The Central Hockey League promotes itself as a AA minor league while using the slogan “The Center of Hockey.” The ECHL promotes itself as a AA minor league with the slogan “Premier AA Hockey League.” I’ll be the first to tell you I’ve never seen a CHL game live or otherwise. I was, however, a season ticket holder for the ECHL Charlotte Checkers from 2001-02 till 09-10 when they moved up to the AHL. I’ve seen hundreds if not more players who shouldn’t be giving the ECHL the time of day as well as guys who struggled to keep up with the regulars. In ECHL barns it’s no secret that a lot of guys get “called up” from the CHL as fill-ins for injuries or legitimate call-ups. I won’t make the argument that the CHL isn’t fun to watch because I’m sure it is a lot of fun. I will argue that it’s not a AA league despite what teams and fans will tell you. I have friends who are long supporters of the CHL, and I know guys who play there that moved on from Charlotte. In terms of baseball, I liken the CHL as “Advanced A” hockey. It’s not all NCAA DIII grads and 40 year-olds like the SPHL, but it’s not guys who are getting calls from AHL teams (often). With that established, here’s the rundown on their 10-11 season.
The Central League was easily the most changed league in 2010-11. In June 2010, they announced they were “merging” with the International Hockey League (not that IHL). The IHL was struggling to keep its head above water after losing league cornerstone Kalamazoo in 2009 to the ECHL. The end of the 09-10 season saw them lose markets in Port Huron, Flint, and Muskegon to the ranks of US Juniors, leaving them with only five teams. The days of the early 21st century UHL footprint extending into upstate New York and Connecticut were gone, leaving them with a core of teams located between Iowa and Ohio. (Tangent: Does a five team league actually have a core?) With the CHL’s relatively recent expansion into Rapid City (SD) and Independence (MO), this remaining “core” from the IHL seemed to fit kind of on the side of the CHL’s footprint.
Originally the plan was to “merge,” and the IHL would continue operations in the background. Nostradamus wasn’t needed to predict what would happen next: the failing league silently dissolved leaving it’s exes to the CHL. And with that, Quad Cities (IL/IA), Fort Wayne & Evansville (IN), Dayton (OH) and Bloomington (IL) joined forces with teams stretching from Arizona to Colorado to Louisiana (Dayton actually moved over a year earlier). Evansville (IN) also tagged along, replacing the same-named franchise from the AAHL.
The regular CHL season was dominated by the Allen (TX) Americans. Most of the new teams from the IHL finished near .500, Fort Wayne 4 games over and Evansville 11 games under the mark. Bloomington was really the only success out of the I, finishing three points out of first place in their conference. Since 16 of the 18 member teams make the playoffs, many of the lesser teams (excepting Evansville) did indeed reach the postseason. However Fort Wayne was the sole IHL team to win their first round match-up….against Bloomington.
After the garbage was weeded out, the cream of course rose to the top with perennial successes the Colorado Eagles and Bossier-Shreveport (LA) Mudbugs playing for the league title. In a thrilling seven game series, the ‘Bugs brought home their first Ray Miron Cup. This was an especially sweet CHL championship for my fellow Charlotte hockey fans as the Mudbugs included some former key players from the Checkers’ previous seasons. After posting consecutive 40+ point seasons for the Mudbugs, forward Jeff Kyrzakos finished the 10-11 postseason with 12-7-19 in 21 games. He won the Playoff MVP Award, though, based on the four goals he scored in the Finals. Three of those were game winning tallies; one in OT to take a crucial game four and one the winner of the decisive game seven. Bossier-Shreveport fan favorite David Rutherford (team leading 22 pts), defenseman Clay Plume (5 pts and a game winner), and backup goalie Ryan Munce (2.57 GAA/.905 Sv%) all played a single season here in Charlotte before prospering in the CHL.
The Mudbugs had only days to savor their victory though, as the ownership announced they would suspend operations immediately due to low season ticket sales. Minor league sports, and hockey in particular, are rarely profitable endeavors for an owner. The Mudbugs owners have flirted with closing shop more than once in recent offseasons, but they are now unable to continue. The Central League has lost three other teams, though not directly to financial losses. The Odessa Jackalopes essentially stepped down to the NAHL, a (perfectly suitable) US Junior-A Tier II league. The Mississippi River Kings, who play just across the state line from Memphis, announced they will move to the Southern Pro League in a move that makes more sense for them geographically especially without Bossier-Shreveport in the CHL mix. If there is one positive out of the CHL’s losses, it would be the Colorado Eagles. They have moved “up” to the ECHL for the 11-12 season.
There is an additional technicality for the CHL’s upcoming campaign: the Bloomington PrairieThunder have ceased operations, however an expansion franchise was awarded to an ownership group that will put a team in Bloomington. Not only was Bloomington saved from the chopping block, but the Quad City Mallards announced they were folding after the season only to be bought and reinstated. The latest hockey resurrection in the Quad Cities includes Carl Scheer as part owner. Fans from the Carolinas will recognize Mr Scheer’s incredible resume, which includes GM roles for the ABA Carolina Cougars, NBA Denver Nuggets, ECHL Charlotte Checkers and Greenville Grrrowl, and not to mention his longtime partnership with NASCAR’s Felix Sabates.
Since the year 2000, the Central League has effectively absorbed both the WPHL and IHL, and lost an astonishing 13 teams (not including the the 9 from the WPHL who are now gone). During the changes, they’ve grown from a 12 team league based largely between Texas and Georgia to a 14 team league that’s shifted into a Texas-to-the-Midwest league. Despite all the turmoil CHL fans have endured in the last 12 years (and really all the way back to the league’s inception in 1992), this is a steady league that will not be going anywhere soon. Many fans are calling for an ECHL/CHL merger to create a nationwide AA super league. While this idea may be a few years from fruition, count on the CHL as being part of the plan.