State of the Federal: Gridlock and the American Midwest

This off-season proves to be a crucial one for the fledgling Federal Hockey League, the world’s craziest minor hockey league.

The FHL heads into the off-season approaching the decade mark of seasons completed and/or crawled to, and consistency in inconsistency continues as the league cannot survive between seasons without the loss of a franchise, this time in the form of the Cornwall Nationals financial failures, discussed ad nauseum. Oh, and I guess it is worth mentioning that North Shore released all players and staff one month ago. We’ll call it two lost franchises.

As I mentioned in my dissection of the fold, this Southern Ontario expansion of Cornwall, and eventual relocation of St. Clair Shores to North Shore (ONT, CA) was part of the FHL’s second-phase expansion, in moving to taking territory in junior hockey monopolized Ontario.

With the utter failure of this phase both on and off the ice (aside from one team’s duality of junior and pro franchises), the FHL finds itself in dire straits.

Their oldest, and most successful franchise on the ice (of all time) is isolated in Northeastern New York, seven-and-a-half hours from the nearest opponent. Even with rumored expansion to Eastern Ohio, their closest foe would be over six hours away. Watertown is solely owned by IDHL, LLC., who claims on their website to be starting a Senior Hockey League for Federal Hockey League player development this October.  Somehow, the IDHL will feature both College Hockey and Professional Hockey scouts, despite the league serving as a feeder to the Federal, which would negate the amateur status of players. Watertown signed a one-year lease with the Watertown Municipal Arena coming into this last season, and has not since re-upped a new agreement, despite winning the Commissioner’s Cup.

Watertown on the ice has been steady in their franchise history, but off the ice is where you wonder if the FHL is starting to strong-hand the franchise towards their geographic position, seeing how the league has been a failure in markets around Watertown (Cornwall, Danbury, Rome, Berkshire – need I go on?). The Wolves averaged numbers south of just 700 fans a game, which is good for about the halfway point of the FHL. This team clearly has handled what needs to be done on the ice, winning two Commissioner’s Cups in franchise history, but due to the off-ice financial side of things, one wonders where the Wolves fit in the future feasibility plans of the FHL.

This past season’s Federal attendance numbers. The bottom two teams have folded – while the third from last team won the league. (ED NOTE: This is from HockeyDB, while the FHL site listed Cornwall as average just over 400 fans a game.)

Meanwhile, the league’s golden child Carolina Thunderbirds, who’ve done things IN ONE SEASON an FHL franchise has never and realistically will never do again, are across the country in a sense from the league itself. Nearly 11.5 hours from Watertown, just under 10 hours from Danville, and should the Eastern Ohio area finalize, they’d be the closest opponent at, yes, seven hours. Call travel two-sided however you want, but this is not a good strategy to keep a league alive or a far away team around. Looking out for you, Alaska Aces fans.

From nearly the beginning of their franchise, everyone and their mother has mentioned the names “Carolina Thunderbirds” and “Southern Professional Hockey League” almost simultaneously. With an average attendance this season over 2200, shattering the previous single-season FHL record, they’re caught in the awful gap between the FHL and SPHL, as they’re too big for the Federal but too small for the Southern. A trend like that tends to escalate in a positive direction, and what that means is that either expansion to The Annex is plausible or possible (unless The Joel creates ice rink plausibility), or that the SPHL extends the olive branch to a town that’s burnt them before to deliver a huge blow against and reward for in doubling down on Winston-Salem, especially with the Thunderbirds keeping their invested brass all in-tact thus far. Another season like ’17-18? Thunderbirds head to the Southern.

A league will typically cater to the most successful teams. Currently though, the most successful teams on the ice and off the ice are being choked by expansion that impedes their growth rather than encourages. This is not all on the league though, as you have to go where you’re welcome.

With rumored league expansion taking place in Traverse City (Northwestern Michigan), Battle Creek (Southwestern Michigan), and possibly Akron/Canton (Northeastern Ohio), third-phase expansion is in full effect – the Midwest. Strong-holding unincorporated territory is obviously a niche of the Federal Hockey League… Hell, it’s technically their business model. The possible problem with this expansion comes in three parts:

  1. Saturated Markets
  2. Location
  3. Geographic Competition
    • THE BAD:
      • Travel to Traverse City can be brutal in the heart of the season. Take that from personal experience. Northern Michigan plus Lake Effect does damage on poor traveling teams.
      • Let’s talk about travel. This isn’t bad comparatively, with BC being three-and-a-half hours away, and Port Huron just over four hours. However, those are your in-state foes being that distance. Danville is over six-and-a-half, and wouldn’t you know it Winston-Salem is 13 hours away one way. 
      • Traverse City is one of my favorite places in the world, and is a wonderful vacation destination in the summer, and still as great in the winter. The people going to Traverse City in the winter though, are not going to an FHL game.
        • The promotion and marketing of this team would have to do a bang-up job. Which is inherent, but the brand of hockey needs to be good in a town that welcomes in the Red Wings for training camp.
      • “Hockeytown North” was home to a USPHL junior hockey team up until this last season, which had to “go dormant” as a result of the “rising costs of operating a junior hockey franchise”. This was a team that had good bouts of success in a cheaper junior hockey league, and still couldn’t make it work. The costs of running professional hockey…are not cheap either.
      • Centre Ice Arena seats 1,800 at capacity seating. Considering that the FHL average is somewhere below 40 percent capacity at most rinks (over 70 percent at The Annex), this gives us an expected average attendance of…maybe 800?
    • THE GOOD:
      • Traverse City is more than obviously a hockey town. Two great high school teams, Detroit Red Wings training camp, and a slew of players from the area playing hockey all around the state.
      • Local talent can be kept in house, and partnerships with local sports teams would provide a steady influx of fans.
      • If it came to it, there are plenty of arenas in the area where scheduling home games would not be excruciating if West Rink at Centre ICE was unavailable.
      • Professional Sports work in the long bay town. The Traverse City Beach Bums are on a similar level of talent in terms of professional status, but in the baseball realm. Despite rumored poor ownership, the team still finds fans and consistency.


