Last week, the Midwest Junior Hockey League announced that the Alpena Flyers would join the league for the 2014-15 season, ensuring that junior hockey would remain in Alpena for at least the near future.
This is the third time since 2010 that a junior hockey team has been brought to Alpena and the Northern Lights Arena-Community is hoping to strike gold this time around. The last two junior hockey efforts in Alpena-the Thunder and Street Cats-were shortlived and didn't draw much interest from the community.
But it seems as though junior hockey in Alpena finally has a leg to stand on for the first time in several years. As Flyers' GM Dave Guzman said on Wednesday, local management is what's been missing from local junior hockey and it's hurt the team as a result.
"I know from the financial aspect, the arena definitely needs a junior team here and the community needs it as well," Guzman said. "The problem before when it wasn't a local group running the team, we weren't getting local players. This way we have more control over that."
The Alpena Thunder came and went before you could blink an eye, so fast in fact that many people probably forgot they even existed. By the time the team left, it had been crowned league champions in a league that was whittled down to two teams.
Looking back, the Street Cats' stay in Alpena seemed doomed from the start. A lack of players nearly canceled Alpena's season before it started. As the season wore on, injuries mounted and tensions rose within the team, so much so that assistant coaches Lori Seguin and Erik Peterson eventually quit. Add in the fact that there were rumors of blackmail threats and player mistreatment and it didn't bode well for the Street Cats' chances.
When it was announced in March that the Street Cats were forfeiting their upcoming playoff series, it didn't seem all that surprising and seemed to toll the death knell for the franchise. Regardless of what happened with the team internally (and the stories I heard could fill another column), the Street Cats' fate was ultimately tied to the fact the team, namely owner/coach Igor Myaskovskiy, couldn't pay the bills and looked to pass the blame to anyone and everyone else.
This time, the ducks seem to be a little bit more in a row. As well intentioned as the previous efforts may have been, they got off to rocky starts and the owners/GMs, as passionate about hockey as they might have been, were very frankly a little shady and weren't at all local. With local management, the main goal can shift from trying to cash in by owning a hockey team to doing the right things to make sure the franchise is successful.
Alpena has prided itself on being a hockey town for a long time and MWJHL Commissioner Scott Gardiner made it clear the league wanted a team in Alpena, specifically because of the knowledgeable and passionate fan base. Residents deserve the chance to embrace a hockey team, but it must have some staying power and show it can be successful. If the team is successful, you can bet fans will embrace a winner.
"We need skill and a winning record. A winning team brings people in the stands. There's enough local kids that can build around that, plus bringing some players in. Is it going to be a 48-0 season? No, but we can build and you've got to start someplace," NLA-C President Bill Peterson said.
A winning record and local players. Last season, less than a handful of local players suited up for the Street Cats. Most of the team was European and even though by most accounts the players worked very hard, a lack of a local presence made it hard for fans to identify with the team. The fresh start will hopefully draw the attention of more than a few local hockey players looking to further their careers and fans are more likely to turn out to watch familiar faces.
According to league officials and to Guzman, the Street Cats were one of the league's top drawing teams last season and an increased local presence should help grow those numbers. Guzman said the team will reach out to recently graduated Alpena High players, which ensures the Wildcats shouldn't have to worry losing players to another team.
Time will tell if the Flyers are successful and I hope they are. The team won't take the ice until October, but I believe there's reason for optimism, more so than in the past. Taking up the Flyers name-a name with a long history in Alpena-was a good start. It's a name locals can identify with and it comes with an identifiable logo (unlike the Street Cats logo, which was a big cat jumping over ... maybe a castle tower? To be fair though, there are even pro logos that don't make any sense).
Giving Erik Peterson a shot as head coach is a good move as well. Peterson is local, has a history with hockey, especially here when he was a star with the Alpena IceDiggers. He's respected by players and can relate to them well. Early indications are that he's already reached out to players from last season and some new faces who already have expressed an interest in playing. Both he and Seguin were all in for the Street Cats in the beginning and were committed to coaching the players and making the team as successful as possible. It's just a shame they got burned by the whole ordeal in the end.
It's always difficult for a new franchise to get off the ground, especially at this level of junior hockey. But finally there's a local management group in place that knows what needs to be done, isn't just going to be all talk and can hopefully connect with community in a way that junior hockey teams here haven't done in quite a while.
"When this opportunity came up where they wanted us to manage the team, it was a win-win for us as a community and as a rink. I think local ownership is what was needed all along, even back when the IceDiggers were here, that local ownership," Bill Peterson said. "It's win-win for the team and the arena and the league."
So far, the Flyers are off to a good start. Let's hope it continues.
James Andersen can be reached via email at email@example.com or by phone at 358-5694. Follow James on Twitter @ja_alpenanews.