Maine Hockey Journal

Lewiston patience will hopefully be rewarded

Maybe the North American Hockey League not coming to Lewiston for the 2015-16 season isn’t the most terrible thing to happen to the Lewiston/Auburn hockey community.

For a community that’s hungry for a junior hockey team ever since the Lewiston Maineiacs was dissolved by the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League after the 2010-11 season, that’s an odd way to start a column, isn’t it?

On the surface it doesn’t look promising but when you dig into the situation waiting out the 2015-‘16 season could be the best thing to happen the viability to junior hockey in the Twin Cities.

Make no mistake about it, junior hockey is returning the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in 2015-‘16 with the New Hampshire Fighting Spirit moving its operations from Laconia, N.H. The new team will be renamed the Lewiston-Auburn Fighting Spirit.

They will play in the NAHL’s Tier III junior hockey league, the North American 3 Eastern Hockey League.

The NAHL is USA Hockey’s lone Tier II junior hockey league and a feeder to Division I college hockey.

Talking to people who asked me the last few month about this second team potentially calling Lewiston home were confused. They didn’t know the difference between the two leagues.

If I didn’t follow junior hockey, I wouldn’t know either.

There are two types of junior hockey.

The fan-driven model that Lewiston is accustom with. The Maineiacs were such a team where fans purchasing tickets paid the majority of the expenses. That’s how NAHL operates with one caveat. Players pay their own living expenses which the NAHL estimates is $300 a month.

The other model is pay-to-play. The NA3EHL is such a league. The Maine Wild in addition to the Fighting Spirit are two teams that follow that model. Another league with a franchise in Maine that is considered play-to-pay is the United States Premier Hockey League where the Portland Jr. Pirates organization is a member. All Tier III leagues under the USA Hockey umbrella use.

In pay-to-play hockey, the player is responsible for everything from equipment to off-ice living expenses in the form of a tuition that can run upward of five figures depending on the organization. That’s how most, if not all Tier III teams pay their bills.

Many Tier III teams don’t attract fans to games nor do they attempt to attract fans.

“With us, we care about developing players. We care about getting them ready for college, and we care about moving them on,” New Jersey Hitmen General Manager/Head Coach Toby Harris said in December 2012 on the creation of the USPHL.

“Our model is not based on selling beer, hot dogs and seats. Our model is based on the ADM (American Development Model) model. It’s about moving guys up the ladder, going from bantam major, to midget minor, to midget major, to junior A, to Division I and so on. We care more about the development of the player. We care more about the model than we do about putting fannies in the seats.”

Not all organizations that play in a Tier III league feel that way.

The New Hampshire Junior Monarchs are very active on Twitter engaging their fan base and thanking them for supporting the team and attending games. Fighting Spirit owner Rod Simmons hopes he can create a similar atmosphere along with a winning pedigree.

To add a Tier II team along with NA3EHL team would have been a lot of work for Simmons, who along with Colisee owner Jim Cain were trying to bring a franchise to Lewiston. They would have needed to add a second coaching staff, scouts, and business office staff. They also need to build a roster with another 25 players. The rest of the NAHL teams have a distinct advantage with pre-draft camps starting later this month.

Did I mention the regular season usually starts in mid-September?

When the Maineiacs came from Sherbrook, Que. in 2003 they had a roster in place, hockey operations staff and just needed to set-up the business operations.

The best thing for all parties involved was to pull the NAHL application for the 2015-’16 season, get settled into their new digs while laying the groundwork for a fan driven team to work in the Lewiston market.

If Cain and Simmons go ahead and put that application for the 2016-’17 season, they can spend time to educate the fan base during the upcoming season as to what type of hockey the city would see.

Ben Bishop, who is currently stonewalling the Montreal Canadiens in the NHL playoffs, applied his goaltending trade in the NAHL before he arrived at the University of Maine. Mike McKenna, who backstopped the Portland Pirates this season, also played in the NAHL.

Remember the city had to learn on the fly what junior hockey was when the Maineiacs came to town.

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