Archive for May 2013

On Hockey Expansion

May 21, 2013

My sincerest apologies for the lack of posts here lately.  All the blogging gurus advise types like me to make frequent entries, but I’ve hardly done that.  In my defense, I’ve just been too distracted with a huge mixed bag of very necessary projects and a number of absolutely fruitless ones.  At least a good many of the latter are likely to prove interesting fodder for posting sometime down the road.

With that, here’s a subject that’s been woven through a lot of what I’ve been involved in over the past year.  And, as I so often promise my Diary readers, there should be something in here for both hockey and non-hockey folks alike…

This whole thing resurfaced innocently enough last night.  I’d run across a LinkedIn post announcing tryouts for a low minor professional hockey league, and I thought I’d help spread the word.  I retweet and share often, ya know, attempting to do the kinds of favors I wish others might do for me.  (Well, I can dream, can’t I?)

With that, I blasted the league’s announcement to about 13,000 social media friends.  Never did I imagine the response I’d get, most of it negative.

As an aside here, I’m thankful that most negative replies are somewhat respectful.  (Only during political discussions do I receive personal insults.  But, that’s yet another topic for another time.)

Those responses came in open forums — like in Facebook comments, but the more sensitive, better thought out stuff came by way of private messages.  In each case, I tried to explain that I had no dog in this fight.  In other words, while I did want to let deserving players know about the tryout opportunity, I wasn’t necessarily endorsing the league that offered those tryouts.  More specifically, here’s how I feel…

Minor pro hockeyA new league, despite its shortcomings, offers close to a couple of hundred playing positions that wouldn’t otherwise be there.  So, take your pick:  Bury the league and lose those slots, or pray the league survives so those spots remain.  That’s an easy one for me, because I always side with giving more players a chance (see my free Junior Hockey Scouting Service).

And, while the above should make plenty of sense to my readers, what they might not consider is that each franchise in a new league also brings with it a myriad of opportunities for others.  I mean, at the risk of missing a good many other jobs, every team is going to need a general manager, a coach and an assistant or two, some scouts, a secretary, a publicist, a marketer, a social media manager, and perhaps a trainer.  Sure, some of those jobs might be combined and performed by one person, but still…

While I’m on this subject, let me say that I’ve heard the same kinds of negative rumblings concerning expansion within the Junior hockey ranks (Junior hockey is basically for amateur players between the ages of 16- and 20-years old).  Some might say that the level of play is being “watered down” with added teams.  In other words, the Negative Nellies are evidently suggesting that to go beyond some magic number of teams will allow players to skate without really deserving it.  And for this, I have a different perspective that goes for both the Junior and minor pro levels…

For, no matter the level, no one can tell me that the best people in the world have already been selected for the top jobs.  In other words, there are most likely some geniuses out there who just need a chance to show what they can do — in roles as GMs, coaches, front office workers, wherever.  And in some instances, they just need the chance to try and fail, try and fail, then try and finally succeed.  Having interviewed for several GM/coaching positions in the original East Coast Hockey League — at one time the lowest of minor pro leagues, and having thus followed that level for a good many years, I know of a number of guys who made their way all the way from there to the National Hockey League.

I have slightly similar feelings when it comes to giving more players a chance…  You see, athletes develop at different paces.  Those with children should appreciate this, probably having seen both early and late bloomers.  The tough part about any sport is that each has its own rather arbitrary deadlines — with hockey players usually needing to be ready to show their wares for the NHL draft by a certain birthday, and to show that they’re deserving of a college scholarship by another birthday.  The lower minor leagues offer a chance to those who  didn’t meet such deadlines, or for players who may have played college hockey in relative obscurity.  And, while some might be thinking that I’m only talking about physical maturity here, let me tell you that I am not.  Just as surely, the light comes on a little later in life for some athletes.  And so does a burning desire to achieve sometimes suddenly overtake a guy in his young twenties.  So, to just discount any of those I’ve just described seems a sin, at least to me.

Now, as for those complaints leveled against that low minor pro league, let me say that I believe many of the negatives I’ve heard to this point.  The league has its problems, for sure, with far too many of them being aired in public.  I said earlier, though, that I followed the ECHL startup — as well as some others, and I can tell you that most leagues go through some of the same — often embarrassing — problems.  Chalk it up to their infancy.  (This was later confirmed in a Facebook comment by a long time minor pro player who had been involved in both the ECHL’s startup and the new league in question.  He, too, suggested that the ECHL, now a premier pro league, initially had plenty of similar problems.)

