Friday, January 30, 2015

Minor League Hockey, and whatnot.

Big news from the AHL this morning.  It's an interesting move that's been rumored for a while on all the messageboards I'll wander through once a week or so.  It'll be interesting to see how it all shakes out, especially down in the Southern Professional Hockey League, the league I take interest in, as we wander up to eight or ten Knoxville Ice Bears games a year.

The SPHL finds itself with an opportunity to grow, as well, and I'd be surprised if they didn't pick up on the overtures to other similar level teams to look to expand a bit more.  In the opportunity to grow, they've found themselves having to evolve the way the league plays hockey.

A lot of teams in the league still rely on an enforcer-heavy, near-outlaw style hockey.  Lotta rough and tumble action, and the teams rely on that as a pillar of their sales pitch.  You don't get to see fighting in the other major sports like baseball or football, anymore.  And, though it pains me to say it, hockey is still not a natural for a lot of the folks paying to buy tickets in this neck of the woods.

This is not to say that there isn't a tremendous level of knowledgeable fans in every market the SPHL operates in.  There absolutely is, in every town, but you'd have a hard time convincing me that a lot of kids in Knoxville, Tennessee, or Tunica, Mississippi, or Columbus, Georgia, grew up playing and following ice hockey.  Some, maybe, but I'd say it's a long fifth behind soccer, baseball, basketball and football in those necks of the woods and others in the league.  The biggest part of your potential fanbase still needs to be sold on some of the extracurricular action, in the form of a fight or two.  Knoxville actually had it's Guaranteed Fight Night last Friday (a guarantee shoddily fulfilled, by the way...there were a couple of scrums behind the net that resulted in a roughing penalty on each side, but nobody got five for fighting...)

Back to the point.  The problem it finds itself with?  There are teams that play a faster, scoring oriented style of hockey, focusing on fundamentals and growing players.  Teams like Pensacola and Peoria lean on that heavily.  It's paid off for them in one respect--Pensacola is the defending league champion this year, and Peoria found itself near the top of the standings this and last year.  But that's not without perils, since higher level teams, mostly in the ECHL,  maintain rights to some players within the league, and sign others, if their needs so demand.  If you have a high performing player, there's a very good chance you won't keep them a whole season.  Pensacola, Peoria and Knoxville have all been hit hard by that this year.  Peoria and Knoxville have fought through--those two have traded first place a few times this year.  Pensacola, you might argue, has suffered, as the defending champs are in a three-way tie for fourth, they they only find themselves six points behind first place Knoxville.

And two of the teams that lean most heavily on that enforcer-style hockey, Fayetteville and Huntsville?  They inhabit the last two spots in the ranking.

I should mention something here.  Behind Fayetteville and Huntsville, Knoxville is perhaps the next most enforcer heavy team in the league.  Names like Corey Fulton, Brad Pawlowski and David Segal bring a lot of weight around the league.  They've added another name, lately.  Long time enforcer David Segal played his last game a couple of weeks ago (something I was sorry to miss, to be honest).  Knoxville traded for journeyman Dennis Sicard, which is a move I had trouble swallowing:  more on that in a second.  Segal still brought a lot of hockey talent to the ice, and his leadership was evident from the minute he stepped onto the floor.  Still, he was there mostly to protect the shooters.  He knew that, and it was a position he took strongly.  He stated that he likely wouldn't ask for a trade, as his family is rooted in Knoxville, now.  It wouldn't surprise me to see Segal put on the suit and act as a coach soon.

Sicard was a tough pill to swallow.  I've been watching Knoxville for six or seven seasons, now.  Knoxville is the eighth team in the league for Sicard (including three teams no longer playing in the league:  Richmond, Bloomington and Augusta).   I've rooted against Sicard for a while.  I feel like he instigates fights that don't need to be fought, that he gets penalized stupidly, and too much.  Still, it was interesting to watch him on our side of the ice, last week.  He's like a cannonball out there.  We'll see how he shakes out.

Another thought:  I'm not against fighting.  I'm not against the Enforcer.  I think the Enforcer still plays a valuable role.  Yeah, there should probably be less fighting in hockey.  But there shouldn't be no fighting in hockey.  It's a physical game, and sometimes, you need to be able to push back.  There should be a balance.  And at risk of sounding like a homer, Knoxville seems to have a decent balance...they're in first place, even with a roster a bit heavy with muscle....

Anyway.  I've rambled.

We tried to hit the game last night, but got a late start, and were made even later by a wreck that stopped us on the interstate in a place where we couldn't get off to head up the highway.   Since we wouldn't have gotten there until near the end of the first period, we opted instead for Indian food and a trip to the bookstore.  The Ice Bears won, to take first place.

One last addendum to my hockey post.  If you're a hockey fan, NHL or any other league, and you don't follow Dave Eminian on Twitter, you should.  Probably the most outspoken journalist covering an SPHL team (one of the few with a dedicated beat...I know Pensacola gets good coverage, but everybody else, even Knoxville, is somewhere between average and "Huh?  We got a hockey team?")  Eminian is a little bit of a homer for Peoria, but beyond that gives a lot of good commentary on the state of hockey in the some places, it is not good, and if the league is going to grow, those needs should be addressed.  Some teams do just stage games, with little outreach to fans, journalists--seemingly running their hockey club as a hobby, instead of any kind of labor of love.  He is also rightfully critical of SPHL officiating, which can be atrocious...I've seen SPHL officials look right at penalties, and ignore them, which makes you wonder if it's just ignorance of the rules, or some other vendetta being carried.  I've long said an SPHL official is going to get somebody seriously hurt.  Anyway.  Eminian's a good read just for the state of minor league hockey on our end, and I recommend his columns and his Twitter.....


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