Six new teams will join the North American Hockey League for the 2010-11 season. Two of the new teams -- the Fresno (Calif.) Monsters and Dawson Creek (British Columbia) Rage -- will join Kenai River, Fairbanks, Alaska and Wenatchee (Wash.) in the West Division.
The Chicago Hitmen, Aberdeen (S.D.) Wings, Austin (Minn.) Bruins and a yet-to-be-named team from New Mexico make up the other expansion teams. The Central Division North Iowa Outlaws are relocating to Onalaska, Wis. The team's new name is the Coulee Region Chill.
The league has been seeking to expand the West, said NAHL Commissioner Mark Frankenfeld.
"We were actively exploring markets that would strengthen our West Division footprint geographically," Frankenfeld said Thursday via e-mail. "Both Fresno and Dawson Creek have state-of-the-art arenas, committed ownership groups and communities that are hungry for junior hockey. They're both fantastic additions to our league."
Kenai River Brown Bears head coach Oliver David shared Frankenfeld's sentiments.
"I think it's good for our division," he said Friday via cell phone. "It really gives us a chance to play on the West Coast."
More teams adds to the diversity of the division, too, David said. This year, 44 of Kenai River's 58 regular-season games were played against either the Ice Dogs, Avalanche or Wild.
More trips to the Lower 48 will give scouts that don't typically watch Alaska junior hockey a chance to see the Brown Bears, David said.
"I think exposure will be increased," he said. "California adds another destination where we'll be seen."
The league is celebrating the addition of Dawson Creek and Fresno.
"From our perspective, expansion in the West is nothing but positive, both for the NAHL and the growth of hockey in general," Frankenfeld said. "These new teams will also raise the awareness of our league in emerging youth hockey markets and create new and exciting rivalries within the division."
The Rage are anticipating an instant cross-country rivalry with their West Division foes.
"Of course, being the only Canadian team, we will undoubtedly face opponents that are excited to play us, so we will have to be at our best," head coach and general manager Scott Robinson said Thursday via e-mail.
Dawson Creek's owners have been pursuing a Junior A franchise for five years, Robinson said. After being denied by the British Columbia Hockey League and the Alberta Junior Hockey League, the Rage turned to the NAHL.
"The rapidly expanding NAHL was happy to have us and our partnership to this point has gone very well," Robinson said. "We are very excited to be a part of the NAHL and look forward to travelling and seeing all of the new places that we have not been to."
Dawson Creek is home to a semiprofessional Senior ice hockey team and a Junior B team.
"We think support will be good, and as (with) all teams, it is a must if we are to be as successful as we all hope to be," Robinson said. "The corporate support to this point has been outstanding. We are excited and proud to be a part of the NAHL and can't wait to get started."
The Monsters are California's first NAHL team. The Monsters played their first season this year as a member of the Tier III Junior A Western States Hockey League. Local owners started the franchise after the now defunct East Coast Hockey League Fresno Falcons ceased operations after more than six decades.
Head coach and general manager Eric Ballard said the organization wanted to test the hockey market and did so in the WSHL. Averaging more than 3,000 fans per game, the Monsters were an instant success in terms of attendance. Wenatchee led the NAHL with an average of 3,417 fans per game for the 2009-10 season.
"It makes all the difference to make that jump or not," Ballard said of sufficient fan support. "It was kind of inevitable," he said of the transition to the NAHL.
Ballard, who's been an NAHL coach and scout for more than 10 years, designed the business plan to move up to Tier II Junior A hockey.
"It's kind of my baby, if you will," he said. "I'm very excited to be a part of the (NAHL) again at this level."
As a former Alaska Aces player, Ballard is familiar with hockey in the 49th state. He has coached in the Soldotna Sports Center and the Big Dipper Ice Arena in Fairbanks.
"It's kind of a homecoming for me," Ballard said of joining the West Division.
With six new teams joining the league, it begs the question, is junior hockey becoming more popular in the U.S.? From the NAHL's viewpoint, it is.
"Junior hockey is becoming more popular because, for young players, it's a vital steppingstone to collegiate and professional hockey and, as a spectator, it's an exciting brand of hockey to watch," Frankenfeld said. "When it comes to expansion, there are plenty more opportunities out there, but we want it to be for the right reasons, namely for the betterment of our players and our prospective players."
"You're finding junior hockey is getting more popular in nontraditional markets," Ballard said.
Ex-professional markets are ideal for Junior A teams as the cost of production is lower for junior hockey, he said.
As for the future of junior hockey in America, "It's only getting bigger," Ballard said.
However, David's not so sure.
"The popularity remains to be seen of junior hockey in the U.S.," he said.
Ballard warned against expanding the NAHL too much, so as to keep the talent level high.
Fewer than five teams were playing at a higher level than the rest of the NAHL this year, he said. Bringing in six new teams, in theory, could spread that talent out, creating more parity in the league, David said. On the other hand, the same few teams with the financial ability could separate themselves even more, he said.
"It all remains to be seen, though," David said.
With the addition of the expansion teams, David said he suspects the number of skaters at open tryouts, which coaches use to scout as many potential players as possible, will drop throughout the country.
"The kids have more choices than they know what to do with," he said. "I'm guessing all camps, even the top level teams, will be down."
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