Professional hockey had been played in Flint, Mich., for all but two of the past 40 years in one league or another.
Starting this fall, the city will become home to the North American Hockey League (NAHL) as the Michigan Warriors get set to play at Perani Arena.
And ever since the team’s arrival was announced in the spring, Warriors head coach and general manager Moe Mantha, also part of the team’s ownership group, has been busy selling the community on the NAHL brand.
“We fully intend to keep the respect and tradition of hockey in Flint alive and to get the fans accustomed to the junior game,” he said. “Changing the culture of the game in a city like this will take time. I think the fans just need to give the younger guys a chance and they’ll be surprised.
“Look at the (International Hockey League’s) Flint Generals team that played here last season; they had three guys that played in the NAHL. Then you look at the (NHL’s Detroit) Red Wings and they had a couple guys that played here, too. Everyone had to start somewhere and the NAHL is definitely a great place to develop.”
This spring when Mantha and co-owners Pat McEachern and Bob Bryant purchased the Marquette Rangers organization and moved the team downstate, the Flint locale was one of several the group surveyed, but in the end, the only one that fit.
“We did look at other areas, but Flint made the most sense because it’s so centrally located,” said Mantha. “You’re an hour from Detroit, two hours from Grand Rapids and a couple hours from the northern cities like Gaylord.
“The other part that made sense for us to come to Flint is the arena and its capacity to hold 4,000 fans. That will make for some good entertainment on a nightly basis. They’ve already started the renovations on the arena and when people get in there this fall, it’s going to have the look and feel of a new arena.”
One aspect of the team that won’t be new, per se, come this fall will be Mantha. A 12-year veteran of the NHL, Mantha also coached in the ECHL, American Hockey League (AHL) and with the U.S. National Team Development Program for four seasons. He also played in three World Championships and one Winter Olympics for Team USA.
Needless to say, Mantha is well connected within the hockey community. He plans to use his vast knowledge of the game to give the NAHL even more muscle within mid-Michigan.
“We’re going to go out into the community and educate people on the league,” Mantha said. “This isn’t a league that’s been around two years; this is a league that’s been around 30-plus years. It has a history and it’s long been a steppingstone for many, many players to move up to the next level.
“In the Michigan market, the people here are very familiar with the league. The league started here and now we have four teams here (the Port Huron Fighting Falcons, Traverse City North Stars and Motor City Metal Jackets, in addition to the Warriors). When Compuware had a team in the league, they were always at or near the top each season.
“Kids that play in this league are the up-and-coming stars of college and pro hockey,” Mantha added. “They’re motivated to get to the highest level they possibly can. They might make mistakes, but they’ll make mistakes for the right reasons. There’ll be scouts in the stands every night and that in itself is pretty good motivation, knowing college recruiters and NHL scouts will be watching you on a nightly basis.”
With the new Port Huron organization starting this fall, a geographic rivalry with the Warriors should provide a lot of excitement for fans of the NAHL.
When Flint and Port Huron had teams in the same minor pro league, many of those games were always worth watching. Mantha is confident that same level of intensity will exist in the NAHL version of the rivalry.
“I think in due time, the rivalry will develop,” said Mantha. “I think it’s only a matter of time that will happen and, when it does, the fans will get in tune with it, too. Fans on both sides should bring that competitive spirit. Right now, it’s a cat-and-mouse game where neither one of the teams knows what it has. Once the season starts, we’ll know more.”
At the end of last season - a season in which the Rangers won the North Division title - 17 players were eligible to return this year and many expressed an interest of making the move to Flint.
“At our first camp, we had one returning goalie, six returning defensemen and eight returning forwards,” noted Mantha. “As the spring and summer went on, a lot of these guys had opportunities with other junior leagues. At one of our most recent camps, we had just two returning D, six forwards and no goalie. All that means is that we need to continue developing these kids. The door is now open for others to come in and take advantage of the opportunity.
“We should have a pretty solid base to work with. We’ll be a team that plays hard, is very competitive and competes every shift. That much I can tell you will be for certain.”