While everyone is talking about the relocation of the NHL's Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg, Manitoba, there are other very notable hockey stories playing out in North America. The Winnipeg NHL franchise will force the AHL's Manitoba Moose out of town, likely relocating to St. John's, Newfoundland, as the new Winnipeg team's AHL affiliate. That would leave the Vancouver Canucks without an AHL affiliate, and the Chicago Wolves without a NHL partner. The Wolves are expected to name their new NHL partner next week, as they were one of the more attractive AHL markets out there.
That's all NHL related business, though. The business of major junior hockey is a bit different. There is more stability in the junior ranks than the minor professional ranks, but relocation and expansion continues to be a dominant issue every year. This year, the WHL's Chilliwack Bruins were relocated to Victoria, British Columbia's capital. The Victoria Salmon Kings of the ECHL were kicked out of the arena to make room for the WHL team, which shows the difficulty of placing minor professional franchises in Western Canada. The Abbotsford Heat of the AHL are now the only minor pro hockey team in the region, and many don't think they'll last, either. There were rumours of the Manitoba Moose relocating to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, which is my hometown, but the Saskatoon Blades just signed a new three year lease at the Credit Union Centre, and to be quite honest I don't see much of a market for the AHL here. As a fan, I know I'd be less interested in that team than the WHL team, which is a truly local run franchise, where as an affiliated AHL team would be controlled quite a lot by a NHL team located in another province, or even by an American team.
But the most perplexing situation this summer happened in Lewiston, Maine. The local QMJHL team, the only American team in the league, simply folded last week. There are no Lewiston MANIEiacs anymore, and their players, prospects and 2011 draft picks were dispersed amongst the remaining 17 teams in the league on Friday. The QMJHL awarded an expansion franchise to Sherbrooke in 2012-13, rather than move the Lewiston franchise there for next season. The decision was officially made due to the lack of an acceptable arena in Sherbrooke for the coming season, and the inability to finance a franchise in Lewiston beyond this past season. Its an awkward situation, and the actual players, coaches and managers behind the MAINEiacs are truly left behind:
I'm sick to my stomach. It's quite frankly the most sickening thing I've ever seen. It's cruelty on another level to break up this team. In understanding the financials of it, and I respect why it had to be done, but in fairness to the players, why not just find a place for the team to operate for a year, until it goes to Sherbrooke."
- (now former) Lewiston GM Roger Shannon after the dispersal draft was completed
The impact of the team's departure on the growth of hockey in the region probably won't be great. Chris Peters over at the excellent Untied States of Hockey blog recently documented the growth of hockey state by state in the past twenty years, and Maine was viewed as a strong state growth wise, with a lot of options for fans including the AHL and NCAA. It may simply be that Maine (or Lewiston in particular) isn't a junior hockey market, and the lack of rivalries from neighbouring American markets doomed the franchise. The team arrived in Lewiston in 2003, but within five years were already facing relocation rumours, first to the Montreal area, then to Fredricton, New Brunswick, but more recently Summerside, PEI, and even St. John's, Newfoundland.
The QMJHL is now the only Canadian major junior hockey league without a foothold in the United States. This provides a disadvantage in terms of recruitment of American born players compared to the OHL and WHL, which is already hampered due to the prevelance of Francophone communities that have franchises in the league. In response, the QMJHL is taking a very odd stand: they will be requiring all of their teams to draft two American players every year. This move can be seen as aggressive: the league is forcing teams to become more proactive in attracting Americans to play in the league. As Behind the Net points out, only six players were drafted in twelve rounds of the QMJHL draft last year, and this would increase that to thirty-six every year. And the QMJHL release on the matter says that the league will be holding "development camps in Quebec, the Maritimes and the North Eastern United States," though the website release unfortunately misspells the country's name by saying "sates".
The CHL and the NCAA continue to battle for prospects, and this is the QMJHL's new way to lay claim to the Northeastern prospects that are considered their "territory" by the CHL. However, this gives the team's English markets a notable advantage over their French counterparts: an American is more likely to report to Halifax or Saint John than to Baie-Comeau. Whereas in the WHL and OHL, the advantage is given to larger markets like Calgary, Vancouver, or London (as opposed to Sudbury or Prince George), the advantage may be given to the league's newest markets in Atlantic Canada, and the somewhat more Anglo-friendly cities of Montreal and Gatineau. The English-French divide (along with rural-urban) is already hindering the QMJHL with top prospect Nathan MacKinnon of Nova Scotia, who is threatening to go the USHL/NCAA route by not reporting to the Baie-Comeau Drakkar, who picked him first overall this weekend.
For the QMJHL, the options for expansion beyond Quebec are getting smaller. Fredricton and Summerside remain options, though they are fairly small cities with no guarantee of success. The Northeastern Ontario community of Cornwall was had a QMJHL franchise in the past, though I'm not sure if the CHL would permit them to have a QMJHL franchise today. The American options are notably limited due to the presence of Hockey East and ECAC Conference teams in NCAA's Division 1, and with the failure of the St. John's Fog Devils and the return of the AHL to the Newfoundland capital, the biggest potential junior hockey market in the region is off the table. Beyond that, its more Francophone markets or more Montreal area franchises that could see the league reach twenty franchises or beyond: places like Lévis (suburb of Quebec), Laval and Longueil (suburbs of Montreal), or Trois-Rivieres are all populations of over 100,000 without a franchise.
Lewiston MAINEiacs logo via upload.wikimedia.org