Federal Hockey League, 11-12 Season in ReviewApril 11, 2012
Summer time decisions:
As the curtain falls on the FHL's second campaign and the New Jersey Outlaws ride off into the sunset with the Commissioner's Cup proudly raised to the sky, let's take a look at this past season and weigh both the positives and negatives as well as take a peek into the FHL's future.
Kicking off their second season, the FHL decided to try their hand at expansion. They announced an exciting field of 9 , spreading the original FHL footprint out west to Danville, Illinois, north to Vermont, a second team in Canada as well as adding a slate of neutral site regular season games in Lewiston, Maine, site of Muhammad Ali's infamous "phantom punch" knock-out of Sonny Liston in 1965. The Lewiston site was eyed as a possible future expansion location.
It would not be long before the FHL felt the first of many left-hooks headed their way. Problem one arose with the cancellation of the Green Mountain Rock Crushers franchise at the summer league meetings due to alleged franchise mismanagement.
Leaving the meetings with eight franchises, black-eye number two would result when the Niagara Falls Nationals could not secure appropriate home ice time and floated the lead balloon idea of playing home dates in three or four different venues. The FHL, wanting no part of that nonsense quickly showed Niagara Falls the exit door. The FHL was resigned to enter season two with an uneven seven until another group in Vemont looking to resurrect the Rock Crushers contacted them. Using the logic that eight is always better than seven, the FHL fast-tracked the entry of the Vermont Wild making them the eighth franchise. As the saying goes, "be careful for what you wish for".
And they're off:
Opening night would be a rematch of last season's Commissioner's Cup Finals with the Brooklyn Aviators taking on last season's champion Akwesasne Warriors in Lewiston, Maine in game one of a series billing itself as "The Maine Event" before 1246 starved north country hockey fans. This time Rob Miller's Brooklyn Aviators would prevail 3-2, but all keen hockey eyes would not be on either the Aviators or Warriors or for that matter the Bluefins, Whalers or Privateers.
Chris Firriolo, who coached Danbury last season and who had left the Whalers in the off season for the top spot with the expansion New Jersey Outlaws was quietly building a power house squad of former Southern Pro League champions. During the Summer months, Firriolo threw down the gauntlet early signing away Brooklyn Aviator fan favorite Matt Puntureri, followed by former SPHL Huntsville Havoc stars Travis Kauffeldt, Billy McCreary and goaltender Dan McWhinney. The nucleus was now in place, the only question would be would it work over the long haul. Other have tried building squads around former champions with disastrous results. It would be up to Firriolo to make sure the Outlaws ship stayed on course. There was also the daunting prospect that every move the players and staff made from day 1 was being videotaped for a minor league hockey documentary on the Outlaws season. Such a project can be fun but sometimes you just do not want the cameras rolling during embarrassing or vulnerable moments. Firriolo and his staff were able to keep the players focused on their game while letting the cameras do their thing in the background.
Blindsided in Vermont:
A bit over three weeks into the season and playing competitive hockey the last minute addition Vermont Wild packed it in after ten games citing cash problems and terrible attendance in four home dates that exceeded 300 only once. Thus, the Wild were tamed into minor league hockey history.
With the demise of the Wild a problem arose; what to do for the franchises that had sold tickets for upcoming games with the now defunct Vermont team. The controversial decision was to put together on the fly a traveling only team with little direction and even less skill. Calling themselves the Delaware Federals and wearing uniforms adorned with the FHL shield, they were pretty much sitting ducks against every team they played often by wide margins. When questioned why such a move was done at all the media was reminded of the individual team cost and playoff ramifications for forfeited games and felt this was the better of the two options. Arguably it was not.
The Federals would go winless until Dan Farrell brought his team to Danbury. Taken lightly by the Whalers, the Federals would shock the home team and its boisterous fans by a 6-3 score. "After having lost to 1000 Islands, Akwesasne and Cape Cod by very lopsided scores this win in Danbury was particularly sweet" said team Coach/GM Dan Farrell who also made his pro hockey debut assisting his team with a helper in the third period.
