Mixed fortunes for OHL, QMJHL moves into US markets over the years

Vili_Saarijärvi_Flint_Firebirds

While the success of US-based teams in the Western Hockey League is long-standing, it took a while for the concept to take hold in the two eastern major junior hockey leagues.

The Ontario Hockey League has been in the US for over 25 years, though stability of their teams has been questioned at times. The experience for the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, though, hasn’t been good, with instability being the norm.

Amazingly, it was the QMJHL that was the second major junior hockey league that expanded into the US. But, as with most decisions in the Q in the 1980s, it wasn’t well thought out.

They went into New York in 1984, but the expansion Plattsburgh Pioneers didn’t last long. They were hampered by numerous issues, including a lack of stable finances, no expansion draft to stock the team, a decision from the QMJHL office that forbid them from having any Quebec-born players (or any other player within the Q’s player base) on their roster and the league not allowing Plattsburgh to recruit anywhere in the US outside of specific areas of the northeast US. After going winless in 17 games (0-16-1), along with a home arena that opened late (thus playing at Plattsburgh State’s arena to start), the Pioneers folded. Some consider the team to be the worse in major junior hockey history, but they probably were doomed from the start, with no help from the league.

It was 1990 that the Ontario Hockey League finally secured a base in the US. It made sense that Detroit would be the place, as Peter Karmanos’ Detroit Compuware Ambassadors jumped into the OHL. After failing to move the Windsor Spitfires across the river, Karmanos sold that team and moved the Ambassadors’ top team from the North American Hockey League into the OHL. After two seasons in Cobo Arena, they changed their name, moved next door to Joe Louis Arena and more success came.

The Jr. Red Wings became the first US-based OHL team to win the league title in 1995, when they also made the Memorial Cup Final (losing to the WHL champs and tourney hosts, Kamloops Blazers). But numerous disputes with the NHL’s Red Wings, including a failed bid to purchase the team, led to the team being forced out of Joe Louis Arena. Karmanos would eventually rename the team the Detroit Whalers, after his newly purchased Hartford Whalers, and they moved to the Detroit suburbs of Oak Hill and Auburn Hills (playing in The Palace of Auburn Hills, the home of the NBA Pistons, for a time). Eventually he would settle the team in the western suburb of Plymouth, where the Whalers would stay for 18 years.

The next OHL team in the US was the Erie Otters. The Pennsylvania city came into the OHL in 1996, when the Niagara Falls Thunder moved to the city. They have had mixed success on the ice, capped by winning the OHL title in 2002, a finals appearance in 2015 and recent success spurred by the arrival of Connor McDavid in 2012.

However, the McDavid years in Erie almost didn’t happen. Legal issues between Otters ownership and a subsidiary of the Edmonton Oilers, that supposedly was to lead to a sale and move of the team to Hamilton, Ontario, led to a massive financial drain on the team. The Otters’ owner, Sherry Bassin, filed for bankruptcy in 2015, but eventually were sold to a new ownership group that was committed to keeping the team in Erie. The legal issues seem to be behind the team, and the Otters can once again strive for stability.

Saginaw came into the OHL in 2002 when the North Bay Centennials were moved there and were renamed the Saginaw Spirit. While the team regularly makes the playoffs, they’ve only made the OHL quarterfinals three times. The team has had steady attendance in recent years, though 2015-16 was the worst season the team has had in the stands. That might change with the help of a new rival that arrived in 2015.

Those would be the Flint Firebirds, which moved from Plymouth after Karmanos sold the team. But it was a very long first season, to say the least. The club’s new owner, Rolf Nelsen, fired the coaching staff on two occasions (supposedly for not playing his son enough), each time leading to a player revolt. After the second coaching clearout, the OHL took over the team, suspended Nelsen and worked to bring a sense of normalcy to the team. Eventually, Nelsen was suspended for five seasons, and could be forced to sell the team if he tries to get involved in hockey operations again during that time. But things have stabilized for now in Flint, and with the emergence of the new/old rivalry with Saginaw, the Firebirds have a chance to gain a foothold on the Michigan hockey scene.

As for the QMJHL, they tried one more time to go into the US. In 2003, the Sherbrooke Castors moved to Lewiston, Maine, and became the Lewiston MAINEiacs. Their home, the Androscoggin Bank Colisée, was more known as the site of the legendary second Ali-Liston fight, but the MAINEiacs were there for eight seasons. The highlight was in 2007, when they became the first American team to win the QMJHL title. They lost in the Memorial Cup tiebreaker game, but making it to Vancouver was the peak. But the team always struggled to work financially in central Maine, even with the title run.

For years afterward, the MAINEiacs were the subject of numerous relocation rumors, with one relocation attempt to the Montréal suburb of Boisbriand stopped by another QMJHL team, the short-lived Montréal Junior. Talks with other cities failed, and in 2011 the QMJHL ended up buying the team. After the league bought the MAINEiacs, it disbanded the club. A year later, the team was back in Sherbrooke, beginning new life as the Phoenix, and the Q was once again the only major junior league without a US-based club.

Any future growth for the OHL and QMJHL in the US may be tied to cities losing their AHL teams. Binghamton is close enough for an OHL owner to consider (ironically, they’re likely losing their AHL team to Belleville, Ontario, which just lost its OHL team last season), but whether fans would accept a junior team after losing a longtime AHL franchise is questionable. Unless an owner wants to return to suburban Detroit or put a team in western New York, there may not be many options for more US teams in the OHL.

As for the QMJHL, the options are even fewer. One might look at Portland, Maine, as they just lost their AHL team and could be a rival for Saint John. Otherwise, any other locations that the Q could even consider already have college teams, which is the main competition for players for the three junior leagues.

The one thing going for the three leagues is that the main US junior league, the USHL, is mostly in markets that are too far away to ever be considered competition for cities. The exception may be Youngstown, which would be a natural rival for Erie and is well separated from the rest of the USHL.  But whether the OHL would want to go into Ohio, or go as far south as Youngstown, is not known.

Mixed success would be the best way to describe the efforts of the OHL in the US, while failure could be the word for the QMJHL’s forays south of the border. While the WHL is light years ahead in history and stability in the US, at least the OHL has Erie, Saginaw & Flint to continue to build their presence on the American side of the border. It would be surprising, however, if the Q ever goes back to the US to place a team because of its subpar history in Plattsburgh and Lewiston.

Maybe in the future, both leagues may look to the US to put a team. Right now, don’t count on it.

(The article on the history of US-based teams in the Western Hockey League can be found here)

(Photo of Flint Firebirds player Vili Saarijärvi by “Jfvoll” from Wikimedia Commons, used via Creative Commons license)

 

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