Posted by: Feldman
The Austin Bruins are in the midst of the best season in the short history of the franchise. The Bruins have won 28 of their first 39 games, and have earned at least one point in 33 of those games.
Barring a lose-every-game-the-rest-of-the-way collapse, the Bruins will be in the North American Hockey League playoffs for a second consecutive season. Barring a less-monumental collapse, they'll be the Central Division champions and earn home ice throughout the first two rounds of the postseason.
Regardles of how this season ends, though, the Bruins' division and the entire NAHL will be shaken up next season -- possibly shaken up a bit, possibly shaken up a lot.
Two things we know for certain about the 2013-14 season (and these things could cause a domino effect that really shakes up the structure of the league's divisions):
1. A new team, the Minnesota Magicians (based in Richfield) will join the NAHL. (And, I'm told it's a near certainty they'll be in the same division as the Bruins). The Magicians' owners, Scott Krueger, Scott Meyer and Joe Pankratz, bought out the dormant New Mexico franchise and are relocating it to the Twin Cities area.
2. The Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild will leave the NAHL to compete in the British Columbia Hockey League, a league that some Division I colleges (many in the WCHA) recruit heavily.
So, how far will the snowball roll? We have to start out west to attempt to answer that question.
* With Wenatchee's departure, the NAHL West Division is down to three teams, Fresno (Calif.), Fairbanks (Alaska) and Kenai River (Kenai, Alaska). If another west coast city can be found to replace Wenatchee, the NAHL might prefer to look at that first. If not, I don't think the league would allow a three-team West Division to fly. That would mean either about 25 games against each of their division opponents for the teams in the West, or a lot of loooooong bus trips to play teams in the South, Central or North Divisions.
Also, reports I've read say Fresno has not renewed its NAHL agreement for the 2013-14 season. Fresno already has a Western States Hockey League team in town; perhaps it becomes a one hockey team town. It would make sense for the ownership group to sell their spot in the NAHL to a group located in closer proximity to one of the current divisions.
Of course, that would leave the two Alaska teams in limbo, which is a shame, as strong as Fairbanks has been in recent seasons.
If the West Division is left with just the Alaska teams, I can't imagine either one of them would stay put in their current cities, unless one or both owners are willing to shell out big bucks to continually travel to the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, etc. (by the way, a quick check of Mapquest indicates a bus trip from Fairbanks to Minot, N.D., is 2,552 miles one way)
Even then, you can't have a two-team division, so the Alaska teams would have to fall into the Central or the North (which would then likely be realigned) and you'd have to convince teams like Minot, Bismarck, Austin, Aberdeen, etc., that it's worth their time and money to make one or more trips to Alaska each season. That's going to be a hard sell.
So, potentially, I suppose we could see one, two or all four West Division franchises sold or relocated or just simply shut down.
* ... which brings us to the addition of the Minnesota Magicians. They'll play in the 1,800-seat Richfield Ice Arena and will provide a nice natural rival for the Austin Bruins, in addition to a short bus trip for the players.
Barring any other franchises being relocated to Minnesota or the region, the addition of the Magicians would make the Central a seven-team division. That wouldn't be entirely bad, either. It would mean teams have to battle even harder to be one of the four who make the division playoffs.
Who knows what the NAHL will ultimately look like in 2013-14; we could still have 24 teams, with more closer to our area, maybe we see a 20- or 22-team league without a West Division? Who knows? It will certainly make this offseason one to follow.