WATERTOWN — The Federal Prospects Hockey League is entering its 10th season, which will face off tonight with five season-opening games around the circuit.
This includes the Watertown Wolves’ season opener against the Mentor Ice Breakers at 7:30 p.m. today at Watertown Municipal Arena.
While no ceremonies are being planned on the 10th anniversary of the FPHL, known as the Federal Hockey League before adding “Prospects,” prior to this season, it does so stocked with 10 teams — representing the most ever in one season for the league.
It now stretches from Georgia in the south, to Watertown in the north, and to Illinois in the Midwest.
“It’s been a long road and it’s taken a lot of different twists and turns,” FPHL commissioner Don Kirnan said. “But it’s certainly something that we’re happy with.”
The league has grown from last season by welcoming four new franchises — the Danbury Hat Tricks in Danbury, Conn., the Columbus River Dragons in Columbus, Ga., the Delaware Thunder in Harrington, Del., and the Battle Creek Rumble Bees in Battle Creek, Mich.
“It’s getting better and better,” Kirnan said of the FPHL. “We have more corporate and fan support then we’ve ever had and things are working in a great way right now. So we’re very excited with the way things are working out.”
Now with 10 teams, the league is featuring two divisions for the first time — with the Wolves, Elmira Enforcers, Mentor Ice Breakers in Ohio, as well as Danbury and Delaware in the Eastern Division.
The reigning league-champion Carolina heads up the Western Division, which also includes the Danville Dashers in Illinois and Port Huron Prowlers in Michigan as well as newcomers Battle Creek and Columbus.
“It is a good thing,” Kirnan said. “Potentially as the league grows, we might have to do some different things, but two divisions are a good option right now.”
Kirnan, who founded the league back in 2010, likes to take note of other professional hockey leagues that have gone by the wayside over recent years — such as the Central Hockey League, the All American Hockey League and even the lesser known Ligue Nord-Americaine de Hockey — while the FPHL has survived and grown.
“We’ve sent a lot of players to the Southern (Professional) League,” Kirnan said. “And then a lot of players from there go up to the East Coast (Hockey League), and the East Coast goes up to the AHL and of course, the AHL goes to the NHL. “So we’re the beginning stages of what happens in hockey ... I think it’s just a situation where we’re part of the chain. It’s a lot of work, obviously, but we’re happy with how things are going and we’re certainly happy in Watertown.”
The FPHL makes its return to Danbury, which originally sported a charter-member franchise in the league, after a two-year absence.
“It’s great to seem them back,” Kirnan said of Danbury. “Obviously it was our No. 1 market when we started and it was for a number of years. Just the way the league is grown, I think they will be fortunate to be in the top five, because we’ve grown so much as a league.”
The Danbury Whalers competed in the league for seven seasons, the last two as the Titans, before leaving the circuit.
This year, the league is venturing into new territory with the Columbus franchise in Georgia.
“Columbus, Ga., has a (7,259-seat) facility,” Kirnan said. “I think Columbus is going to come out flying, they seem to have a lot of experienced people. And I think Danbury won’t be like an expansion team, either, they have a lot of experienced people behind them, so I think they’ll be in the thick of things.”
The new Battle Creek franchise joins Port Huron in the hockey-crazed state of Michigan.
“Battle Creek has had teams in the past and I think it’s just going to be one of those things where they’re going to have their challenges, but it’s good to have a team there,” Kirnan said. “Having Delaware coming in, they’re in a very good market and that will be exciting,” Kirnan said.
The FPHL’s first season was in 2010-11, which included six teams, including the Thousand Islands Privateers, which was a charter franchise as well its archival in the early years, the Akwesasne Warriors, just across the border in Canada.
The Privateers played two seasons in Alexandria Bay before the franchise was moved to Watertown in 2012, becoming the Watertown Privateers in 2013.
After four total seasons, the Privateers franchise went dormant and a new franchise, the Watertown Wolves, joined the league in 2014.
The first Wolves team won the league championship, the Commissioner’s Cup the following spring in 2015.
Among the current teams, the Danville Dashers is the league’s oldest franchise, having joined the league in 2012.
Kirnan says the FPHL is already looking into expanding even more for next season, perhaps with more potential teams down south.
“We already have a lot of interest from teams interested in next year, too,” Kirnan said. “So things are working really positively for everybody in the league. The parity seems to be good and we hope that things will work out in the long run as far as growth.”
In his quest to keep the league going as well as expanding the circuit to new locales, Kirnan has logged countless hours on the road over the years.
“It’s been a lot of work, a lot of challenges trying to get everything organized,” Kirnan said. “We’re just doing a lot of different things. It’s a lot of work, some 18-hour days, but we’re hoping it pays off in the long run.”