NAHL Exclusive: This is 40
July 31, 2015
Entering its 40th anniversary season, the NAHL may be at the peak of its existence. That is thanks in large part to the recent run of success the League of Opportunity has had when it comes to NCAA commitments, NHL Draft picks, fan attendance, team stability and NAHL event success.
When people remember the North American Hockey League (NAHL) in 30, 40, 50 years, there is little doubt that today’s current era will be remembered as one of the Golden Ages in the league’s history. Looking back on the 39 previous seasons, there are three eras that standout as the ‘Golden Years,’ which shaped NAHL history for the better.
After starting out as a five-team league in 1975-76, the league worked hard to find its place in the hockey spectrum the first 10 years. Three of those seasons featured just three teams in the league. However, by the mid-1990's, the NAHL blossomed into two divisions with 10 clubs across the Upper Midwest.
During this time, the NAHL, led by the rise of the Compuware Ambassadors, emerged as a junior powerhouse and entered its first Golden Era. Compuware won eight of 10 NAHL titles from 1986 to 1995 along with several National Championships, which were still being contested between the NAHL and USHL back then. Compuware closed out the millennium by taking league crowns in 1998 and 1999 and saw dozens of players drafted into the NAHL.
The 1990’s also saw the inclusion of the United States National Team Development Program into the league as a full time member, which would continue for a dozen years. The NAHL also took the bold step of taking Junior ‘A’ hockey south of the Mason Dixon line with the emergence of the Texas Tornado in 1999 as the first team of its kind in the Southern United States, which continues to be a hot bed for junior hockey to this day.
The 2003 merger with the American West Hockey League turned into a watershed moment and marked the second ‘Golden Age’ in league history as the NAHL grew from 11 teams to 21 while becoming the largest junior circuit of its kind in the country. The move reshaped the league into what would become four geographical divisions spanning five time zones. Also during this time, the NAHL Showcase was born, which would become junior hockey’s signature event that continues to this day. Around this time, the NAHL saw itself transformed into more of a fan-driven league with markets that included bigger arenas that could accommodate more and more fans.
The third ‘Golden Age’ in league history is what the NAHL has experienced the past few seasons, which includes the present day. For the second year in a row, the NAHL set a new league record for NCAA commitments in a season. This past year, it was 225 NCAA commitments made by NAHL players, which set a new league record and eclipsed the mark set in 2013-14. In the last two seasons, over 440 NAHL players have made NCAA commitments, which is a remarkable number.
The numbers again don’t lie. No other league in North America saw as many commitments for their players, while they were actually playing in the league, and the NAHL finished second only to the United States Hockey League in total NCAA commitments for 2014-15.
In July of 2015, the NAHL was ranked and honored as the #1 Junior ‘A’ Hockey league by The Junior Hockey News. Being the only USA Hockey Tier II junior league in the United States, the NAHL was compared in the study, which surveyed 52 independent scouts, with all the Canadian Junior 'A' leagues, which operate under a similar, but in some cases not the same, model as the NAHL.
“I think without a doubt we are in the middle of prosperous time in NAHL history. When it comes to players entering the league without a commitment, but earn one while they are playing in the league, I think we are the best at what we do,” said NAHL Commissioner Mark Frankenfeld. “Because of the commitment of our owners and talented group of coaches, players enter the league knowing that playing in the NAHL is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and statistics show that the majority of them will end up with an NCAA opportunity. The NAHL provides that opportunity and that place for players to develop, grow and mature so that they may become better hockey players and better people.”
Frankenfeld continued… “I think the competition on the ice is extremely good and entertaining. We consistently receive feedback from NHL and NCAA scouts that the product on the ice is one of the best there is and thanks to our events that begin with NAHL Showcase, and continue with the Top Prospects Tournament and Robertson Cup Championship, we are able to provide multiple settings for our players to constantly prove what they can do.”
“Finally we have a great and dedicated group of fans, partners, volunteers and mostly importantly, players. Without them, this league would not be where it is today and it is one of the major reasons we continue to grow and get better each season,” said Frankenfeld.
Inside the Numbers
• 225 NCAA commitments in 2014-15
• 164 NCAA Division I commitments (73%), 61 NCAA Division III commitments (27%)
• 201 of the 225 were active in the NAHL this past season, 24 were NAHL alumni
• 7 players with NAHL ties selected in 2015 NHL Draft
• 11 players on initial 2015 NHL Central Scouting List
• 446 NCAA commitments from 2013-15
• Over 650 NAHL alumni playing in the NCAA in 2014-15
Fairbanks Ice Dogs General Manager, Rob Proffitt, is a person who can speak upon the growth and development of the NAHL, particularly in the last 12 years. Proffitt is a four-time NAHL General Manager of the Year and was coaching the Ice Dogs when they entered the NAHL back during the 2003-04 season. This past season, 14 players from the Ice Dogs made NCAA commitments and Fairbanks has managed to win two of the last five Robertson Cup titles.
“I think the success and prosperity the league has had in recent years is something that is going to continue and get even better. I think the NAHL has a tremendous respect level that starts at the top in the NHL and continues down throughout the NCAA,” said Proffitt. “I think it something that has existed for a while now, but in recent years the league and its teams have taken it to a whole new level because of the way our teams operate and our coaches. Look at how many of our former coaches are having success at the higher levels of hockey, leading all the way to the NHL. It is an incredible number and these are the guys teaching our players on a daily basis and having a direct influence on their development.”