What happened to the Akwesasne Warriors:
Last season's powerhouse Warriors led by former NHL'er Pierre Dagenais steamrolled through the season and defeated New York in the Finals, taking the first Commissioner's Cup 3 games to 1. However, what happened to them this year was a mystery that may never be answered. For everything Dagenais and his posse did last season to showcase the league in a positive light this year it was the complete opposite. Team leader Ahmed Mahfouz, a +21 last season fell to a -10 in this campaign while adding 51 additional penalty minutes and incurring 2 seasonal and 1 post season suspension(s). Unnecessary brutality, uncooperative and insubordinate staff behavior, allegations of off-ice threats and physical abuse of officials marred respectable seasons by Dagenais and Sylvain Deschatelets so much so they received no seasonal achievement awards. Was such a decision fair? We think it was. When asked to explain their reasoning, the awards committee released this statement: "Pierre Dagenais and Sylvain Deschatelets each did have a great season and deserve applause. The committee weighed each of their individual contributions and determined that despite their high point totals the Warriors still finished in fifth place and noted that many of Dagenais' points came against the weaker clubs such as Danville, Vermont and later Delaware, as well as one particularly troubling game in which Dagenais scored 8 goals and 6 assists in a 25 to 6 drubbing of a woefully unprepared and hastily assembled 1000 Islands team. The committee felt that on a whole the New Jersey Outlaws players named to the All-FHL Team were essentially more valuable to their team's regular season success. Pierre Dagenais will still receive recognition for being the FHL's Leading Scorer."
Outlaws wire-to-wire...and all the others:
Up until just past the midway point of the season the 1000 Islands Privateers were regarded as the one force that might give New Jersey a fight for the top position. Playing great hockey early on and getting phenomenal goaltending from Matt Anthony and Matt Kinsella, the Privateers seemed poised to make a run for the Commissioner's Cup until the wheels fell off in early February when a dozen or so players refused to get on the team bus for another trip to Cornwall Island fearing more Akwesasne Warrior hostility . Team owner Nicole Kirnan took the tough step of terminating and or trading most of these players including arguably her best player Jeff Winchester, trading him to New Jersey. It was this trade that put to rest any questions one might have had regarding the Outlaws ability to win it all. Kirnan secured head coach Marc Lefebvre's resignation for insubordination and failure to take control of his team. Fortunately or unfortunately, for 1000 Islands they had built up a big enough points lead during the season to hold off a late season charge by Danbury and secure second place. This meant they would face their despised enemy Akwesasne in the first round of the playoffs. The Privateers would ultimately defeat the Warriors 2 games to 1, but not before a game 3 melee that saw the final 6 minutes of the game cancelled with the win going to 1000 Islands which sadly included numerous arrests of intoxicated fans. The 1000 Islands broadcast crew was assaulted IN THEIR OWN BUILDING and could not continue their coverage. These and many other issues will need to be addressed in the off-season by Commissioner Kirnan and his trusted staff.
The Danbury Whalers led by first year coach Phil Esposito accomplished more than many felt they would including this reporter. They played all season with fiery abandon and goalie Peter Vetri stood tall being named FHL Rookie of the Year as well as All FHL Rookie Team Goalie. Perhaps the one down spot were the multiple game suspensions incurred by passionate head coach Phil Esposito in which Danbury dropped five of those games. The jury is still out on how bad the forty plus call-ups affected Danbury's season. While it is the stated mission of the FHL to advance players careers, call-ups do take their toll. One particular stinging call-up for Danbury was their top goalie Nick Neidert who left for Knoxville, Elmira, Trenton and Bridgeport at various times during the year. Neidert played only 13 games for Danbury meaning that Peter Vetri became their main guy in net. To his credit, Vetri handled the task and then some but in the finals against New Jersey simply ran out of gas.
Rob Miller's renamed Brooklyn Aviators played .500 hockey most of the season never pulling away or coming close to running off a nice long win streak such as last season's 21 gamer when they had the opportunity. An early season loss at home in overtime to Vermont should have been shaken off as just a bad game but turned out to be a sign of things to come. Subpar goaltending was the problem early on with the departure of goalie Kevin Druce to a career in Canadian law enforcement and who won league MVP honors last season. "It's just not easy to replace a guy like Druce" said Miller. A succession of goalies such as Tommy Lee, Peter Dundovich, Ryan Supper, Mike DiLorenzo, John Dorman, Rich Scarsella, and Jeff Rose all saw time between the Brooklyn pipes giving Coach Miller many sleepless nights. It wasn't until last season's 1000 Islands standout Joe St Pierre arrived in mid-season that the Aviators finally had a steady go-to goalie capable of handling the top job on a day in, day out basis. The end for Brooklyn was particularly painful as Whalers star Alex Goupil tied the score in playoff game 1 with 3 ticks left in regulation. Danbury would go on to win that game in overtime 5-4 and game 3 by the same margin in overtime as well.
