Man, a real shame. It’s a bit old at this point, but the Quad City Mallards – a team that jumped around a few leagues before finding “stability” in the ECHL – folded earlier this season.
Making the jump from the fringe International Hockey League, to the Central Hockey League – that I still forget lasted until the year I graduated High School – that contains teams of SPHL and ECHL mending, and finally into affiliated territory of the ECHL, Quad City had a team and fans through it all, but ultimately it was the common killer of fringe-minor league teams that got to them…finances and lack of outstanding community awareness, despite their best efforts.
That’s not what the story is though.
In this quaint little…four city area(?) between Illinois and Iowa draws the interest of what could prove to be the battle of two niche area hockey programs:
- The highly-touted United States Hockey League, the lone Tier I junior hockey program in the USA and feeder of…every single NCAA Hockey team, realistically. This is one of the world’s most respected developmental junior leagues, drawing comparisons in some eyes to that of Canada’s Junior “A”/Tier 1 league of the Canadian Hockey League(s).
- The USHL doesn’t escape out of the Midwest, with the eastern-most team in Ohio and western-most team(s) in Nebraska. Quad City is in PRIME expansion territory, with realistically six teams near them. While the USHL is junior (amateur) hockey, the players are anything but, and attendance and fanbases for these teams are legitimate. Seeing tomorrow’s stars is more than an intriguing draw, and the hockey is good.
- The surprisingly-legitimate underdog minor league Southern Professional Hockey League, which just might be able to truly finalize hockey’s answer to a baseball-equivalent “Single-A” minor league. With their player talent that has found their way up to the ECHL and the AHL, the SPHL isn’t going anywhere. They’ve hit a curious hockey-hotbed market and are operating in a respectable, lasting way.
- Here’s why the SPHL is in the discussion: Peoria (IL) and Evansville (IN). They have a hitch right in the eastern-quarters of USHL territory, and would be the more professional hockey style that ECHL carryover fans would be used to.
So, what does this mean.
We are put into the development of what could be a HUMONGOUS decision by the Quad City team.
It’s not uncommon for a team to replace the loss of a professional team with a junior team to keep hockey in the area, for cheaper, and still have that legitimacy.
- When IHL counterpart Flint lost the Generals, they picked up the NAHL’s – albeit, woebegone – Michigan Warriors, and eventually the OHL’s Flint Firebirds.
- CHL pals Corpus Christi Ice Rays lost their professional tag and became NAHL supporters, where they STILL remain.
- In a weird twist, the Bloomington Blaze went from CHL, to SPHL, and founded a USHL team in the Bloomington Thunder (that my cousin played on) before rebranding as the Central Illinois Flying Aces.
- Had to relate this one. The Amarillo Gorillas went from the CHL down to the NAHL, where they still enjoy success and even the dulcet tones of Hot Sprots Takes founder Papa @rovitz7.
The USHL has more than legitimacy, and especially for an area like the Quad Cities, this would be an absolute dynamite grab for the league. However, if the SPHL can scoop up and snag a team right from the fangs of USA Hockey’s pride and joy, you could see a stronghold be applied from the South.
The SPHL has been around for a while now, and they’re on the brink of becoming a legitimate and cannot be ignored developer and feeder of professional hockey talent. Stealing a team from the ECHL and bringing it into the Southern Professional adds an extra layer to the argument for the league, and shows that the product and league itself is respected by those looking to keep the highest quality hockey in the area.
However, the Southern Professional Hockey League, reportedly, is playing this one close to the chest. The league and commissioner have expressed interest in having the team join, but a soft-close date of May 15th has been thrown around as the time needed for an all-new ownership group to make a final decision in order to play in the league next season.
One can imagine the USHL understands this and is willing to and hungry to throw in a later, counter-offer. Fan-opinion is split between the two leagues, and honestly this is a dynamite grab for either league.
If you’re the USHL, you continue to grow your product with an 18th team right in the heart of the Midwest that would immediately have geographical rivals and history, as well as a beautiful arena and fans.
From the SPHL side, this is your focus. Stealing this one right along the Great Lakes Coast in the Midwest legitimizes your league and immediately benefits your brand. You’ve got yourself right in the heart of where your brand needs to be going to continue growing southward. Quad City is the right market size for this league, and fits much better than QC did in the ECHL. This would put an 11th team in the SPHL, and for a league that still operates independently of any affiliation or outside support besides what it does for itself, that’s impressive.
Watch this one closely if you’re a fan of hockey at the minor and junior levels, because this could have some potential to cause some rumbles.
And who knows, the Carolina Thunderbirds teased a major announcement for April 11th, maybe the old Winston-Salem Fairgrounds Annex will get a 900 seat upgrade and the SPHL will bring them aboard. Har har.
(Credit to the Quad City Times and Our Quad Cities for initial coverage of some storylines borrowed in this piece)