Proffitt said that one of the other big reasons for the recent success are events like the NAHL Showcase. “The NAHL Showcase is an event that is on an entirely different level than anything else you can compare it to. In a short amount of time, we have gone from diving from the edge of the pool to a 10-meter platform. The league keeps outdoing itself and making the event bigger and better and most importantly, anyone who comes to the event feels like it is a world-class experience and treated that way.”
Proffitt has also seen a shift in the NHL landscape thanks to the impact that the NCAA is having in hockey, which is a direct result in the model the NAHL thrives on. “There has been a shift in the hockey world a new respect for players that develop and come from the NCAA. More NCAA players are being drafted into the NHL, more NCAA players are signing free agent contracts and more NCAA coaches are getting opportunities at higher levels. Because the NAHL has had such an impact on placing players in the NCAA, it is all intertwined. It has snowballed into a legitimate path from the NAHL to the NCAA to the NHL. It is a very real option for anyone coming into our league and the numbers back it up. I think when we look back on it, we are finally seeing the results of the hard work that has gone into making the NAHL and better, safer and more opportunistic place to play.”
Another team that experienced great success in regards to their NCAA commitments this past season was the Wichita Falls Wildcats. Head Coach John LaFontaine has put the Wildcats back on the map as a perennial league power and their commitment numbers are some of the best in the league. Moreover, LaFontaine is also in the unique position to compare NAHL eras as he was with the Bozeman Icedogs when they joined the league in 2003 and now is trying to leave his imprint on the Wildcats in his second stint as a head coach in the NAHL.
“I think we are at one of the high points in league history. The amazing part is, back in the early 2000’s when I was with Bozeman and we entered the NAHL, you saw very few guys that committed early in their careers or were told to play in the league by their future NCAA team (During the 2003-04 season, the NAHL had roughly 110 NCAA commitments). Now, the NAHL is a great destination for a kid who may have already committed, or who is going to prove himself right from the very start of his junior career. Most importantly, the players want to come and play and develop in the NAHL and that is huge. I think now, every NAHL team commits dozens players every year, whereas in the past it was the same couple of organizations with a few random guys sprinkled in. Back when I first started in the NAHL, you were really working the phones to get a kid to come play, but now everyone from players, coaches, parents and scouts are all calling us,” said LaFontaine.
“I think there is a noticeable difference in the skill and speed that the game is played at right now and that the players possess. I also think that everyone is very evenly skilled, which puts development at the forefront. You don’t see a whole bunch of high or low end players, but you see the majority who are right in the middle and that gives them the opportunity during their NAHL career to really set themselves apart and it gives for great balance and parity in the league,” continued LaFontaine.
LaFontaine said that one of the recent trends he enjoys seeing is players committing to a wide variety of schools, while also placing an emphasis and priority on academics. “We are also see a trend of players committing to a wide variety of NCAA schools, including those that are at the top of the list every season both on the ice and in the classroom. We are seeing a shift in the type of hockey player that is most valuable to the NCAA-bound athlete. Junior hockey used to have a culture that was more physical where fighting was a bigger part of the game. Now, with the emphasis that the NAHL and USA Hockey has placed on skill and player development, along with some of our ground-breaking initiatives on player safety, that mentality is gone and there is no room for a player on a 23-man roster that just brings one thing to the table. You have to have players that not only are going to be good and develop on the ice, but also make their academics a priority and meet the standards and requirements to play in the NCAA. It is a mix of older and younger players, which is one of the great and unique things about the structure of the NAHL,” said LaFontaine.
Bismarck Bobcats Owner and Governor Thom Brigl has owned and operated the Bobcats since 2001, which extends beyond the Bobcats era in the NAHL. The Bobcats have had tremendous success in the league, which extends both on the ice and in the community. Bismarck won the Robertson Cup in 2010 and consistently fills their arena at capacity during almost every home game.
“Our growth and development as a league into what you see today is attributed to several different things, but the quality of play really stands out to me. The quality and speed of play has grown leaps and bounds since the NAHL merged with the AWHL in 2003 when I first was exposed to the NAHL,” said Brigl. “To be able to identify and attract the best hockey players and then get them to come play in the league, armed with the knowledge that statistics tell them that the opportunity exists for something greater exists on the hockey ladder by playing in the league, is a very powerful message and tool the NAHL has.”
“Another thing that stands out about today’s product, and more specifically from an ownership perspective, is the entertainment value that we provide has gone up dramatically and also may be at an all-time high. We are breaking new attendance records each season and our ownership groups that make up the league are very solid. We work very hard to ensure our fans have a great time at our games and are engaged. We want them to identify with our players and realize that the players are just a big a part of the community as our fans are. We want them to have a great time from the pre-game to post-game and endearing our team’s to our communities is a message that is shared by all the NAHL owners,” said Brigl.
Brigl continued… “Finally, I think Mark Frankenfeld and his staff has done a great job in promoting the league and reinforcing our message and mission. Not only have prospective and current players taken notice, but so have the NHL and NCAA scouts. One of the consistent things I hear as an owner is the professionalism that surrounds the league events and how they are very effective in showcasing the talent in our league. We are constantly trying to grow, adapt and get better at what we do,” said Brigl.