If there is one sport out there that might be able to rival minor league indoor football in terms of crazy stories of players, teams, and leagues just up and moving at the drop of a hat, it’s junior hockey.
For the uninitiated, junior hockey is for players ages 16 to 20, who are hoping to catch the eye of pro and college scouts. Outside of the big ones like the QMJHL, OHL, WHL, USHL, NAHL and a couple in Canada I can’t recall, there are probably just as many alphabet soup leagues that exist solely so some poor kid’s parents will plunk down a few thousand dollars so their little future superstar will get seen by scouts.
Now each of those leagues will vary in its legitimacy in every factor, from the quality of teams to how the league itself is actually run.
One such league is the Western States Hockey League, which is exclusively for cities west of the Mississippi River, and claims to be a Tier II league, essentially, a league for players who aren’t quite ready for the bigger junior leagues, or may not have gotten scouted because they played overseas.
The WSHL has been around for more than two decades, so it’s fairly legit, especially considering they are not affiliated or recognized by USA Hockey, but rather, the AAU.
But not being with USA Hockey makes them a bit of an outlaw league, and as such, they sometimes run into teams who probably never should have gotten off the ground in the first place, and constantly see teams fold, move, pop-up, or just quit randomly.
Thursday afternoon the league had its annual meeting and announced that four teams would be leaving the 27-team league, two of which everyone knew were already coming because they stopped playing mid-season.
The league also announced that at least one team would be added in the Pacific Northwest, likely to replace Butte, and get the league up to 26 teams.
The four teams are the Vail Powderhounds, the Colorado Evolution, the Tulsa Oilers, and the Butte Cobras.
Colorado, I’ll be honest, I don’t ever remember them existing and I covered the league for two seasons.
The last two are a bit surprising and odd.
Tulsa had been in the league for five years, and had typically been one of the better markets for the WSHL, which struggled to land in larger markets and typically settled for smaller towns.
The last one makes me sad.
The Butte Cobras lasted three seasons, two of which I was there for when I lived in Montana and covered them. They were absolutely terrible the first two years, as in, they may have been in a Tier II league, but they were absolutely not a Tier II-caliber team.
Regardless of how bad the team was, they were well-supported in the stands, despite playing in a rink that was barely fit to house a beer league team, let alone one that claims it is in the business of sending players to the next level.
Then this season, magic happened and the team went 32-18-2, played its first home playoff series in team history, and even made a run to the Divisional Final round of the playoffs, one step from playing for the championship.
Then the season ended and two days later, the owners of the team said they were giving the team up, “donating” it to the city and letting them decide the team’s fate.
Even crazier, they donated all the team’s mascots, player gear, game-day computers and supplies, audio, video and special-effect lighting, team buses and $300,000 in improvements made to the Butte Community Ice Center.
And the city apparently decided to up and fold the team.
Now, their may be hope for hockey fans in Butte, as the league said the team would not be returning to the WSHL in the fall, which could mean the city is eyeing a return to the NA3HL, which has six other teams in Montana. In the WSHL, Butte’s closest game was roughly an 8-hour drive there.
This is all to say, if you have a child who has aspirations of playing hockey at a high level, be careful where you send them, because that team might not exist next season, or even make it through one season.