The Federal Hockey League has made some valiant efforts in its brief history as a northeast based low minor hockey league. They grabbed a name right out of pop culture, the legendary Federal League of “Slapshot” fame, and without the Paul Newman/Hansen Brothers inspired Charlestown Chiefs, set out to re-create old time hockey with the flair of minor league baseball. Some franchises, like the Brooklyn Aviators, who play in a converted airplane hangar, have drawn attention but few fans. Others like the Danbury Whalers have found a niche in a community, harnessed a dormant but popular name (the former WHA and NHL Whalers) and have done well to grow a minor league brand. Most of the others have come and gone in outposts like northern New Jersey and the Thousand Island region.
Their New Jersey team, the Outlaws, actually won the league title last spring, but never found the finances, the facility or the media attention to to come anywhere near an off-ice success. So the league and the team looked to move and found Williamsport, Pa., the home of the Little League World Series and the New York-Penn League Crosscutters, as a new home. Only one problem. There is currently no arena where the team could play effectively in 2012-13. At least no indoor arena? The solution? The league and the team announced that they will play their entire season outdoors at Bowman Field, the minor league home of the Crosscutters. The theory is that outdoor hockey will be fun, innovative and will draw both casual and diehard hockey fans in a town that enjoys supporting its own. After all, the NHL’s Winter Classic and other one-off outdoor game have done so well, correct?
Well, maybe. As a one-off outdoor hockey does well. It is a novelty when the setting and the weather cooperate. However to do an entire season, subject to all kinds of unpredictable conditions and asking fans to sit outside in freezing temperatures on weeknights, may be a lot to handle. There is also the potential damage to the field of an MLB-affiliated minor league team that could cost Williamsport much more than what they could gain from an FHL team. Minor league hockey in the best of conditions is a tricky business. Taking a low minor team outdoors for a full season could almost be too much too handle.
Now maybe it will catch on as a one-year novelty that builds support for when the team can move back indoors in 2013-14. Maybe there are brands that will jump on to help promote, or others that support the Crosscutters will find ways to co-promote year-round (the baseball team is not involved in the hockey venture). Maybe the city will be able to use the season as a tourist destination to drive revenue in a town without a lot of winter destination spots. Maybe it will lead to even more exposure for the FHL as an innovative league that can draw more investors and stable franchises.
For a league looking to raise its profile, the announcement itself accomplished its goal. It created buzz. Now the next step is making it a viable business venture, not just an ill-timed promotion. Hopefully it will be successful for the hard-working people of Williamsport and for the entreprenurial folks at the Federal Hockey League and the players and coaches who are trying to use the league as a means to a bigger future. If it does work, then the central Pennsylvania town will be able to add outdoor hockey to its roster of Little League and minor league baseball success. If not, it’s another example of “Seemed like a good idea at the time.” If it works, the OUT-laws will make the outdoors a new home for a year.