By John Tranchina, Rubber Magazine
With no less than five of its 28 franchises based in Texas, the vast presence of the North American Hockey League (NAHL), the United States’ only Tier II Junior A league, in the nation’s largest state is a testament to how far the sport has progressed.
That Texas hosts more NAHL clubs than any other state marks a dramatic increase from a low of one (Wichita Falls Wildcats) just four seasons ago in 2008-09, when the four-time Robertson Cup champion Texas Tornado suspended operations to allow for the renovation of the Dr Pepper StarCenter in Frisco. Since then, the Tornado returned, switched ownership and gained new rivals with expansion teams in Amarillo (Bulls), Corpus Christi (IceRays) and Odessa (Jackalopes).
Each of the three newest Texas squads resides in cities that previously housed Central Hockey League (CHL) clubs that were forced to cease operations. Now, showcasing the NAHL’s exciting brand of junior hockey, they are all thriving, with each of the five Texas clubs ranking among the league’s top nine in attendance.
“In all of those cases, they were basically markets that became available and they were interested in the North American Hockey League model and it seems to be paying off for them,” noted NAHL commissioner Mark Frankenfeld, whose league headquarters are based in Frisco. “Our strategy, in general, is you want to have good partners and close divisional rivalries. That’s our strategy in Michigan or wherever you’re considering expanding, but in Texas, there was no strategy there, just the change of the times with the economy and ownership changes. It’s really more of a natural progression of the model and a benefit to our league. Had we not had existing partners in Texas and Wichita Falls, that probably would not have evolved.”
Having built-in rivalries with the other Texas teams has been a major factor in each of the new teams’ successes, both as far as keeping travel costs down and in having familiar opponents for their fans to root against.
“Most definitely it’s good for us because if it wasn’t for those teams, we couldn’t be in this league,” acknowledged Pat Dunn, general manager of the second-year IceRays. “Already, we have to go to New Mexico and Topeka and we have 14, 15-hour bus rides. That’s far enough. I’d hate to see if they were our closest rivals, so definitely it’s a plus. And there are other teams that were in the Central Hockey League at one point, so for the fans, there’s that familiarity.”
The transition from professional hockey to high-level juniors has progressed smoothly for each of the three newcomers, both at the ticket window and within the community. “We’re in our second year, but we had been in pro hockey for 13 years and it was rough,” remarked Dunn, who also spent several years working for the CHL incarnation of the IceRays. “We enjoyed it and really liked the product, but it was just time to move on. We went to the NAHL and have been very happy and our fans have embraced it. We had to educate the fans on what the product was, but after they got to witness it themselves, they’re really excited about it and enjoying the quality of play.”
One other positive each of the three newer NAHL cities have experienced is more of a commitment by the clubs to serving the community. With teenage players between the ages 16 and 20, there are more eager participants to giving back to the communities, and that higher visibility in turn helps attract more kids to the local youth hockey programs.
“They’re a big reason why we’re doing as well as we are this year,” stated Amarillo Hockey Association, Inc., (AHAI) president Kenneth Creamer, whose organization maintains a strong connection with the NAHL’s Bulls. “They’re in the community and they’re promoting youth hockey a lot more than we used to get with the pro team. These guys are not getting paid, it’s not their job, so they’re doing everything they can to be involved in the community and to grow hockey in our area.”
With the tremendous escalation of the game at the grassroots level in Texas over the last decade-plus, more and more locally-produced players are ending up on NAHL rosters and that serves as further inspiration for the kids in those youth programs.
“Any time you read a program and you see half the team is from Plano or from Flower Mound or Dallas, it just excites everybody and makes them think, ‘Hey, we could be that guy,’” Dunn said. “So the younger kids believe in it and now they’re thinking they could be the next guy playing here, that you don’t have to have ice in your backyard to become a hockey player. Kids down here in the South are really good athletes and are getting into hockey.”
Austin Sutter, who serves as the Amarillo youth program’s ice coordinator while doubling as business development manager for the Bulls, illuminates how profoundly the relationship can be mutually beneficial. “The bigger the youth hockey program grows, the more revenue we can bring in for the NAHL team and vice versa,” said Sutter, who played four-plus seasons for the former Amarillo Gorillas in the CHL before retiring in 2010 to get into youth coaching. “The Bulls understand the value of that partnership and so does youth hockey. When the Bulls fans come to games, they can see that we offer quite a program here for kids that want to play and try the game. We do work hand-in-hand.”
“Everywhere, the youth programs grow when you have a junior team there,” Frankenfeld said. “That situation is good for everybody, with more people playing hockey.”