The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

February 1, 2012

Mike Mastovich | Where does hockey fit in War Memorial future?

With Nailers on the selling block, there may be no games in 2012-13

Mike Mastovich

JOHNSTOWN — The Federal Hockey League wants in.

The Wheeling Nailers might be out.

The North American Hockey League just might be interested though nothing is official.

The United States Hockey League, not so much.

Exactly what is the future of hockey at Cambria County War Memorial Arena for next season and beyond?

Actually, if all the pieces fall the wrong way, there’s a chance that neither professional nor junior hockey will be played in the city in 2012-13.

‘Best for the community’

“We’ve had some phone calls from interested parties, from multiple people, professional and juniors,” War Memorial General Manager Mike Silva of SMG said prior to the Nailers’ game at the arena on Sunday night. “I’ve asked each of them to give us a proposal. SMG and the War Memorial Authority will evaluate each proposal for what’s best for the community, what’s the best level of hockey play, what’s the best product to offer to the community but also what’s the best financial model for the building.

“We have to find a viable product that can support the building. Ultimately it’s not about the team. It’s about the community and keeping our doors open.”

Hockey and the Cambria County War Memorial Arena have a long, often storied history dating to the venerable building’s opening in 1950.

In the two years since the Johnstown Chiefs bolted for Greenville, S.C., after 22 ECHL seasons here, the arena teamed with the Wheeling Nailers. The ECHL team played a hybrid schedule with 10 of its home dates in Johnstown each season. But the Nailers are for sale. If no local owner steps forward by March, current owners Jim and Rob Brooks have said the team will go dark in 2012-13.

Even should a local owner surface and keep the team in Wheeling, there is no guarantee the owner would continue to share home games with Johnstown. In fact, that scenario probably is unlikely.

Recently speculation about potential War Memorial tenants began to surface again in the days and weeks since Wheeling hung the “For Sale” sign.

Federal League

For the second time in two years, the Federal League expressed interest in the Johnstown market. In its second season, the Federal League must overcome stigmas that challenge most newer leagues.

“The Federal League is interesting,” Silva said. “The press they’ve had in the two years has been so-so. They’ve had growing pains like any new league would. With everything there’s a risk.”

The Federal League has eight teams, mostly in small Northeast arenas with limited seating capacity. The league is trying to move into larger markets or at least markets with larger arenas.

Franchises are: 1,000 Island Privateers, Alexandria Bay, N.Y., 3,200-seat arena; Akwesane Warriors, St. Regis, Quebec, 2,510-seat arena; Brooklyn Aviators, 2,000-seat arena; Cape Cod Bluefins, Hyannis, Mass, 2,250-seat arena; Danbury, Conn., Whalers, 2,212-seat arena; Danville, Ill., Dashers, 2,350-seat arena; and New Jersey Outlaws, Wayne, N.J., 1,850-seat arena.

The Delaware Federals are operated by the league after the new franchise named the Vermont Wild dropped out in December, creating scheduling problems and negative publicity for the FHL.

“I think the fit for Johnstown is minor pro where you can go in there with the budgets we have and put in a decent level of hockey,” said FHL Vice Chairman Andy Richards. “If you look at the rosters we have and look at the pedigree of some of the players currently playing, I think the perspective of a fan who’s never seen one of our games might be different than what it currently might be.”

The Federal League is independent but Richards said the league has had some success moving players up the developmental pipeline. The ECHL is a Class AA level league affiliated with AHL and NHL teams, so the talent level would be significantly higher, though the operating costs in the FHL are lower, enabling teams to have lower ticket prices.

When asked if the Federal League had made a proposal to Silva at the War Memorial, Richards said:

“Our league as a league is not going to send anything in. We have two members who were interested in securing Johnstown for their home venue. Those two members are going to be dealing directly. One sent an e-mail (Monday) and the other group is going to send one mid-week. They both want to see if there is an opportunity to get in there.

“They are both existing league members,” he continued. “One wants to relocate. The other wants a second team. Both would be worthy. Both have the financial wherewithal to run a first-class operation there.

“We told them both to go for it. Whoever comes back with the lease has the deal.”

North American Hockey League

The NAHL is a 28-team Tier II Junior A League with one division geographically near Johnstown. There are North Division teams in Jamestown, N.Y., and Michigan squads in Kalamazoo, Port Huron, Flint and Traverse City.

Other divisions have teams in Texas, New Mexico, California and Alaska.

