Folks, after a wild ride that saw one team fold and an expansion team set an attendance record that will probably never be broken, the 2017-18 Federal Hockey League season came to and end last night with the Watertown Wolves holding off the Port Huron Prowlers in a 4-3 thriller to take the Commissioner’s Cup, three games to one, to become the first team in FHL history to win multiple championships.
From the start of the year the Wolves and Prowlers were the top two teams, and it looked like the Prowlers might have an upper hand in the championship round after rolling to a 5-0 win in Game 1. But the Wolves showed their resiliency over the next three games, eeking out a 3-2 win in Game 2, in Port Huron, to steal home-ice advantage.
From there the Wolves turned up the offense, picking up a wild 7-4 win in Game 3 to put them on the brink, then erased a 2-1 deficit in the clinching Game 4 before holding on for a 4-3 win and the title.
Forward Gavin Yates was rightly named Playoff MVP, racking up 10 points in six playoff games, tied for most in the league, and racking up a whopping 6 goals in that span, two of which were short-handed, two of which were game-winners, and posting a playoff-best +8 rating.
Goalie Cody Karpinski was also instrumental in the title run, picking up all five wins in net, posting a 2.67 GAA and impressive .931 Sv%.
But now that the actual on-ice entertainment is done until the fall, the FHL heads into silly season, and in a league where a dozen or so teams have folded over its history, it is sure to be another wild off-season of rumors and speculation. Let’s run-down some of what we have to look forward to.
Expansion, Expansion, Expansion
It’s no secret that the FHL wants and needs to expand after the Cornwall Nationals folded in the middle of the season, leaving the league currently at five teams. Scott Brand of the Carolina Thunderbirds said the league is eyeing up to three markets for next season, which would bring the league to 8 teams if all of that is true.
It’s hush-hush, and I can’t name names, but I have it on good authority that two of the teams for next season will be Michigan-based, one it a town that rhymes with Schmattle Schmeek, and another that rhymes with Schmaverse Schmity. If that’s the case, you have five teams (Port Huron, Danville, North Shore (more on them later), Expansion 1, and Expansion 2) in the midwest all near each other, which kind of leaves Watertown and Carolina way out of the league’s geographic footprint.
The question is that third expansion team, where all has been quiet about rumored cities. (UPDATE: Inside sources tell me it could potentially be a team in the Canton, Ohio region) If they add a third team, and say North Shore, who played this season as basically a traveling team, and both end up out east, then you are looking at an 8-team league with East and West divisions. Something like a West of Port Huron, Danville, Expansion 1, Expansion 2, and an East of Watertown, North Shore (relocated), Carolina, and Expansion 3.
But again, that is a LOT of speculation after the rumored expansion teams in Michigan.
Which brings us to our next point…
What’s the deal with North Shore?
It was not a good season for the Knights, to put it mildly. They only played a handful of home games, which were uhhh…sparsely attended to say the least. But from what I have heard they are the most profitable team in the league for a couple of reasons.
Will the team find a permanent home, or are they one of the rumored expansion teams, which would then put the league at 7 if the other two are added. As we discussed earlier, maybe the find a home more out east to give Watertown a travel partner. It’s a bit of a wild card, but something that could have an impact on a couple of teams, and the FHL as a whole going forward.
Does Carolina stay in the FHL?
All signs point to yes right now, with the team even selling season tickets for next season already. Scott Brand said in the linked to interview above that Carolina was in the FHL at the moment, but things can always change.
This is where other leagues come into play. The rumor mill has the SPHL looking hard at the Quad Cities (Moline, IL) after the Mallards of the ECHL folded shop. But that would bring the SPHL to 11 teams, and nobody wants a weekend where one team has to sit out. Carolina seems like a natural fit for the SPHL, and would give them 12 teams, but there are rumors that the owners of the Thunderbirds wouldn’t be welcome in the SPHL. Not to mention their current rink doesn’t meet SPHL standards (minimum 4,000 seats, Carolina’s holds roughly 3,000.
Truthfully, it’s a bit weird that Carolina is in the FHL. They average over 2,000 fans a night, and for the other teams that get half of that (or less), it must be a HUGE burden to have to travel all that way and play them 10-ish times a year.
If I had a guess, the ‘Birds are in the FHL for 2018-19, and if things stay strong attendance-wise, then they try to find a way to move over to the SPHL for 2019-20.
But we will see! We have at least five months before the FHL takes the ice again, and the off-season is sure to keep us entertained this year!