The Cape Cod Bluefins and the Danville Dashers took up the bottom two rungs on the FHL ladder. Cape Cod was the steadier of the two early on but went through a great deal of internal strife in the firing of their head coach Dave Montiero before their first game. Team owner Mike Nugnes, a well-respected New England junior level hockey guy took over behind the bench in his first professional assignment. The Fins quickly developed a strong fan base but inconsistent play drove many away. They made a serious miscue in bringing in former NHL'er Billy Tibbetts who brings problems with him wherever he lands. In his brief 15 game Bluefins career he notched 10 goals and 30 helpers. If these numbers were put up by any other player the accomplishment would have been lauded, but because of the attitude Tibbetts displays with all or most of who come into contact with him they were overlooked. Perhaps Nugnes realized the graveness of the Tibbetts experiment when with 6 minutes remaining and winning 7-1 in a neutral site game at Massena, NY vs. Akwesasne, Tibbetts, acting in the capacity as player coach pulled his team off the ice due to continued violence by Akwesasne and refused to return thereby forcing to the league to award a 1-0 forfeit win to the Warriors. Tibbetts would be suspended for five games for this incident and upon reinstatement was placed on waivers by Nugnes.
One of the bright spots for Cape Cod was the play of forward Brad Surdam who made the All FHL Rookie Team and backstop Wes Vesprini who faced an ocean of rubber and still posted a decent GAA. What can be expected from Cape Cod in FHL season three is anybody's guess, but if the Fins are going to compete, they need a larger attendance turnout. They clearly play second fiddle at the HYCC to the International Junior Hockey League Cape Cod Islanders, whose 18 home schedule coupled with 18 giveaway promotions were far more than the Bluefins did for their fans. Better marketing and a major season ticket drive should be top priorities in the off-season for Cape Cod if they want to survive.
The Danville Dashers started off the season with 11 straight loses costing their head coach Scott Beneke his job. He was replaced by Joe Pace Sr. who less than a month later was seriously injured during an on ice practice and was unable to continue his coaching duties. He was replaced by former AHL, ECHL, CHL and IHL player Matt McIlvane, who in addition to running a struggling hockey club had to do major office and image damage control. Team owner Barry Soskin has given McIlvane his full support and he responded by instilling a level of pride and respect in his team and taking the time to be a teacher to his players rather than a screamer. More are needed geographically closer to Danville so that headed out that way are on a legitimate road trip rather than a pilgrimage. The Dashers have quite a ways to go, but are indeed making positive strides. If McIlvane continues his approach and has the Dashers competing for a playoff spot in season three, you might be looking at the next FHL Coach of the Year.
Throughout it all the New Jersey Outlaws just kept on winning. Finishing the season with a record of 43 wins and 10 loses. They took home the bulk of seasonal player awards and Chris Firriolo was named Head Coach of the Year. They could and did at times literally toy with many often deciding during the game whether they wanted to just win or blow out their opponent. For the first time in Firrolo's career he had a team capable of being on autopilot on any given night. Nevertheless, it was his hand that commanded a level of coolness and kept heads in check in the Outlaws locker room.
The 2011 - 2012 Finals:
New Jersey advanced to the final round after sweeping the Cape Cod Bluefins 3 games to none and Danbury arrived courtesy of a second round thrashing of a depleted and demoralized 1000 Islands team. The best-of-five series opened in New Jersey and the Outlaws came to play. When they do few can compete on their level. They lit up Danbury for seven goals forcing Whalers coach Phil Esposito to pull his main goalie Peter Vetri in favor of inexperienced backup Joey Spagnoli.
Game two was more of the same as New Jersey turned on the red light five times to Danbury's one.
Shifting to Connecticut for game three (and hopefully game four if you were a Whalers fan), the home team put forth a great effort. Danbury jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead in the first. The Outlaws would tally one themselves just before the first intermission. Kevin Cooper would knot the game at two at the 2:01 mark and Matt Moffat would bring the home crowd to their feet again 46 seconds later. With a little under 3 minutes to go in the second stanza, Outlaws Captain Travis Kauffeldt tied the game at three. The third period would showcase some of the best hockey the FHL has offered all year. The exchanged goals and Peter Vetri and his across-the-rink rival Dan McWhinney pulled rabbits out of their hats as the team's ended regulation tied at 4.
