When Skip Prince took over the United States League in 2008, the junior circuit was comprised of 12 teams. And according to the outgoing commissioner, some folks thought that was plenty. But as Bob Fallen officially replaces Prince up top, the USHL is slated to ice 17 teams next season, with more cities asking to buy in. That's one of the big issues Fallen will tackle during this reign.
A former Reebok-CCM Hockey exec whose son played in the USHL, Fallen has been involved on the boards of several grassroots initiatives, particularly in Minnesota. Now he's in charge of the whole Midwest, with other markets interested in joining up. Prince estimated there are five or six cities interested in acquiring franchises within the league's footprint and 10 to 15 outside the current borders.
According to some of my sources, the heavy hitters would be Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, with the three teams being linked to the NHL franchises in those cities. All three would lie outside the USHL's current eastern border, however. And though a division including those three cities, Youngstown (Ohio) and Team USA or Muskegon (both Michigan) would make sense geographically, travel is not the only consideration.
"I want to be very careful in pursuing expansion," Fallen said. "The key to me is dilution of talent. Not only in the players, but coaches and officials as well."
Fallen added that the high bar set by Prince in terms of franchise facilities is also a factor, citing a new $130 million arena in Sioux Falls that will house the Stampede as an example. Also of note on that topic is the recent shuttering of the league's Indiana Ice, a franchise that just won the Clark Cup playoff tournament but had no suitable home for next season. One of the best teams in the league, Indiana is now "dormant," with its players re-assigned through a dispersal draft.
"Expansion and the money that comes with it is certainly attractive," Prince said. "You have to give credit to the owners for sometimes saying no."
Buffalo and Pittsburgh seem like particularly attractive destinations, since both cities have hosted the All-American Prospects Game, a relatively new concern dominated by USHL players. The Sabres are just about finished work on the HarborCenter, a two-rink facility right next door to First Niagara Center that will house the Canisius College NCAA team. One of those new arenas seats 1,800 people and though that's on the low-end for the USHL, it wouldn't necessarily mean the worst attendance in the league. In fact, capacity crowds would deliver higher numbers than what Youngstown, Chicago and Team USA saw in 2013-14.
Speaking of Team USA, that institution will also be on Fallen's radar. The vaunted National Team Development Program plays an irregular schedule, with the under-17s and under-18s both playing against USHL squads. When the playoffs roll around, the under-18s (and a couple of the best under-17s) head over to Europe for the world under-18s, where they usually win gold. The NTDP kids that stay home are generally knocked out of the USHL playoffs early, if they make it in at all.
The tough part for the USHL is that the NTDP houses a majority of the league's most well-known prospects: Recent names include Seth Jones, Jacob Trouba and Connor Carrick. None of those youngsters ever came close to hoisting a Clark Cup, but they did all win gold medals at the world under-18s. The USHL would love to have the NTDP compete, but that will be an ongoing negotiation.
"That's a subject we're obviously going to talk about at length," Fallen said. "It's a real asset having them play in the nation's only Tier-1 league. I look forward to expanding that relationship in the future."
In the meantime, things are looking pretty sunny for the USHL. Despite Indiana's dormancy, the league will get bigger next year thanks to the addition of the Madison Capitols in Wisconsin and the Bloomington Thunder of Illinois. At the draft, expect at least three or four NTDP kids to go in the first round (Dylan Larkin, Alex Tuch, Sonny Milano and perhaps Jack Dougherty), while Nick Schmaltz (Green Bay) and Shane Eiserman (Dubuque) look like top-50 talents from outside Team USA.
Fallen has a tough act to follow in Prince, but the blueprint for success is there and now the transition is underway.