    • THE BAD:
      • Battle Creek is 15 minutes away from Kalamazoo on a bad day. The Kalamazoo Wings, while being one of the worst teams in the ECHL in terms of attendance at a meager 2725 average this past season, still control that corridor as the premier minor league hockey team.
      • While I hate to bring up an unfortunate situation, it is necessary to say: the FHL hosted an exhibition neutral-site game at The Rink in Battle Creek last year between St. Clair Shores (relocated) and Berlin (folded), which brought in an attendance just under the North Shore average (143).
        • Granted, this hastily promoted, prepared, and funded event was put together by one person on the day of a snowstorm with a major local hockey tournament in action, excuses cannot be made in a league like this.
      • Anyone in the area knows this one: The Rink essentially refused to support Battle Creek’s NA3HL team, the West Michigan Wolves, and nearly forced their relocation to Dimondale in the Greater Lansing area.
        • Professional Hockey, even at the Federal level, is a whole different animal than Tier III junior hockey.
    • THE GOOD:
      • Of any rumored expansion, this geographically makes the most sense. Halfway between Danville and Port Huron, opens up Indiana and parts of Ohio for expansion.
        • Looking at you, Dayton fans.
      • The Rink has new ownership since the departure and eviction of the West Michigan Wolves, and this new group has been guaranteed by multiple sources of mine close to the league to be all-in and serious about making hockey a staple of the Battle Creek community, and will support them financially and otherwise.
      • No matter how you look at it, Western Michigan will always be a hockey hot bed. Battle Creek would most likely have cheaper ticket options than Kalamazoo, and if upgrades can be made to The Rink, it could have potential as a rink.


    • THE BAD:
      • Area. Not necessarily beneficial to Port Huron or Danville, still nearly seven hours from Watertown.
      • Market. Cleveland (AHL) and Youngstown (USHL) are hardly an hour away, Wooster (NA3HL) is hardly a stone’s throw away.
      • Good, not great rinks in the area. A few ACHA rinks (Akron, Kent State) but nothing that will improve the league standard.
    • THE GOOD:
      • This one’s hard for me. Area isn’t necessarily good for league, geographically, currently. However, it does open the rest of Ohio up, and recreates a pipeline towards Pennsylvania.
      • Being close to college towns is never a bad thing, and opens plenty of doors for possibility of college nights and teaming up with ACHA teams for promotion.
      • A LOT of people in the local area. Canton/Cuyahoga/Kent/Akron is a hotbed population area, and could be a decent ticket if promoted properly.

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room, the third problem, the Southern Pro.

Peoria and Evansville are the SPHL’s seeds in the Northern Midwest, with a possible Quad City expansion driving the Southern past both the reaches of the eastern and western most points of the Federal. The FHL doesn’t have much room to work with South of Illinois or frankly anywhere around Winston-Salem. The Thunderbirds cannot be afforded a playmate in their neighborhood, and the Southern is making sure to keep their grip on that, especially with looking to move into Illinois/Iowa territory.  The SPHL recognizes that while somehow playing the same game as the FHL, they’re playing men to boys in terms of league-maintenance, fan-responsiveness, and outlook. Every time the FHL zigs, the SPHL zags three ways to Sunday, and calls check.

One of these things, apparently, just doesn’t belong here.

If we can blame the SPHL for Carolina’s lack of local team geography, then we only have the FHL to blame for Watertown’s isolation in the Northeast Region. The FHL is headquartered out of Syracuse, minutes from Watertown, but any state east of or city within seems to be a death wish. Granted, I understand that the league is not necessarily praised for its retention, however it seems as though the FHL realizes that it has to go west, young man! or else it’ll continue to bleed franchises.

So, where does this leave Carolina and Watertown?

Trying to predict the future in the Federal Hockey League is nearly impossible. Teams come and go every year, as a trademark of the league itself. This would be one of the largest single off-season expansions in recent memory of the Federal, and certainly has massive implications more than just on the future of the league, but brings up the next question: what happens if these expansions stick?

The way I see it, the FHL is forcing the move towards hockey rich, more-proven markets. They’ve accepted the Carolina Thunderbirds are too big to support at their level for anything longer than now. Within five years, there will not be an FHL team in Winston-Salem, but there will be professional hockey.

As for the Watertown Wolves, they’ve stuck around for almost every year in a league that doesn’t have teams last longer than three years typically. Watertown’s current direction of changed ownership, low attendance, and travel continuously moving farther from them does not speak positively for the franchise’s future.

The Federal League’s fate and future seems intertwined with the Rust Belt, and I don’t think anything has ever been more fitting.



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