FOLKS! It’s been a while since I posted here a HOTSPROTSTAKES and a bunch has happened since that time. I’ve been dating the same girl for 15 months, moved in with her, moved across the country from Montana to Texas and started a new job that doesn’t involve me covering sports.
The job not covering sports is what brings me here, mainly as a way to keep my skills there fresh while also just wanting to share my observations on hockey here in Texas and the league they have here in Amarillo, the North American Hockey League (NAHL).
For those who don’t know, the NAHL is the only USA Hockey sanctioned Tier II hockey league in the United States, making it the second best junior league (ages 16-20) in the country, trailing only the Tier I United States Hockey League in the junior hockey hierarchy in the United States.
The first thing you notice about hockey in Texas is how weird it is to attend a hockey game in October and still have temperatures in the 90s. Half the people walking into the game are in shorts and t-shirts, or carrying their jerseys because it’s too damn hot to wear it around town.
But the big thing I really wanted to share was my opinion on the caliber of play in the NAHL, and the pair of games I saw this weekend, both Lone Star Brahmas at Amarillo Bulls, was two teams who were tied for or in first place entering the weekend, so this was, I feel, a good barometer for the league as a whole.
I would also like to qualify my comments by saying that I lived in a town with a USHL team, and for two years covered so-called Tier II team in the Western States Hockey League, so yeah, I’ve been around junior hockey quite a bit in the last 5-7 years or so.
The first thing I noticed about the change from the WSHL to the NAHL was the size of the players. Granted, the team I covered in the WSHL was terrible both years I was there and therefore didn’t have much in the way of size or talent, but both Amarillo and Lone Star had some big guys. But those guys could also move and had pretty good hands, so they weren’t just out there to take up space and throw fists. The NAHL, like the USHL, is full of guys who will play D1 college hockey, and not guys who are just playing hockey because they want to hit someone, somewhere.
To give you an idea of the talent, Amarillo was dead last in the previous season and still had three players sign D1 letters of intent, as well as a handful more who signed with D2 or D3 schools.
In my two years covering the WSHL, the local team had maybe a handful of players who signed to play D3 or ACHA. Players in the WSHL just were not going to play D1 hockey, or if they were, there weren’t many of them that I knew of.
The second thing I quickly noticed was, while all the players are talented, there isn’t as much depth in talent as the USHL, particularly at forward. Each team’s top two lines were very talented, but beyond that it was older, slower guys or young players still getting a feel for the NAHL game. The goalies for both teams were very good all weekend, but that’s to be expected when there’s only 30-some goalie spots available in the USHL, forcing some of that talent down to the NAHL.
The NAHL game also seemed a half-step slower than the USHL, but much faster than the WSHL, and that was despite the 90-plus degree temps outside which, in my observation, made for some less than ideal ice for the weekend series.
The final thing that set the NAHL apart from the WSHL and in some areas makes it every bit as legit as the USHL is the rinks. Amarillo has a very nice 5,000 seat arena with plenty of leg room in the seats, good sight lines, replay boards, and plenty of giveaways and fan interaction events to keep you entertained between whistles.
The only downer, and apparently in Texas it’s that way until football season ends, was the crowd for the two games I attended was non-existent. The two nights combined couldn’t have been more than 1,200 people, despite the team announcing more than 3,200 for those two games.
Hopefully that gets better as the season goes on and once football ends, but it is very odd to sit in a 5,000 seat arena with only 600-700 people there.