Eastern Expansion in the USHL? Hold Your Horses

It’s been a bit of an interesting off-ice week for the United States Hockey League, the nation’s only Tier I Junior league. On Tuesday, the Maine Hockey Group and Firland Management announced intentions to pursue a USHL expansion franchise for Lewiston, Maine, to open play as early as 2013-14. Just a day later, the New England Hockey Journal reported that the soon to be renamed New England Huskies will move to Merrimack College’s home rink with hopes to be in the USHL by 2013-14 as well.

This news going public now is no mistake. The bug has been planted now that there are efforts from some ownership groups to attract USHL East. As great as it sounds on the surface, expanding the league’s footprint into new markets, fans and administrators should proceed with caution.

There has been talk of USHL Eastern expansion for a long time, but it always seems to peter out. What makes these two cases a little more interesting is that it seems there are some wheels in motion.

Ron Cain of Maine Hockey Group expressed the following in his remarks:

“The intent is that, we’ve talked extensively about the USHL, and we anticipate this to be the home of that USHL team,” Ron Cain said. “That’s still probably a season or two away. For the interim, Brian has committed to six or seven games, and we’re intent on taking the EJHL team up here for four, maybe five games, so you have a package of about 10 out of here next season, and give that level some exposure as well.”

Here’s what USHL Commissioner Skip Prince had to say about Lewiston’s announcement to Nathan Fournier of Maine Hockey Journal:

“We’ve been doing our due diligence nationally how to see what circumstances the USHL should expand,” Prince added. “They are good hockey people and they run a good organization. The 2013-‘14 target date could be reached for a team in Lewiston, but that’s the very earliest a team would come in. I have only done first level due diligence on the demographics and markets. I have been to the Lewiston arena, but it has been a number of years. I know there have been some renovations since I’ve last been there.”

Prince doesn’t rule out Lewiston and even makes it sound possible for a USHL team to work there, but is it really that realistic?

If you’re unaware, Lewiston was home to a QMJHL franchise from 2003 to 2011. Despite a 2007 QMJHL title, the MAINEiacs (yep) never really seemed to gain a foothold in the community, at least not enough from keeping them from going under.

The MAINEiacs (I’m serious) were always in the lower-half of attendance in the QMJHL, dropping below an average of 2,000 fans-per-game in its final two seasons. Those attendance numbers would be fair in the USHL, if travel expenses weren’t going to be astronomical.

Prince admitted to Fournier that if the USHL were to go east, the league would require multiple teams to join and would have to consider becoming an airplane league.

I spoke to several Junior hockey scouts and most agree that the current player pool from which the USHL pulls, could not support widespread expansion. The term “watered down” got mentioned in each of my conversations.

Additionally, the idea of the USHL turning into an airplane league at any point sounds preposterous (not saying that Prince was saying this was a real possibility). Junior hockey does have a model that allows for teams to profit. It’s not a stretch to believe airplane travel would significantly alter that model and would put a lot of strain on earning revenue.

The USHL hasn’t signed off on anything, but is at least listening to the possibilities and doing its due diligence.

In an email, USHL spokesman Brian Weger said,  “With any market that falls outside of the current USHL footprint, we recognize the need for more than one team in that region in order to strongly consider expansion. As you can imagine, there are certain economics that come into play when looking at single markets outside of the footprint.

“This league is taking a very smart approach about expansion as a number of things have to fall into place before the USHL accepts expansion opportunities, such as quality ownership, building, supportive market, staff, etc.”

So, let’s not take Lewiston joining the league by 2013 as gospel just yet, but as Werger said, it would require more than one team to consider Eastern expansion. Enter the New England Huskies.

The Huskies are soon to be renamed the Middlesex Islanders, which play out of Tyngsboro, Mass. It sounds as though the Islanders will play as part of the EJHL next year, but have plans to move into Merrimack’s facility as a USHL expansion franchise by 2013-14.

While that seems like a long shot, the addition of Sean Tremblay as head coach of the newly branded team has people talking out East. Tremblay has been the head coach of the New Hampshire Monarchs, one of the top organizations in the EJHL, for the last decade. That he’s moved to a new team came as a surprise to some close to the EJ.

A source I spoke with just prior to the New England Hockey Journal report coming out informed me that “the talk” was that Tremblay’s move was born out of the opportunity to coach the Islanders in the USHL.

Lewiston’s announcement would carry very little weight without multiple teams expressing interest in being part of USHL expansion. So the Middlesex Islanders create that little bit of an extra stir.

This is still in the very early stages and still seems like a bit of a pipe dream at the present, but these movements are to be monitored closely.

The one thing that needs to be kept in mind is that Junior hockey’s popularity in the East is minimal at best, from a fan standpoint. Most EJHL teams often play to half-empty and many times empty community rinks. Thirteen of the league’s 14 teams are reporting an average attendance of less than 600-per-game. The Capital District Selects are reporting an average attendance of 11 (not a typo).

The EJHL is a pay-to-play league. The players have to make the teams, but also pay what amounts to a significant tuition to cover team costs. The EJHL is not a league in which revenue is generated through attendance. If it were, it wouldn’t survive.

One former EJHL coach told me he thinks a USHL team in the Boston area could be a disaster financially.

The USHL, as a Tier I league, forbids pay-to-play. It is an advertising- and attendance-driven league. Going into a market as saturated as the Boston area, with NHL, AHL, NCAA and Prep teams already eating up a majority of the hockey attention doesn’t seem like the best idea. It would be difficult to attract an audience and if Middlesex has plans on sharing a rink with Merrimack, likely would not be able to generate much, if any, ad revenue.

These are just a few reasons it would be wise to temper excitement. While it would be great to have a league with a more national footprint, it is at this point, unrealistic.

The USHL’s model as it is currently, with a fairly tight region in smaller, less saturated markets, works. It works from a business standpoint and more importantly works from a player development standpoint.

Widespread expansion will water down what has become a really competitive league. Every business should have a desire to improve and expand, and the USHL certainly has those goals in mind. That said, expansion to the East may not be the best answer.

The last note on Eastern expansion: we’ve heard plenty about the aspects of the business side of things, but how much have we heard about player development? Not very much, if at all.

Businesses have to make money. Everyone knows that. However, the aim of Junior hockey and the reason it exists at all is to provide great development opportunities for players. It is all about preparation for college hockey and potential pro careers. While Junior hockey is also a business, it has to stay true to the player development standards that have allowed it to grow and improve over the last decade.

More teams won’t necessarily mean better development. The current player pool allows for a high level of competition. It might be a bit restrictive, but that’s why tiered development avenues exist. Every player will have an opportunity to compete and develop at the level he is best suited for.

As the U.S. develops more players younger, there will be a time where the pool can support widespread expansion and a more national footprint, but right now, it just doesn’t feel quite right.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
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