For the next four days, the “League of Opportunity” – the North American Hockey League – is converging on Edina, MN to determine who the 2016 winner will be of the Robertson Cup . This is the first time the Tier II Junior League’s championships will be held at the Braemar Arena, a city-run 4-pad facility – a neutral ground for the four teams battling for top spot.
I spoke with the NAHL’s director of communication and sales, Alex Kyrias, about the NAHL and why their 22-team league is such a pull for 16-20 year-olds who have aspirations of advancing to collegiate and/or professional hockey.
“So far, we have 189 players with commitments to NCAA schools for the 2016-17 season,” he tells me. “That number will move up another 30-40 over the summer, I’ll guess. Annually, we’ve been averaging 225.” With 506 allowable players on the rosters, that means that 44% of the players get NCAA placement, which is a very good average.
“There are scouts here as well,” he tells me, referring to the Edina facilities. Kyrias expects that close to 100 scouts will show up to watch the 7 games that will be held over the next 4 days: there are 11 NAHL players already earmarked for the NHL Entry Draft that takes place in June: last year a total of seven NAHL players were drafted.
The four teams vying for the finals are the division champions from 22 teams spread across the country. For the Robertson Cup, the teams have been split into two brackets, playing three games each. The winners of those brackets meet each other in the finals on Sunday. The teams in contention are the Aston Rebels from Pennsylvania, the Fairbanks Ice Dogs from Alaska, the Bismarck Bobcats from North Dakota and the Wichita Falls Wildcats from Texas.
The Robertson Cup is named after Chuck Robertson, a Michigan native who helped start the league — 40 years ago. The Cup is the oldest junior hockey trophy in the United States. Robertson, who passed away in 2011, owned the Paddock Pools Saints, who won a record seven straight NAHL championships from 1976-83.
The average age of players in the NAHL is 18.5 years – slightly older, Kyrias tells me, than the players in the USHL.
“Our program is the best in the world for taking players who have no commitments when the join to leaving with commitments.” There is a roster limit of 23 players for each team, and no more than four of those players can be non-US citizens.
“Our players don’t need to pay to be part of a team in any form or fashion,” Kyrias says. We supply everything, from the equipment to housing billets, travel and food. Those expenses are covered through sponsorships and ticket sales,” he says.
Kyrias tells me the league’s Board of Governors is concerned about sustainability in the league, making sure the teams are able to function properly. Because of that, trying to make travel equitable is one of their goals. Since there are two NAHL teams in Alaska, they’ve established an “Alaska Travel Fund” that all the other teams need to support to help cover their travel expenses.
For the 2016-17 season, the 22 teams will grow to 24, a very nice number for a league running 60 regular season games a year. Arenas for NAHL teams need to comply with US Hockey’s 1,500 seat minimum. The Braemar arena hosting the finals has a capacity of 2,300.
“Twenty-five percent of the players on these four teams are from the state of Minnesota, so we’re hoping to get some of their friends and family to come and watch,” Kyrias says.
Feather in the Cap
Susie Miller, the General Manager of the Braemar Arena, says being able to host the NAHL’s Robertson Cup is a feather in Edina’s cap.
“We are thrilled to have been selected by the NAHL as the host site of this year’s NAHL Tier II Tournament,” said Braemar Arena General Manager Susie Miller. “It truly is a feather in the City of Edina’s cap and is a direct result of the recent improvements made to the facility.”
In addition, this will be the first time the Robertson Cup has been played on ice made using REALice – an alternative way of making ice without the need for extremely hot water. Len Lilyholm, former Team USA player and Minnesota Fighting Saints player, an ambassador for REALice in Minnesota, will be at the tournament over the next four days.