If I could advise that new pro league, it would be to consider some things I’ve gathered from a number of experiences…

I’m chuckling to myself as I type this segment, because I’m thinking I’m not exactly what most casual observers would believe.  Yes, I surely do speak out at times, when I think it’s the right thing to do.  More often, however, I’m a pretty quiet observer, sitting back and making mental notes about things that a good many others would miss.

This was especially taking place as I watched the Tropical Elite (Junior) Hockey League crumble around me last summer.  Frankly, I thought I could have maybe salvaged that thing, but…

If there’s one quality I felt the TEHL had going for itself, it’s that the league was supposedly founded on something similar to what Aristotle said a kzillion years ago, in that, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”  (Actually, I’ll give Chuck Harrison credit for resurrecting that line of thinking as he attempted to put together another pro league awhile back.  I’ll also at least give the TEHL’s commissioner credit for borrowing Mr Harrison’s business plan.  Whether the commissioner followed it with conviction or not is yet another matter.)

Junior hockey actionThe TEHL’s application of that principle meant that we — all league members — would put the league first.  That had special meaning for me in my capacity as a GM/coach, in that everyone was supposed to be willing to help with the league’s main goal of getting as many players to colleges as possible.  Sure, we coaches would try to beat hell out of each other on game nights.  However, we’d also help kids on other teams if we had the college or pro contacts opposing coaches didn’t.  Seem right to you?  It surely did to me.

A few months ago, I had some negotiations concerning the commissioner’s position with a northern area Junior league.  Actually, they didn’t yet have one, and they were just exploring the possibilities.  Of course, my proposal included a number of ideas and suggestions, but its cornerstone was that “… whole is greater…” concept.  In a nutshell, I suggested to league owners that it didn’t help for any one of them to have a strong team if other members were dropping like flies.

Why did they table a decision on hiring their first league commissioner?  My guess is that it was two fold, with a possible third reason…

For sure, money had to play a part.  Oh, I can’t blame a new group for being careful about taking on added expenses.  It’s not an easy thing to fund a Junior team and to keep it in the black.  One will never know, on the other hand, if a strong central office might have ultimately paid for itself in the long run.  Just the chance to deal with vendors and other outsiders as a group may have made up for the commissioner’s salary.

Giving up control to a central office — or officer — may have also frightened some.  In simple terms, though, I tend to liken that to whether or not a community chooses to have a police department or not.  I mean, some might think it fun that they can drive as fast and as crazily as they want — until, however, someone in their family is seriously injured by a reckless driver.  Of course, what I’m getting at is that a few league owners may have liked doing as they wished without much oversight; but they may have failed to realize how many times they’ll need someone watching their backs and keeping law and order.

A Part B to that last paragraph might be that the current owners want to keep the job in-house.  Hmmmmmm…  I’d say that would be okay if the new commissioner has no ties to an existing organization.  On the other hand, I sense that at least the perception of bias is always going to be in question under such circumstances.

Yet another hot topic within any new league is expansion.  😀  Want to see a group salivate?  Just get the members thinking about raking in money from new teams willing to pay their way into the league.

I’m not speaking against league expansion here, but I am suggesting that it has to be done very carefully and methodically.  My long time friend, Richard Neil Graham, penned a history of Roller Hockey International in his book, “Wheelers, Dealers, Pucks & Bucks“.  And Rich will tell you within those pages how expansion greed ultimately killed a league that otherwise had everything going for it.

Beyond the obvious — that a new team has to be financially able to endure over the long haul, I happen to think that placement of such teams is super-important.  Of course, some new cities may sound sexy.  On the other hand, adding teams outside an existing league footprint can cost big time — in travel expenses, overnight lodging for an entire team, etc.

Personally, I feel that the nearness of teams can build some great rivalries, as seen in most pro sports.  So are fans more apt to follow their favorite team to away games.

Okay, so maybe I have or maybe I haven’t gone off track here.  I don’t think I have, because all of these things matter in the big picture, when it comes to any new league.

To my social media friends who bashed that new pro league in my stream, I only ask that they lighten their tone a little, consider that every new league goes through some growing pains, while also considering that new teams provide great opportunities for countless players, coaches and support staff.  A new league also offers an entry level spot for those with their hearts set on yet loftier goals.

Finally, to that new league…  I’ll suggest that a window of grace is fast closing.  Most within hockey will accept some bumps in the road, but the critics aren’t going to wait forever.  My guess is that every league member knows what’s needed to get their collective acts together.  There’s nothing to it but to do.  I think hockey needs you.