Josh Colligan: NAPHL in North Adams will fail
Hockey is dying in Berkshire County. There's no debating that.
The Hennessy League has folded because only three high school teams exist, so they each play an independent schedule now.
So why would an upstart hockey league want to launch a team here?
The North Atlantic Professional Hockey League is an independent professional league for players trying one final time to make it. The Berkshire Black Bears -- not the youth travel league team, but the name of the new NAPHL team -- will hold tryouts in June.
Starting another hockey league can work. Take a look at Canada and how many different leagues and teams they have. They still draw crowds, make money and churn out talent. The Federal Hockey League, with teams in New York, Connecticut, Ohio and Illinois, has survived, despite teams folding and others relocating.
But there's a big difference between the greater Toronto and Montreal areas and Berkshire County: people. Those areas have them and this one doesn't. The people that are here seem to have lost interest in hockey. That's why this team, not the league, will fail.
The only way the Black Bears make it past the first season is if the financial backers have enough capital to sustain it for two seasons, even if no one buys a ticket. Let's face it, their fan base is limited.
Financial backing seems to have been a problem. The Federal Hockey League had given the go-ahead to pursue the possibility of an expansion team in North Adams. One of the problems was money.
"We offered [them] a spot in our league for that city but we asked for certain financial criteria," FHL Commissioner Don Kirnan said. "We're not going to accept anybody in our league that can't meet financial criteria."
He gave the league less than a 10 percent chance of success.
Berkshire County, geographically speaking, is segmented. There's a cluster of towns in North County; Pittsfield anchors Central Berkshire; and a handful of small towns dot South County.
Those from the middle of the county have a 30-minute drive to get to North Adams. While that may not be too far to see an NHL game, making that trek for a low-level independent team just isn't worth it. Add on the 15-30 minutes it will take for most South County residents, and there's a large portion of the county already outside the team's geographical reach.
Kirnan said the Federal League's team in Watertown, N.Y., is about 60 miles from Syracuse -- which has the American Hockey League's Crunch -- and 50 miles from major junior teams in Canada. The Privateers have enjoyed success drawing fans, but we must remember that Watertown is on Canada's doorstep. Hockey is a different world up there.
A team of this size doesn't need followers in the tens of thousands, but a few thousand to be sure. That number is feasible; just look at the North Adams SteepleCats. To be fair, the SteepleCats have had more than a decade to build their fan base. But what the Black Bears will have to do that the SteepleCats didn't is compete with the high school and college sports scenes.
In the Berkshires, high school sports come before anything else. On any given winter weeknight, there's a game with more community impact than a hockey team filled with players from outside the area, whose chances of making it to the pros are less than those playing on Division I teams.
Just look at the celebrations that ensued after the Hoosac Valley football and girls basketball teams won their respective Western Massachusetts titles in the past 12 months. If North County sports fans have the option of seeing student-athletes from their community or out-of-area players, they're going to stay local.
The SteepleCats also have the advantage of playing in the summer, a time when people are actively looking for some way to enjoy the weather. The Black Bears, a winter team, need to pull people from their homes and into the freezing cold only to sit in a cold rink on wooden or metal benches (not individual seats like more polished rinks) or in lawn chairs at the SteepleCats games.
The other weather factor at play here is road conditions. Berkshire County, and North County in particular, has many back roads that take snow plow crews a while to clear. High school games are postponed with regularity because, in part, these roads take longer to clear than four- and six-lane highways, so people can get to where the want to go.
The SteepleCats also have the advantage of drawing college players with a legitimate chance of being drafted. Yes, Major League Baseball has as many as 40 rounds in its draft, compared to the NHL's seven, but the NECBL also has a history of producing early-round selections.
The NAPHL doesn't yet know where its other teams (supposedly five more) will take root. But if the league is to succeed, it will need to find bigger, more-hockey hungry markets.
To reach Josh Colligan:
or (413) 496-6297.
On Twitter: @EAG_DigitalJosh.
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