Tier II hockey, or free to play hockey in the United States is for many prospects, the badge of honor, or signal that he has arrived. For parents in many cases it is the “payoff” for paying to play for many years.
The USPHL has long been producing NCAA talent. Under its current name and under other names that came before. For years USPHL coaches have said their teams are just as good as NAHL or even USHL teams. For purposes of this article I wont enter that debate.
Last week, in what many believe was an unprecedented face to face meeting of the entire USA Hockey Junior Council, the USPHL application for Tier II status was discussed and debated. The meeting took place in Detroit, and all but two council members were present. I say this may be unprecedented because I am unaware of a meeting like this taking place outside of an annual USA Hockey scheduled event.
Before I get into why and how the USPHL application was denied, you need to understand how it came about.
There is a “turf war” going on in the United States. That turf war is taking place between the USPHL and the NAHL and their various levels of competition within their systems.
At the heart of the turf war, once you move beyond the massive ego’s involved, is the debate over which business model is better.
For simplicity sake, the USPHL is largely made up of arena owners and managers. The NAHL is made up of wealthy investors. That’s not to say USPHL owners aren’t wealthy because they are. It is to say that their model comes from selling ice in their arena’s to teams, and the NAHL is ticket and sponsor revenue based. These are very general distinctions here, so please save your emails to correct me.
Now, the USPHL model would have been to raise fee’s a little for pay to play teams, to help pay for these free to play teams. This in hockey circles was being called a “Tax”. How much would they have been raised?
The plan was to only raise fee’s according to cost of operations or costs of living standards. Roughly 2% to 4%. That’s it. If you were paying $5000 to play this year, you may have paid an additional $100. On the East Coast, an extra $100 a year, to have an increased opportunity, and higher program visibility was seen by parents as being a cost worth paying.
The problem is, parents and players have no voice. The Junior Council thinks they know what you want without asking what you want. They think they know what is best for you, without asking you.
The Junior Council feels that you shouldn’t have to pay the tax every year. They feel this, but they never asked you.
From a business owner standpoint the USPHL plan is a sound business plan. Added value for added expense. It works, and people on the east coast understood that. On the east coast many play within the same organization their entire career, and if they are taxed over the course of time to pay for a future opportunity it was fine by them.
The NAHL does not fund itself that way. The NAHL relies on wealthy owners to write checks to cover losses or expenses. Though that’s a bit disingenuous. Many NAHL owners who own NA3HL teams “tax” those pay to play players to help fund the NAHL teams.
The other NAHL “tax” that many players pay all spring and summer is the “Tryout Tax” and the “Pre Draft Camp Tax”. Let that statement settle in for a minute. When most players trying out do not make a team, they are still paying the tax. Unlike the USPHL model they pay a tax and receive nothing for that tax.
Without the “Tryout Tax” and the “Pre Draft Camp Tax”, the NAHL can not survive.
With a new business model, the USPHL is a threat to traditional beliefs of what free to play hockey is, or how it should be funded. We all know that when businesses perceive a threat, that a defense is planned. In that same vein of thought though, we all know that innovation is critical to an advanced evolution of any business.
The Junior Council appointed a committee of its own members to work through the USPHL application process. The committee, appointed by USA Hockey, recommended the USPHL application move forward to be heard by the full Junior Council.
A recommendation to be heard by the full junior council means there really has to be substantial and compelling reasons for an application to be denied if its held to a legal standard.
Unfortunately, we will never know if any substantial and compelling reasons existed because the application was denied in a closed “executive session”.
Being honest, I personally never expected the USPHL to receive the USA Hockey approval. An approval would have meant a change in the belief system of those making the decisions. An approval would have given an opportunity for the USPHL to prove they were in fact just as good as the others. An approval would have eventually forced changes in existing business models.
This denial is bad for hockey.
More free to play opportunity, regardless of how its funded, is a great thing for players and parents. I can not count how many times I have heard from USA Hockey officials that they “will always support free to play expansion”.
This denial is simply the dumbest decision in USA Hockey recent history. It is a betrayal of the obligation to develop more opportunity for free to play. It is an embrace of the antiquated belief system of how Tier II hockey should be funded, and an endorsement of the “Camp Tax” system.
So what’s next for the USPHL?
The USPHL can always appeal the decision. Or the USPHL can leave USA Hockey and take all those players and revenue with them.
Make no mistake, this is a calculated gamble on the part of the USPHL and USA Hockey. This is a high stakes poker game. Who pushes all in with their chips?
If I am making a side bet, my money is on the USPHL. There will be Tier II USPHL hockey next year, one way or another. The USPHL will either win an appeal if its filed, or will leave and USA Hockey will have lost either way.
The players and parents in the end will decide if they want to pay the tax in small amounts over time, or in larger amounts every spring and summer. A consumer decision. Consumers usually don’t react well when they discover they have been denied an opportunity to decide how and when they choose to spend their money.
TJHN will update this story as information continues to develop.
Joseph Kolodziej – Publisher