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To Las Vegas And Beyond

By Steffan Waters, 12/05/19, 5:00PM EST


The WSHL has taken major strides in improving its image nationally, starting with the Western States Shootout in Las Vegas and ending with continued growth and development of the league.

42 million people travel to Las Vegas every year. That’s 42 with six zeroes after it. They come to gamble, revel in the vast entertainment options, walk the strip under all the neon lighting that illuminates the sky, and eat at some of the best restaurants the country has to offer.

But now, people also flock to Las Vegas to watch hockey. The Vegas Golden Knights have taken the region by storm and have people who live in a desert paying attention to a sport played on ice. For four days a year, the Golden Knights aren’t the only hockey show in town though, they share that honor with the Western States Shootout. This year, those dates are December 17th through the 20th.

The Western States Hockey League has held their annual showcase, dubbed the Western States Shootout, in Las Vegas for over 15 years. It has become a staple of their schedule with scouts and coaches from professional and college teams alike making the trip to Sin City in the middle of December to find their next contributing piece.

The last two editions of the Western States Shootout were primarily played in the Golden Knights’ brand new practice facility with a handful of games each year were played at the SoBe Ice Arena. This year, after some scheduling and logistical conflicts between what the WSHL needed and what City National Arena could offer, all showcase games will be played at the Las Vegas Ice Center. The Las Vegas Ice Center used to be the home of the Western States Shootout prior to moving to the Golden Knights’ practice facility. Now, the WSHL is returning with their 22 teams and bringing over 100 coaches and scouts with them.

“We’re excited to have all the games being played in the same facility this year. Logistically speaking, it makes it easier for the coaches and scouts in attendance see all of our teams throughout the week, said WSHL Commissioner Ron White. “We enjoyed our two years at City National Arena, and we’d love to go back in the future, but this year, we just couldn’t get enough games in there to fulfill our showcase schedule. Nonetheless, the Las Vegas Ice Center is a facility we know well and we cannot wait to be back in a few weeks.”

There is plenty of buzz coming out of the WSHL office regarding the number of RSVP’s they’ve received for the 2019 Western States Showcase. As of Thanksgiving, there were over 100 confirmed “yes’s” to this year’s showcase, with an anticipated final number of around 115. The list of coaches and scouts includes attendees from NCAA Division I and Division III institutions, ACHA Division I programs, a few European pro leagues, and new this year, the Federal Hockey League will be sending coaches to scout players. For some of the league’s European players, those professional outlets are their best options to continue their hockey careers. Other players will look to take advantage of the college options in front of them, gaining an education while continuing to play the game they love.

Overall, the turnout is highly encouraging for the WSHL. The league reduced the number of invites sent out this year, cutting out invites to ACHA Division II and III institutions. It was a strategic decision, according to White, as the number of players recruited to those institutions from the WSHL had dropped in recent years. Ultimately, the opportunity cost for inviting those coaches was too high when the commitments weren’t there.

“We really took a look at who attended our previous showcases and where our players were committing to each year”, said White. “What the data showed is that most of our players are landing in the NCAA Division III and ACHA Division I levels, with a few more of our guys getting looks at NCAA Division I level each year. We, as a league, do everything we can to put our players in front of as many coaches as we can at the showcase, but the ultimate goal is to have them move on and continue playing. We transitioned our resources to maximizing those opportunities.”

The WSHL offers its invited attendees a superb package. They’ll provide meals and lodging while at the Western States Shootout, while also offering transportation to the rink from the hotel each day. It’s a costly endeavor, but one that the league owners know helps foster relationships and lead to opportunities for their guys to play hockey while getting an education. 

The relationships are what keep the coaches coming back. One of the longest-tenured attendees is Air Force Head Coach Frank Serratore. Coach Serratore can be seen each year, during his Falcons’ semester break, taking in multiple games a day from the stands. He has spoken several times to the teams at the showcase and was one of the first Division I coaches to commit a player from the WSHL. In fact, Serratore has brought in two WSHL alums over the last few years, Erich Jaeger and Doug Gutierrez. Jaeger has been a consistent roster presence since arriving on campus, which included a NCAA Final 8 run two years ago while Gutierrez was on the team his freshman year, before settling in with Air Force’s ACHA team. Nonetheless, Serratore is a mainstay at the Western States Shootout looking for the next player who is the right fit for the Air Force Academy. 

