Tomorrow, an incredibly exciting announcement is coming to the developmental world. A new junior league based in the Western U.S. will be unveiled, opening up a flood of opportunities for players, but also for the grassroots game as a whole. And the best part? The league already has the backing of four NHL franchises.
The unnamed league is spearheaded by Ben Robert, a Montreal native and hockey lifer currently living in California. Robert, the managing and founding partner of West Coast Hockey Sports and Entertainment, has led an intriguing life as a former player whose previous stops included working for the Los Angeles Kings on the business side and as co-owner of the USHL's Omaha Lancers along with Hall of Famers Luc Robitaille and Mario Lemieux. Robert also helped get the NHL-caliber Videotron Center built in Quebec City.
Now the challenge will be to bring top-level junior hockey to the West Coast. The plan is to be on the ice for the 2023-24 campaign, giving the new league time to recruit and set up ownership and infrastructure. Robert says the plan is to start with six teams and potentially jump to 12 in the coming years. And if you're speculating about locations, it's worth noting that the Kings, San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks and Vegas Golden Knights have already signed a joint statement endorsing the project:
"As the game of hockey continues to enjoy unprecedented growth, this is a significant step forward to not only help retain the top players from many of these areas, but to provide them with the best opportunities and resources to pursue their hockey dreams," read the statement. "We are pleased to help support this new venture and we are excited to see how the league evolves and develops."
One thing Robert hopes for in that support is establishing NHL-style cultures amongst his league's teams.
"Our mission is to do it the right way and for the right reasons," he told me. "We want to focus on the development of the human being as well as the skills: Recovery, nutrition, coaching, tutoring."
And because a career in the NHL is difficult to achieve for any junior player, there will be an emphasis on preparing the kids for college: Like the USHL, the new league will be arranged so that its players will maintain NCAA eligibility.
While the USHL will be an obvious competitor for talent, Robert doesn't necessarily see that top American circuit that way, since geographically there will be no overlap.
"We're not here to compete with anyone," he said. "We're here to build a better mousetrap on the West Coast and to forge a path to college hockey."
Indeed, the USHL's footprint runs from Ohio to Nebraska, but no further West. That leaves NHL markets such as Arizona and Colorado open, on top of the California and Nevada markets that have already pledged support (it's also worth wondering about a future Seattle team, though major junior already has several WHL franchises in the area).
Where the new league will get into a race with the USHL and WHL is on the talent side. For Robert and his crew, the idea is to allow players from the region to stay closer to home instead of being forced to leave at age 16 (or younger in many cases) to play for a high-level program. Right now, only 12 states have more registered players than California and one of those states is Colorado - which the new league could also hypothetically draw from. On top of the locals, Robert said the new league will be open to everyone, so Canadian kids sick of winter weather could easily sign up and play their junior hockey in a sunny locale.
More information will be coming out about the league in the coming days and weeks but from what I've been told, there are some pretty impressive folks involved in the venture. That's what makes this so exciting: It meets a need, it's backed well and it adds more high-level teams to the game.
In the big picture, it may also encourage the growth of NCAA hockey in the region. Right now, Arizona State is the only Pac-12 school with a D-1 program, but I've been banging the drum for others to join for years now. How cool would it be to see UCLA or Stanford make the leap? Or what about Utah? UNLV isn't Pac-12, but that's an intriguing program to watch, too (and the Pac-12 does have affiliate members for other specific sports, so if they wanted a six-team branded conference, I'm sure an exception could be made).
It's early for all of this, but it's definitely exciting. The hockey revolution started in California with the arrival of Wayne Gretzky and more than 30 years later, the Pacific will be the beach-head for a new league altogether.