“About this weekend’s games, sorry to say this but the team does not have the finances needed to make the trip.” A league commissioner had to tell the coach of the home team. “You will need to pay for all their expenses if you still want the games.”
That nightmarish situation was one team’s sad reality back in November.
The first question I had is simple; why the league chose to force the home team to help when the league should have had a deposit (or bond) for situations just like this.
The Western States Hockey League’s West Sound Admirals, Steamboat Wranglers, and Meadow Lake Mustangs have all folded up shop and there could be more. Commissioner Ron White was candid about that situation in a phone conversation yesterday. “It happens. Kids want to play but not go to practice. They show up one day then disappear. Getting them to pay can also be a challenge.”
I have had extensive conversations with a few of these teams about what it takes to be competitive at the pay-to-play level of competition. Those discussions also included the reality of the market. Teams can charge $12,000 a season all they want, but good luck getting it. Operators can set the price at any amount they like, but the market is what it is. When the supply of roster spots is so much greater than the number of players available, the price line is going to take a nosedive. The going rate for a skater was $5,000 or less by the end of September.
Regardless of the rate, it’s all but impossible to competitive without a line of higher caliber players that are getting a free-ride. Very few operators will admit it happens, but we all know what’s going on.
So what’s the trick, what can leagues to do to elevate operational standards?
Requiring a bond, or cash deposit, that can cover operational costs for an entire season is a first step. The argument against such a financial guarantee is fact that most operators simply don’t have the financial strength to do it.
And there’s the problem.
If any team’s ability to operate is entirely dependent on the player fees, maybe that group should not be putting a team on the ice. Is it not highly irresponsible for any league to allow such a practice in the first place? How can any league allow an entity to collect thousands of dollars from the players and family, without any promise that the team can fulfill their end of the deal?
What’s the cure?
Absolute contraction. League’s can create a greater demand for their product by raising the operational standards to a point where lesser operators fall by the wayside. Let’s be frank here, the number of USA Hockey pay-to-play teams should not exceed the number of free-to-play teams. Maybe the creation of a AAA level 18U league, that operates in the same style as a junior league, would be the better answer than what we are dealing with now.
The North American Hockey League has the unique ability to force the change and doing so would be in the best interest of the game and brand. If the league replaced the NAPHL 18U division with 13U before cutting the NA3HL into a 30-team group, they could form a geographically tight juvenile league with the same number of teams. The juvenile group should play a junior type of schedule to give those prospects the opportunity to transition into the junior game with confidence.
If each NAHL team was able to protect 60 players spread over three rosters, the result would be an elevated developmental experience that could change the culture of the game. In a perfect world, the NAHL operator would own all three teams. Maybe that can’t happen all at once, but it should be something they work towards to.
Maintaining minimum standards has to be the rule, not the exception. There are entirely too many teams that are cutting corners and not because they want to, its because they have to. Yes, it takes real money to own a team, at any level of the game. Those that can’t afford to do things the right way at this level should find another level where they can.