That’s a common sight at the Western States Shootout. Maybe not so much coaches looking for their next airman dressed as a hockey player, but to find them right amount of raw talent, coachability, and heart to make it work at the next level. The most recent Division I recruit, Matus Spodniak, helped American International College win their first Atlantic Hockey Championship last year as well as their first NCAA Tournament game.

“We know we have talented players”, stated White. “We may not have pockets of Division I-caliber players like other leagues, but we are on our way to building something like that. As long as we keep on the path we’re on, our product will continue to get noticed and more WSHL alumni will be littered throughout college hockey.”

Building the WSHL Brick by Brick 

The WSHL is midway through their 26th season. All of those instrumental in building the WSHL contributed to a piece in this publication a year ago, commemorating the 25 year history of the league, the trials and tribulations they faced in the formative years, and where the WSHL was expected to go in the future. 

White looked back fondly at that conversation when we talked this year. In just 12 months, he has seen moves made by WSHL organizations that are improving the floor of the league and he, personally, has had conversations to move the WSHL forward with greater expansion.

He has witnessed the growth in talent and skill amongst the WSHL teams and he knows that the investment in coaching and development, as well as their growth internationally, has a lot to do with that. They’re also penetrating the Canadian market which is only enhancing the image of the league when it comes to prospective players. These are exciting times for the WSHL.

“Most of our teams have former Division I players as coaches now. They understand the game at such a high level and are great teachers” said White. “They’re attracting high-quality players from around the globe which is elevating the play on the ice. It’s the combination of talent, execution, and their pre-existing relationships that are helping us reach the showcase numbers we have. Now, we have to capitalize on the momentum that has been built and put forth a product that will keep them coming back.”

So far, the WSHL has been successful in doing that. Those closely involved in the league has known it for some time, but the rest of the hockey world is starting to take notice as well.

First and foremost, the best piece of evidence that the product is improving is that the number of commitments are growing - in the past two years alone, there have been 47 NCAA commitments and 75 college commitments overall.

The European connection is helping attract high-ceiling players to the league. More teams have embraced the European movement than others, but entering this season, there are over 200 European players on rosters throughout the WSHL, the most since the league moved under the AAU umbrella some years ago. There are some talented European players on WSHL teams, but they high-ceiling players aren’t exclusively coming from overseas. What we have is the domino effect. Talent breeds competition. Higher quality domestic players are seeing the competitiveness of the WSHL and are making their way on to league rosters as well.

That all leads us to expansion, the most recent and also not-so-recent WSHL development.

Franchises starting and stopping play has been a norm for the WSHL over the last decade-plus, but the league is continuing to find ways to put hockey teams in nontraditional hockey markets. More recently, they’ve been finding non-traditional markets that can more adequately support a junior hockey team.

It started last season with the launch of the Provincial Division, with most of the teams located in Alberta. A couple of the teams that played in the Provincial Division changed ownership in the offseason, but remained in their current markets – the Cold Lake Wings became the Cold Lake Hornets and the Hinton Wildcats became the Hinton Timberwolves.

This year, the only original WSHL franchise remaining, the Long Beach Bombers were sold but the team’s branding was used to create the Barrhead Bombers, a fifth Provincial Division team. 

It wasn’t just the creation of the Provincial Division that created so much optimism for the future of the WSHL, domestic expansion occurred as well. 

The Steamboat Wranglers, Northern Colorado Eagles, Pueblo Bulls, and Las Vegas Thunderbirds all started play within the last two seasons. The Wranglers just recently announced they were suspending operations for the rest of the 2019-20 season, but the other three are still playing.The Thunderbirds, especially, bring a team back to the Vegas area, filling a void left by the Las Vegas Storm, who shuttered their doors at the end of the 2017 season.

The geographic footprint of the league is large, and it’s growing each season, but by growing the league, it is giving more and more players an opportunity that wasn’t there before. White is continuing to move forward with expansion at a fast pace, but he is also being strategic about it.

