huge thing. It needs to happen.”

It will be easier said than done. The Vermont Wild, based in Morrisville, Vt., disbanded after only 10 games this season (the “expansion” Federals were cobbled together to help existing teams keep their home games, though the squad has been suffering double-digit losses), and the Danville franchise has been struggling as well. Yet the league actively is pursuing new markets, including Lewiston, Maine, which once housed the Maineiacs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

“We learned from the mistakes other people made for us,” Chris Firriolo, the coach and president of the New Jersey Outlaws, told the New York Times.

“The league is still relatively young,” says Ken Trentkowski, a 23-year-old Long Island, N.Y., native who plays for the Aviators. “I hope it expands a little bit. With seven teams, we play a lot of the same teams over and over and over again. So a little diversity would be nice. But, it’s going in the right direction.”

To a man, the players and coaches say the quality of the hockey is worth the hard-earned coin that fans plunk down for tickets (which, of course, are considerably less than you’ll find for any NHL game). There is an obvious pride in the product. Just don’t confuse the Federal Hockey League with Paul Newman’s Charlestown Chiefs of “Slap Shot” fame (though the fictional Chiefs, somewhat coincidentally, played in the “Federal League”). 

The Cape Cod Bluefins, based in Hyannis, Mass., are trying to galvanize regional support among fans with the Cape’s only professional franchise. (Photo courtesy of Cape Cod Bluefins)

“Just look at the résumés of the guys,” Miller says. “Sure, you’ll have a fight or two, just like anywhere in the minor leagues. Maybe you’ll have a line brawl every 15th or 20th game, but it’s not an everyday occurrence.

“It’s good hockey. That’s basically what it comes down to,” he says. “There are good players, it’s a very good product, and people will be entertained. My big motto in minor-league hockey, and even at the NHL, is that you have fans who like goal scoring, you have fans who like good hitting and tight checking, and you have fans who like fights.

“If it’s a good hockey game, you don’t need any fighting. It needs to be a hard-hitting, intense game where people are battling and trying to win. But if there’s a fight a game, that takes care of a couple hundred fans. You’ve got to appeal to everybody. It’s about entertainment value.”

That effort, says 31-year-old KC Timmons of the Aviators, a former draft choice of the Colorado Avalanche, is there every time the team suits up.

“Every night is a close game, even against the so-called lower teams,” says Timmons, a British Columbia native. “It’s gotten a lot better this year. You can’t come in and be lazy. You’ve got to be ready to play.”

Trentkowski readily agrees.

“Like Rob (Miller) says all the time, we have to perform at our best to get fans to come here, and essentially it’s the fans that pay us,” the Yale graduate says. “If we’re not performing at the top of our game, day in and day out, and that includes practice as well, then they’re not going to show up. And if they don’t show up, we don’t exist.”

For Trentkowksi, and many of the younger players, the Federal Hockey League also provides hope, a chance to keep the dream alive.

“Everyone, any age, wants the opportunity to play at a higher level,” Trentkowski says. “I’m plenty content to play here in Brooklyn, but if an opportunity comes, I would love to jump on it. I’m still young, and I’d like to take hockey as far as I possibly can.

Timmons, meanwhile, fits the mold of the league’s veteran guard, guys who’ve been around the block, and sometimes around the globe, chasing pucks for a living. Boston-area fans likely recognize the name of 37-year-old Billy Tibbetts (Scituate, Mass.), a former NHLer who was the Cape Cod Bluefins player/coach until recently stepping down due to work commitments. Akwesasne features 33-year-old winger Pierre Dagenais, the 47th pick in the 1996 NHL draft.

“I still like playing,” Timmons says. “I just got tired of living in dumpy small towns, bouncing from dumpy town to dumpy town.

“To be honest, I didn’t know there was a hockey team when I moved to New York,” he says. “It just came up a year after I got here. It’s nice; I don’t have to leave New York, and I still get to play. It’s the best of both worlds.”

Of course, not every Federal Hockey League town can boast the same attraction for players as the Aviators, and the Big Apple. But in each market, the teams have been able to find players who fit their demographic. The Cape Cod Bluefins — formerly the Broome County Barons of New York — boast a roster predominantly made up of Massachusetts players.

