USPHL’s financial strength underwrites unique cradle to college hockey model
The United States Premier Hockey League (USPHL) will approach its eighth season of operations with the same mission as when it opened play in 2013: to provide the best hockey development model within a framework that maximizes exposure to college hockey coaches.
The USPHL will continue its player development success long after the present-day coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic passes, as the league’s finances are not by and large tied to ticket sales and corporate sponsorships. Most of the USPHL’s ownership groups not only own their teams, but also own the rinks in which these teams operate, creating the perfect hybrid of top-flight facilities and high-intensity hockey.
The USPHL’s “players first” approach has proven among the greatest hockey success stories of the last decade, as the league has sent more than 2,500 players to college hockey and over 250 on to pro hockey, including the NHL. This will continue as the USPHL nears the 10-year mark, and as the Tier II tuition-free National Collegiate Development Conference (NCDC) opens its fourth year of operations.
“The rink ownership model of the USPHL organizations eliminates the need for a fan-based economic model and the uncertainty that comes along with the potential revenue deficiencies of a decreasing fan base,” said USPHL commissioner and Islanders Hockey Club owner Richard Gallant. “The USPHL business model includes large-scale team programs, a host of other on-ice rink programing revenues and other ancillary offerings like concessions, which allows the USPHL programs to invest with surety in the league’s player development model.
“When the rinks reopen this summer under new social distancing guidelines, the USPHL owners can guarantee their teams will be back in business.”
“Owning the rink means that you can determine your own destiny, and not be beholden to any facility,” added fellow USPHL Executive Committee member Bobby Reiss, owner of the Jersey Hitmen and the Ice Vault, of Wayne, N.J. “Team and rink ownership groups across the league – from its youth divisions to the Tier II tuition-free NCDC – are able to focus solely on development of the player as they improve their game amongst college-worthy amenities, without having to worry about ice times, rink contracts and other business-related distractions.”
“From a financial standpoint, the USPHL is in great shape to weather any storm, because our model is not based on ticket sales or advertising,” said Peter Masters, of the USPHL’s Executive Committee, and also co-owner of the Boston Jr. Bruins. “We are funded by each organization.”
Cradle To College
A great number of those organizations – including all 12 organizations fielding teams for 2020-21 in the NCDC – operate several teams at different levels ranging from youth to junior.
It creates a true “cradle To college” model for players to follow, often under one roof.
“The USPHL has created a model where families can start in a particular rink from learn to skate to youth hockey to Midget and junior and not have to move anywhere,” Masters said. “We are the only junior league in North America that is able to offer something like that, at that scale. It has created within our league a great sense of continuity. Our parents feel extremely comfortable after being involved for years with one organization from one level to the next.”
With Reiss’ ownership of both the youth-to-junior Hitmen program and the program’s home facility, he has all the tools at his disposal to make it a perfect one-stop shop for a lifetime of hockey development.
“The NCDC Hitmen team is the crown jewel of our organization and the building, but we also have a Tier II program,” Reiss said. “Everyone who starts out with our Tier II New Jersey Bandits get to see the Hitmen in the building and they can aspire to become part of the Hitmen. When those Hitmen players are in the building, there is a certain swagger. The younger kids want to be around them.”
When a player makes the Hitmen, they can also look forward to the red-carpet treatment, which is easier to provide when the rink and team owner are one and the same.
“We schedule our own facility, so that if we are going to have a big NCDC game, we can staff the bar and restaurant accordingly,” said Reiss. “The players skate out to center ice with a light show, and you have your national anthem. You coordinate everything.
“When we built our newest rink, Rink 3, we built it with the Hitmen in mind. Their locker room is excellent, and we also built new office space. If we did not own the Hitmen and the Ice Vault, our investment in the building of that rink would not have been close to what it was.”
In Sewell, N.J., Tom Mackey’s co-ownership of the Hollydell Ice Arena and Philadelphia Hockey Club was also instrumental in creating a top-of-the-line facility with an NCDC hockey team in mind. Hollydell Ice Arena has nearly 5,000 square feet of new locker room space, with more than 1,800 of that dedicated solely to the NCDC team.
“I bought the rink in August of 2017 and proceeded to gut most of the facility,” said Mackey. “I didn’t know if we were going to field an NCDC team, but I had a good idea of where I wanted us to be.”
The One-Stop Hockey Shop
“Our whole model has been based on creating a one-stop shop to develop hockey players, with all of the on-and off-ice amenities where they could develop from youth to Midget to NCDC,” Mackey said.
Whether it is the NCDC in the Northeastern U.S., or the USPHL Premier which has a 24-state footprint including several college-heavy Midwestern areas, the USPHL is in prime position for success with its proximity to NCAA colleges to attract college hockey coaches and scouts for recruiting. Being in largely hockey-heavy areas, USPHL teams can recruit some of the best talent within their backyard.
Rink ownership plays a key role in this recruiting process, as players often must balance the desire to remain home with family against the desire for the best developmental environment.
“There is a lot of anxiety in sending your child out of area and out of the house for the first time in general,” said Masters. “There’s also a lot of anxiety and concern with placing your son’s season and career in the hands of people whom you’ve never met before and with whom you have no relationship. A lot of the families involved with the Jr. Bruins at the junior level have been involved at the youth level as well, so that level of anxiety is minimized.”
The USPHL owners pride themselves on operating an organization and facility that embraces a family-like atmosphere.
“When a new family comes in that is joining our team, they don’t just meet our NCDC coaches (Toby Harris and Jim Hunt), but they meet the ownership as well,” said Reiss. “We show them the rink, and how we really make all of our own stuff, from the logos to the apparel. No other rink in America does it quite like that. Sam Walton, the owner of Walmart, once said ‘Exceed your customers’ expectations and you’ll be very successful.’ In hockey, if you exceed your customers’ expectations, they want to be part of your organization. They will enjoy being here.”
“The league is positioned financially to be extremely stable, especially going into our fourth year of tuition-free hockey, and our entire group is getting better at the process of recruiting and delivering the services that elite players are looking for,” added Masters. “I’m extremely excited about the direction of the league.”
About The USPHL
The United States Premier Hockey League of 2020-21 will be the nation’s largest amateur ice hockey league and the only league to span the continental United States and parts of Canada. The USPHL will field approximately 550 teams representing over 100 organizations comprised of 11,000 players spanning the ages of 6 through 20.
Overall, across all of its divisions, the USPHL had more than 1,200 alumni playing college hockey in 2019-20 and more than 250 playing pro hockey, including the NHL.
— Joshua Boyd/USPHL.com
(April 23, 2020)