If you read RealBadRobot's link list yesterday (you did read it, right?) you would notice that the St. Louis Bandits of the North American Hockey League are ceasing operations for 2012-2013. This is the team that was partly owned by Kelly Chase. Three hundred miles to the northeast, the Chicago Hitmen franchise in lovely Geneva, IL folded permanently. The Midwest Division of the NAHL currently stands at three teams in the Coulee Region Chill, Janesville Jets and Springfield Jr. Blues. In the North Division, the Traverse City North Stars folded as the team's owner brought the Soo Eagles of Sault Ste. Marie, MI, into the NAHL fold. The Texas-riffic South Division fields all seven of the same teams it had last year. In a crazy turn of events in the West Division, the Alaska Avalanche are moving the team part and parcel to Johnstown, PA. The team will be renamed (they were initially listed as the Chiefs). The sole Canadian team, the Dawson Creek Rage of Dawson Creek, BC, folded two weeks ago with only a short message on their website. This leaves the West Division with two teams in Alaska, one in California and one in central Washington. The Central Division retains its five teams, with the Alexandria Blizzard moving from its hockey-saturated town in Minnesota to Brookings, South Dakota.
Sure, you could leave the divisions as is, but that would be a mistake. So, just like last year, we're not here to start no trouble, it's time again to do the Realignment Shuffle!
Let's take the easy division first, the Central. The moves are still in geographical boundaries of a "central division." The division shuffles a little bit west as a Minnesota team moves to South Dakota. The Minot Minotauros and Bismarck Bobcats are both in North Dakota, and now the Aberdeen Wings have a South Dakota rival in the Brookings Blizzard. This leaves the Austin Bruins as the only Minnesota team left. State of Hockey? Yes. And it's hockey that likely sent the former Alexandria Blizzard packing. Minnesota is oversaturated with high school and junior hockey teams vying for the same kids. A move may do the Blizzard some good. No one will leave or be added to this division.
Next easiest is the South Division. There are seven teams, five of which are in Texas. None of the Texas teams averages under 1500 fans per game, and Corpus Christi, (yes, you read it right) one of the southernmost cities in Texas, averaged 3055 fans per game to be second in the league for attendance. The league champions, the Texas Tornado in Frisco, averaged 1834 fans per game. They were second-lowest in the division in attendance. The New Mexico Mustangs averaged 721. The only other non-Texan team in the division, the Topeka Roadrunners, averaged 2129 fans per game. Hockey has a sizable following in Texas thanks to the Dallas Stars. I could see Topeka being sent to the Midwest Division, where they're almost guaranteed a playoff slot.
The first difficult division is the West. Once the Alaska Avalanche leave for Pennsylvania, there will be only four teams left. The Dawson Creek Rage folded at the beginning of May with little notice. Fresno and Wenatchee average over 3000 fans per game, with Fresno topping the attendance chart at 3557 per game. Wenatchee comes in third at 3028. Fairbanks does well thanks to college hockey and gets 2134 a game, while the more remote Kenai River Brown Bears get 731 per game. These teams all have to fly to play each other, and I can only shudder to think what the travel costs are. I don't see any new teams joining them, and if things get worse, they may need to split from the NAHL and join other leagues to keep costs down. Until then, though, no changes.
The next difficult division is the Michigan-centric North Division. They lost a team due to ownership issues, the Traverse City North Stars, when the Stars' owner also bought the Soo Eagles and brought them in from the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League. At 440 people per game, I can see why they might shut down. Then you look at the Kalamazoo Jr. K-Wings' average of 234 fans per game (lowest in the league) and think "really?" The Jamestown Ironmen, formerly the Motor City Metal Jackets and Motor City Machine, seemed to have cleaned up their financial issues and remain intact. The league will also likely add the unnamed Johnstown team once it moves in from Alaska. As far as moving goes, I could see Kalamazoo being added to the Midwest Division. They're not guaranteed any more attendees or any playoff spots, though.
The Midwest Division is heavily reduced from five teams to three. St. Louis is dormant and Chicago has folded. I blame hockey oversaturation in both markets. Like Minnesota, you have a lot of high school teams competing with the junior teams for players, and the high school teams tend to win since the players don't have to travel much. Springfield led the division in attendance with 916 fans per game. (With St. Louis gone now, I encourage everyone to make the drive up to Springfield and help my hometown team break the 1000 per game mark like in previous years. We can make it happen!) St. Louis dwindled away to 527 fans per game, which is no way for a rival team to go. Chicago managed 855 fans per game, not bad for a saturated market, and Janesville came in third with about 758 fans per game. Coulee Region managed 659, but the nearby G. Heileman Brewing Company may have kept people too hung over to attend live hockey games. I see Topeka and Kalamazoo as the most likely teams to move into the division just due to geographical luck of the draw. Topeka is a tough team, every bit the equal of St. Louis. The difference is that Springfield has been able to at least go even with the Roadrunners in most years. Kalamazoo also played the Jr. Blues very tough. I think it'll be a competitive division in that almost all the teams are evenly matched.
The Jr. Blues have a new owner, and I'm a bit worried. The owner also owns the San Jose Jr. Sharks franchise in another league. Even though he's signed a three-year lease to remain at the Nelson Center, I could see him pull the team on its 20th Anniversary in Springfield in 2013 (the longest-running franchise to stay in one town in the entire league) and head to California to have a geographical rivalry with Fresno. Honestly, it'd be like moving the Maple Leafs from Toronto to Portland. As funny as it sounds, that's just not done.
Finally, former Springfield head coach Joe Dibble has moved closer to home (for him) by becoming the new head coach for the Janesville Jets. He kept the team competitive after other head coaches either got fired or bailed after a losing streak. I'll miss seeing him pacing the home bench and giving the referees an earful. Best of luck, Coach.
The NAHL is contracting a bit, which might help in the long run. They may need to do so again. It would help the league in travel and keep the player pool from getting too diluted. I won't sweat too many details, though; I just want a good local hockey team to cheer on to victory.
And if you really really reeeeeeeally need a hockey fix and you're in the central Illinois area, the Jr. Blues are holding a pre-draft tryout camp May 25-27 and the main tryout camp July 16-22. The new owners will also be in town this weekend at Nelson Center at the Springfield Parks Summer Jamboree. Come meet them and convince them that it's a good idea to keep hockey in a non-saturated market like central Illinois.