“We’re a 100 percent American team,” Bluefins owner Mike Nugnes says. “As far as I know, there’s not another professional hockey team in the world that’s 100 percent American.”

The 1000 Islands Privateers, based on the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Canadian border in Alexandria Bay, N.Y., has developed strong ties to nearby Fort Drum, offering military discounts.

“We’re looking for a stable hockey league for the fans,” says the Privateers’ 29-year-old coach, Marc LeFebvre. “There are really good hockey markets here that are untapped, like ourselves here in Alexandria Bay, or Wayne, New Jersey, and different places like that. But there’s enough support here that you ought to be able to sustain a league here for the long term.”

“It also gives guys an option to play closer to home, instead of going overseas. It’s good for the families to come see them,” says LeFebvre, who is originally from Ottawa and played professionally in Europe for six years. “Especially for local guys, who played somewhere else for years and years, this gives them a chance to come back home and play close to their roots.

The Privateers have been one of the league’s shining success stories, drawing on average about 1,000 fans a game.

“Our town is very blue collar, so I think they appreciate the blue-collar mentality of our hockey club,” LeFebvre says. “There are hard-working people in the town, and hard-working people on the ice. It all ties together. That’s really helped this year. We’re very visible in the community.”

In fact, the FHL offers outreach programs, and player accessibility, that NHL fans can only dream about.

“It’s a smaller following, but the people who do follow us are quite loyal,” Timmons says. “We do our best to try and go have a beer with them after the game. It’s not like they can’t get a hold of you if they want to say, ‘Hi!’“

“Some people here have never seen a hockey game,” Trentkowski says. “If we can get them to come to a game, it’s a whole different world for them. From the drop of the puck, they’re on the edge of their seats. When you can form a relationship, especially with the younger kids, they’ll keep coming and coming. They’ll bring their friends, they’ll bring their parents. As long as we’re performing, we’ll be all right.”

As in any sports entertainment market, the challenges can change from locale to locale. In Brooklyn, the Aviators offer professional hockey at a fraction of the cost of a Rangers or Islanders game, but team officials also realize that potential fans have almost countless options for their entertainment dollar. Plus, there are other obstacles that people unfamiliar with the big city might not even think about, like the relative location of the subway to the 2,200-seat Aviator Sports & Events Center.

“Down here in south Brooklyn, a train doesn’t go directly here,” Miller says. “For example, the (Class A baseball) Brooklyn Cyclones sell out almost every game. The train goes directly to their front door. It’s more difficult to get here. So that hurts us, but there’s a lot of foot traffic here.”

Conversely, the Cape Cod Bluefins are trying to galvanize regional support in an area that is known for its feisty border wars between local communities.

“Cape Cod doesn’t have one entity that folks can rally behind, other than our beaches,” says Nugnes, the team’s former coach. “We have the wonderful Cape League baseball, but even that’s segregated between Orleans and Chatham and Hyannis and Cotuit and Falmouth. Most of our sports teams here are town-by-town. Now all of a sudden, we have the Cape Cod Bluefins, and it’s really our only professional franchise down here. It’s something Cape Codders can really rally behind, whether they’re hockey fans or not.”

Nugnes, in many ways, symbolizes the juggling act that minor-league hockey represents for team executives as well.

“I was the coach, one of the owners, and did the laundry,” he says with a laugh. “It’s minor-league hockey. You do what you have to do.”

That also involves balancing costs. The teams, says Miller, have a weekly salary cap of $5,000, which can be pushed to $5,350 with the addition of a player-coach. According the New York Times, team budgets range from $285,000 to $400,000. Clearly, no one is getting rich quick in the Federal Hockey League.

Still, despite the challenges, the people working and playing for the Federal Hockey League teams say it’s well worth the experience.

“I do have fun,” Brooklyn’s Miller says. “It’s all hockey all the time. How could it not be fun?”

And it sure beats getting a real job.

“When the opportunity comes to play professional hockey, to do something you love and make a living at it, play for money, play for fans who pay to see you, it’s quite the honor,” Trentkowski says. “Regardless of what level you’re playing at, it’s fun, and it certainly beats working in a cubicle somewhere.”

This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Brion O’Connor can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com