With everyone getting excited about the ECHL and what it could do for the 30/30/30 role for the NHL and AHL, the teams that really are getting shafted by this whole ordeal could be the so-called “Single A” minor league teams that are out there. Namely, the amazingly stable Southern Professional Hockey League and the so-so stable Federal Hockey League. These are two league which are somewhat polar opposite in terms of how they operate and what they’ve been able to keep around in terms of teams, but overall– they’re as important to the minor league hockey landscape as their higher-ups.
These leagues are important because they’ll provide the ECHL with much needed bodies to fill in for the call-ups to the AHL. Granted, that could prove to be a huge jump in talent level for the players, but at the same time– you really only need one shot to make a good impression and it could advance your career smashingly because of it.
For those of you who may not be familiar with these leagues, let’s take a crash course on this world of “Single A” hockey, shall we??
First, we’ll start with the SPHL, who have been quite the stable group of teams since coming together from the remnants of the Southeastern Hockey League (SEHL), which in-turn was a culmination of the Atlantic Coast Hockey League (ACHL) and WHA2 promotions. Heading into their 10th season, the SPHL will have only eight teams, down from ten last year as Bloomington moved to the US junior hockey ranks and Mississippi Surge closed it’s doors for the year. However, the Mississippi area will be returning next season (maybe not as the Surge) and will have the Macon Mayhem to accompany them in coming back in style for 2015-16. While they are not allowed to have NHL affiliates directly, the SPHL have provided player to the ECHL in the past. Most of the teams are in the Southeastern US, with the outlier being the Peoria Rivermen.
One of the storylines with 2014-15 is whether or not the Pensacola Ice Flyers can three-peat as champions. With playoff MVP Brett Lutes and Adam Pawlick back in the fold offensively, as well as Jeremy Gates and Steve Bergin on the blueline, the Ice Flyers definitely have a good chance to make that three-peat happen. However, last year’s runners-up in the Columbus Cottonmouths will have something to say about that, with their top scorer in Matt Gingera back– as well as defensemen Tom Maldonado, Chris Bailer, and Mike Switzer, plus goalies Andrew Loewen and Shannon Szabados— the Cottonmouths will be strong once again this year.
Not to be outshined, the Louisana Ice Gators will definitely try to come out swinging after firing head coach Kevin Kaminski for Drew Omiciolli and re-signing a lot of their players from their strong showing last season (including league MVP Shawn McNeil), as they finished 2nd in the regular season, but couldn’t make it out of the first round. The Peoria Rivermen will also try to find redemption from their first round woes, as well as being the only Midwestern team in the league– especially with Goalie of the Year Kyle Rank and Rookie of the Year runner-up Garrett Vermeersch back with Peoria for another season.
One team who was surprising was the Knoxville Ice Bears, who put a scare into the Ice Flyers in the semi-finals. Now, with former Ice Flyers captain Ryan Salvis on the roster, the Ice Bears could take a big step into their fourth SPHL championship. Another team with a lot to prove is the Fayetteville FireAntz, who missed the playoffs last year, and that will show with the FireAntz bringing back nine players from last year and signing a lot of rookies from the college ranks to maybe change around the luck of the team. Stuck in the middle of it all is the Mississippi RiverKings, who weren’t all too impressive last year, but with Matt Whitehead coming back and leading the team, it could help a lot of the newer faces for the RiverKings. Also seeing new faces are the Huntsville Havoc, who have a trio of rookie defensemen coming into their fold in order to get right again and improve from the middle-of-the-pack form they had last year.
It should be quite the 10th season for the SPHL, which is probably one of the most stable leagues in the SPHL, with a few exceptions of course. With teams coming in and plenty of spots to choose from in their location; the SPHL should be able to stay healthy for many years to come.
The same can’t really be said for the Federal Hockey League, which has its six teams spread across six states. With the name being an homage to the movie “Slapshot,” the FHL does have some traits to the movie version; as many incidents that got national recognition came by the way of brawls or outrageous on-ice shenanigans– like two players about to fight, but one pulling out a beer instead and toasting the crowd. A somewhat rebel league, the FHL does what it can in order to be seen as a “Single A” entity.
With only four teams last year, it wasn’t much of a season, though the Dayton Demonz upset the Phil Esposito head coached Danbury Whalers in the finals last year on the back of Ahmed Mahfouz‘s offensive outburst in the regular season and playoffs.
However, the FHL is adding two more teams to bring it up to six, though only Danbury, Dayton, and the Danville Dashers have been in the league prior to this season. Watertown had a team last year, but now with new ownership and a new name (Wolves), they’ll reset their clock. One of the big issues is how a team like Dayton is going to be able to cover costs to travel to place like Danbury and North Adams, Massachusetts in a league that has had problems before with teams folding up mid-season due to lack of funds to continue the season. As they try to lure more teams, the FHL will be trying to put their best foot forward and maybe move away from the hoopla they create for the wrong reasons.
That’s the Single-A hockey rundown for the leagues you may not know much about. Should things happen, you can bet they will be featured right here and hopefully it’s more good news than bad news for the leagues that are the feeders to the feeders.