“We want to do everything we can to grow the game of hockey. The western part of the United States is not exactly known for hockey, but we’re doing our part to change that.”, said White. “We’re putting more teams in high-potential markets and with owners who know what it takes to run a successful junior hockey organization.”

White is confident that they will bring teams back to Phoenix and Lake Tahoe, both former sites of organizations with history in the WSHL. The league wasn’t supposed to lose the Long Beach franchise. It was sold and renamed the Long Beach Jets before issues led to the team never getting off the ground. But now, the oldest WSHL market lies dormant until a solution can be figured out.

Part of the issue with a market like Long Beach is cost. We’re talking about Southern California where the cost of doing business is far different than Pueblo, CO where the newest WSHL franchise plays. White hopes that this doesn’t start a new trend of teams in higher-priced markets move to not-so pricey markets, similar to what happened with the Bombers this season.

But there is a silver lining in all of this. The higher priced markets have sustained productive and competitive WSHL programs in the past, and there’s already a model for success and a fan base in place. An owner of a team like Long Beach, for example, may not be able to afford the$500 per hour ice rental that those rinks are charging the team now, so they decide to move to a rink in a market that, let’s say, charges $200 per hour. However, here’s where the silver lining comes into play. The rink left behind now has a significant vacancy that they aren’t filling with lessons alone. 

The best solution here is to have the rink operate a WSHL team of its own. The overhead of running the team drops substantially and they can still take advantage of the engaged fan base that was left behind.

In this scenario it’s a win all around. The previous team resident moves to a location where they can better serve its players; the rink owners who were left behind get a new franchise to fill the space and add a diversified revenue stream; and the WSHL gains another organization to its lineup.

This, however, is purely hypothetical. White is hopeful that if teams do start moving to lower-priced markets, the higher-priced markets can still field teams, but it’s all speculation at this point. Maybe next season will bring clarity, but in the meantime, White and his staff are busy looking at other avenues for expansion.

One of those aforementioned avenues is in British Columbia where White is in advanced talks with a handful of experienced hockey owners to add four additional teams in Canada. Additionally, there could be another two or three teams added in Alberta in the near future. The BC teams, according to White, would most likely play in the Northwest Division while the new Alberta teams would be added to the Provincial Division. The addition of so many teams in Canada could lead to divisional realignment in the WSHL, but the subject of realignment will be broached if White and the WSHL can pull this off.

“If we can put this all together, it would surprise a lot of people,” stated White. “Not that I don’t believe we can do it, I know we can do it. The surprise for some would be who we’re bringing in and where we’re doing it. All of a sudden we’d be creating a lot of high-quality competition and attract a boatload of talented players.”

Lastly, and possibly the most distant of all the projects White is juggling involves a country only accessible by crossing the Pacific Ocean. 

China has been attempting to gain a foothold in international hockey for some years now, but with little success. The Chinese don’t have the history that many other countries do when it comes to hockey, nor do they have the infrastructure or instruction in place to build a powerhouse development program on their own.

Given that the WSHL is the only junior hockey league in the U.S. that has no restrictions on the number of foreign players that can be on its team’s rosters and that it geographically has the largest consortium of teams in major West Coast markets, China and the WSHL could make a perfect fit for one another. That is why, through the AAU, the WSHL has been working with the IIHF to create a “B” division to help develop young international teams develop national team players.

White has been to China three times in the last 12 months, discussing a potential partnership where China would send young players to play for teams in the WSHL. There they would grow and develop as hockey players, then return to China to play for the national team. The agreement would also allow the players to leave their WSHL teams for any international competition then return upon completion.

Something like this is potentially years away from happening, working with multiple governing bodies and foreign governments creates quite a bit of red tape that needs to be navigated, but it could present a major opportunity for the WSHL.

“We’re looking at China as a target market for us in the immediate future”, said White. “Not only would a move like this help us grow the sport, but we’d be able to immediately add players and fans while growing our league.”

All in all, everything happening with the WSHL right now has White extremely busy but highly optimistic for what is to come.

“It has been a lot of hard work for a lot of people, not just myself, to get us to where we are as a league today”, said White. “It’s hard to change your image, or your stripes, overnight, but we’ve collectively worked our tails off to improve our product to a point where that image is starting to come into focus for a lot of coaches around the country.”