“Johnstown is a market that is of interest because it does fit the footprint of the North American Hockey league but to this point (Commissioner Mark Frankenfeld) has had no one reach out to him in regards to a franchise opportunity there,” Alex Kyrias, Director of Communications for the NAHL, said on Monday. “The way the North American Hockey League works, that’s a key ingredient. The league does not put teams in by itself. It requires an ownership group. Obviously with the history it’s an intriguing market. With the team in Jamestown, N.Y., and the four teams in Michigan, it would fit into the footprint.”

Silva has spent a significant amount of time researching the junior leagues and business models.

“Even if we started a junior league team, who knows if the people would come out for them?” Silva said. “We’re just really trying to find the best financial model, the best product.

“The only Tier I is the USHL, but the farthest East they exist is Youngstown (Ohio),” Silva added. “It might be a stretch trying to come a little farther East. The North American Hockey League is the only Tier II league. They’ve got teams in New York and Michigan and there might be an opportunity there to form a bridge. That’s going to depend on the ownership and whether they can field a team.”

The example might be like comparing apples to oranges, but Silva remembered a previous attempt to put a lower level junior team in the region.

“We went through this once before with the Continental Junior Hockey,” he said. “We gave them ice in the Ebensburg facility. We said, ‘Listen, start your team and you can play down here in the big house once you grow.’ They couldn’t even field a team. I think they got a few players but no goalie. We’re really afraid of that happening.

“I don’t want to make this major announcement and then see it fizzle. We want to make sure everything is in place. It’s the end of January,” he said Sunday. “I don’t know if it can happen.”

It’s worth noting that the pedigree of the NAHL and USHL is much more distinguished than the low-level junior team that failed in Johnstown a few years ago.

United States Hockey League

The USHL is the only Tier I Junior A League operating entirely in the United States. The league adheres to NCAA eligibility standards, which allows its players to continue on to college hockey before potentially moving on to professional careers. The teams mostly are in central and midwestern states.

USHL Commissioner Ellis “Skip” Prince said the Johnstown market might be intriguing but talk of an imminent move to the city by an USHL team is unfounded.

“It’s a rumor that’s circulating. I did get a call from Mr. Mike Silva and returned the call but we actually have not connected,” Prince said on Monday. “We don’t have immediate plans. We had actually talked to the folks who are the owners of Wheeling for different circumstances a couple years ago. At this point I suggest that it’s nothing but rumors. We understand those markets. We have some of what I’d characterize as ‘not current’ demographics. We know those are good hockey markets.

“We have considered Eastern expansion very carefully,” he added. “We’re approaching it with caution for a number of reasons. Hockey in the East is vying with a lot of college hockey as well as the AHL, ECHL and the NHL itself. The markets we’re in haven’t had to compete for the most part in that range. The other concern is travel. It’s a Midwest league. We’ve been working on what an Eastern Conference or an Eastern template might look like. We believe we’re not really there yet.”

Prince said when the USHL moved into Youngstown, Ohio, the team had to win over fans accustomed to the professional game.

“It took a couple years for Youngstown to overcome that ‘What is high school hockey doing coming to our town?’ approach by bloggers and such,” Prince said of a misperception that junior and high school hockey are the same level. “We recognize the challenge where professional hockey has been. We want to let folks know this is a very special brand of hockey. It takes some work.”

Johnstown might one day be a fit for junior hockey, Prince said.

“I know that there is a baseline of hockey there, and going forward we would love to be able to explore the market a little more carefully to see whether it could sustain a USHL economy,” Prince said. “Half of our players haven’t generally graduated from school. A lot of things have to go right. You can’t try it out for a year or two and try the next place. We want to be more stable than that. It’s important to get into markets where we’d have a stable, long-term tenant.”

Financial obstacles

The War Memorial’s Silva is thinking along the same lines. The financial obstacles are present throughout professional hockey. For more than a decade, the Chiefs dealt with annual rumors that “this will be the final season,” borrowing a page out of “Slap Shot.”

“The Chiefs are a great example. The aftermaths of the Chiefs are a great example,” Silva said.

“The Chiefs sold tickets. They had a loyal fan base. But they exhausted nearly every possible source of corporate advertising in town, and they still couldn’t make enough money to run under the ECHL collective bargaining and the (ECHL) business model. And it’s not just the Chiefs. The ECHL, the AHL are just as bad.

“There are other professional leagues out there that have better business models but the ones that are out there right now are new. They don’t have truly proven track records. That’s something to take into account. We don’t want to make a deal with a team and then have to start the process over again because they fold. We’re looking for the strength of the product and the strength of the league.”

If a match isn’t soon found, the arena might have to rely on local hockey, concerts, football, bull riding and other events to fill seats.

“It’s a hockey building,” Silva said. “There’s no doubt about that. We want to keep hockey in the building but it’s got to be a good fit for everyone. I’m not just going to take the first offer and say, ‘Look, I provided hockey.’”