A new independent professional hockey league has plans to put a team on the ice in North Adams this year.
The North Atlantic Professional Hockey League is in talks with the city to start the Berkshire Black Bears franchise at the Peter W. Foote Vietnam Veterans Memorial Skating Rink. The team would play a 22-week regular season in the new six-team league, with Friday and Saturday night games beginning in October.
"We're going to be basically New York and New England," said Phil DeFranco, NAPHL president and Black Bears owner. "We'll be what was called, in old days, ‘the bus league.' "
DeFranco, a Palm Bay, Fla., resident who plans to move to North Adams this spring, said the league will be for players in their 20s whose junior-league eligibility is up.
"[T]hey have aspirations of playing professional hockey," he said. "They weren't drafted by the NHL, and they want to give it one last hurrah."
North Adams Mayor Richard J. Alcombright, when reached by The Eagle on Tuesday evening, said no agreements are in place with the league yet, but added that the city and league have had conversations with the NAPHL that have been "very positive." Alcombright also said he's "committed to the concept" of the NAPHL in North Adams, noting that it could do for hockey what the NECBL's North Adams SteepleCats do for baseball in the summer.
"From the community perspective, I think there's still a serious interest in good hockey in this region," the mayor said. "I look at this bringing, all winter .
Three issues still need to be finalized before the Black Bears -- who share a name with the youth hockey organization that also plays at the Vietnam Veterans Rink -- take the ice: ice time, locker room availability and beer sales.
The Vietnam Veterans Rink is state-run, so public interests have to take precedence, according to Darin Lane, the rink manager. He said the NAPHL has been happy to comply so far, and that the league understands the restrictions.
Team practices, Lane said, would be held during the day when youths are in school, so that wouldn't present a conflict.
"Their game schedule will be Saturday nights, and right now, we really don't have a lot of activity Saturday nights," Lane said. "It's actually a really good fit. They are very understanding, and they want to comply and be welcomed here. They don't want to mess with anybody else's schedule."
Locker room space could present a bigger problem. Currently, there's only one locker room available at the rink.
"Right now, there are some folks within the city who are looking at what that infrastructure would look like," Alcombright said.
Selling beer at the rink would have to be approved and regulated by the state's Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), since the rink is state-run. This isn't a new conversation for Alcombright, who noted that this also isn't the first time a hockey league has looked at putting a team in North Adams.
"When we were discussing things with another league a couple of years ago, I had gotten permission [for beer sales] from DCR at the time," he said.
DeFranco declined to state the locations of other teams in the NAPHL, since nothing is final, but noted that the league is looking in New York and New England -- specifically northern New York, Connecticut, New Hampshire and southern Massachusetts. Teams would have 18 players -- 16 forwards and defensemen, and two goalies -- and only three players per team can be "veterans," or have played 250 or more professional games.
The Vietnam Veterans rink seats just 1,060 people, but that doesn't seem to deter the NAPHL. DeFranco anticipates that tickets will sell between the $6-$11 range, with lower-priced tickets for students, seniors and military servicemen.
"I'd rather sell out [an arena] with 1,200 people ... than have 1,200 people in a 4,000-seat arena," he said.
The last independent professional sports team to play in the Berkshires, baseball's Pittsfield Colonials, lasted two years in the Can-Am League at Wahconah Park before ceasing operations in 2011.
Lane believes the toughest obstacle for the team and league will be to get through the first year.
"You're talking an expansion league," he said. "In my opinion, get through year one. Get it open, get it started, and survive.
"The hockey's great. ... They don't want it to be craziness. They want to bring a lot more professionalism to North Adams and to this league."
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