A silence loomed over the Danbury Ice Arena during the overtime intermission and this reporter commented to Commissioner Don Kirnan that such a noiseless tone was very uncharacteristic in Danbury. The building usually rocks especially when the Whalers are headed to overtime, but strangely not tonight.
The hit the ice for sudden death and one minute thirty-four seconds later the New Jersey Outlaws were FHL Champions as Jason Reese took a picture-perfect-pass from Matt Puntureri and beat Peter Vetri high and tight on the stick side. Outlaws goalie Dan McWhinney would be named Playoff MVP and moments later Commissioner Kirnan would award the Commissioner's Cup to Travis Kauffeldt and the Outlaws were officially crowned FHL Champions.
While Commissioner Don Kirnan, Vice Commissioner Andy "Sarge" Richards and League Administrator Phil DeFranco have worked tirelessly to make the FHL a success, they have so far defied the odds that have claimed so many minor league hockey ventures in their first year. The facts are the FHL has gone through two complete seasons and crowned champions in both campaigns which no Single A Level Hockey League in the Northeast has accomplished in over 50 years. This in itself is a tremendous achievement. They have announced they will return for season three in November of 2012. Such an announcement is a testament to the hard work that has gone into this league at every level. Is it perfect hockey? By no means. Is it fun and exciting hockey at an affordable price? You can bet the rent it is.
The league must take a hard look at many things in the off-season. should be compelled to put up some type of performance bond where immediate monetary deductions can be made if a team or player incurs a fine or to help carry a faltering team through the remainder of the season. What took place with Vermont/Delaware can never be allowed to happen again. When a team's performance bond runs out they must have their operations suspended by the league until they renew their bond. Such a policy just might have prevented many of the problems the league faced this past season.
Considering the unyielding obstinacy of Billy Tibbetts and the broken promises of Pierre Dagenais to control the violence of his Akwesasne Warriors players and to not run-up scores to the point of creating embarrassment to the league, a long hard look must be taken as to whether or not former NHL players are necessary at this level. They are banned from playing in the SPHL and quite possibly should not be allowed to play in the FHL either after they have played a certain number of NHL games. That being said the entire Akwesasne operation must be reviewed from top to bottom and if it results in the removal of that member from the league, so be it. As most fans of the professional game know fighting is part of the game, but excessive violence and brutality is not.
The refereeing must be more consistent in season three especially in the area of a Penalty Shot. Penalty Shots were awarded often on plays that simply required a penalty. Coaches are always going to gripe about the officiating, but when my fellow media look at each other in the press box in stunned amazement and wonder why or how a certain call was made on several occasions this just might be a problem that should be addressed. At this point, instant replay is not feasible but perhaps a two-referee system all season long or at least from the midway point in the season as position themselves for a playoff run might be a doable improvement. Additionally, steps must be in place to have referees travel to all FHL venues. Having one set of FHL officials for games in New Jersey, Danbury, Brooklyn and Cape Cod and another for games in Danville and 1000 Islands and still another set for games in Canada just won't work. This must be addressed and corrected before the puck drops to open season three. That being said these men work very hard at their craft and rarely deserve the fans scorn. Supervisor of Officials Gene Binda is tops in his profession and rules with an even hand in his calls for supplemental discipline. Mistakes are indeed made, but some of the unfair comments on the various social media sites are just plain ignorance by people who are not in any way connected to the game of hockey other than being clueless fans. Its fans like this the FHL and the game of hockey can do without.
Season three may very well change the face of the FHL as we know it now. Commissioner Kirnan confided to me "we will no longer be looking to put in rinks. From now on it will be arenas only". If the Commissioner holds fast to that line of thinking the FHL will surely be headed in a different direction that could very well put them on the minor league hockey map. If you are familiar with Commissioner Kirnan and Sarge Richards hockey resume only a fool would bet against them.
The Federal Hockey League is committed to providing quality family entertainment at affordable prices in some of the most exciting new hockey markets in North America. We are also dedicated to the growth of professional hockey at the Class A level and creating a developmental ground not only for elite hockey players, but coaches and front office staff as well. We will strive to build dedicated, customer orientated staff; and provide fans, advertisers, sponsors and partners with great value while operating at acceptable profit targets.