WATERTOWN — The ongoing saga of the Federal Prospects Hockey League attempting to hold some sort of a regular season took a turn for the worse Wednesday.
The league’s season opener between the Elmira Enforcers and the Watertown Wolves didn’t happen after an alleged pregame off-ice altercation led to the Enforcers forfeiting the afternoon game at Watertown Municipal Arena.
As a result, this week’s games between the two teams have been called off and the season between the two teams is in jeopardy.
The altercation ensued between a handful of players after the Elmira team arrived at the arena in the late morning.
Wolves team owner Andreas Johansson said an Elmira player attempted to enter the Watertown locker room after the Enforcers’ team bus had arrived and emotions boiled over.
“Of course, at the start of the game we were expecting them to drop the puck and see several fights early on and then have a normal game,” Johansson said. “We know that in a long series like this it’s going to come to a boiling point where it heats up a little bit. But we didn’t really expect this.”
Watertown Police were called to the arena, allegedly by the Elmira team, but no arrests were made.
“I didn’t actually see the situation myself, but there was a lot of pressure built up after the three (preseason) games over the weekend,” Johansson said. “And we kind of figured today was going to be a little rough. But there was a little altercation between one of our players and one of theirs and subsequent to that, they said they didn’t want to take the ice and then went home.”
With the game originally scheduled for a 1:05 p.m. start, Wolves players took to the ice for pregame warmups at 12:40 p.m., but the Enforcers chose not take part in the skate.
“Absolutely, we were ready to play, we were out there for warmups,” Watertown coach Brent Clarke said. “We were ready to play, and it was their decision to not play and not participate in the game or warmups. Ultimately, with everything going on, this is just one more thing to put a damper on the season and this could lead us to possibly not playing.”
According to league rules, if a team fails to hit the ice during the warmup session, it will be forced to forfeit the game once the pregame skate concludes.
Elmira had not taken to the ice during the 18-minute warmup period and Watertown was awarded a forfeit win.
“It’s pretty disappointing,” Wolves team captain Fred Hein said. “We’ve been working hard for so long, so to see this happen, it’s a big letdown.”
“We really don’t know what happened, we got here late,” referee Pete Mical said. “So you’re going to have to talk to the commissioner and our boss. ... Again, we don’t know what happened, they were doing everything on the phone, and then the police came to us and just said ‘their guys aren’t coming out.’”
By 1:10 p.m., the Enforcers team bus already had been moved to the front of the arena, awaiting the players, and later departed for Elmira.
“Obviously without anybody really seeing anything first-hand, we made some phone calls because obviously there was an altercation and I think they were supposedly afraid to take the ice,” Johansson said. “And we offered to sit out the two guys on our side that were involved and the two guys on their side, but that apparently wasn’t enough for them, so they got back on the ice and went home.”
The Enforcers were to stay in town and play at Watertown at 7:30 p.m. today and then both teams were scheduled to play in Elmira on Friday and Saturday. But Johansson said all three games have been canceled.
“Today’s game was canceled after a pregame altercation off ice,” the Elmira team said in a press release. “We wanted everyone to know the players and staff are all safe and are resting in hopes of competing again soon. At this time we know that talks are ongoing with the league and when we have more information we will share it with you.“
Wednesday’s developments follows a contentious weekend between the two teams on the ice in three preseason games, all won by the Wolves. This included a 4-3 win on Sunday in Elmira in which Watertown won in a shootout.
“I spent two seasons there,” Clarke said of Elmira, where he coached the past two seasons. “I mean rivalries happen, but you don’t expect that kind of stuff, you expect more of an on-ice thing. There was a little commotion, we didn’t know what was going on, but unfortunately it happened.”
Johansson said the season may be over even before it started.
“I think we’re done, honestly,” Johansson said of at least this week’s games against Elmira. “We were going to play them back and forth this week and we knew after this weekend that it was getting a little out of control. Those were tough games and there was a lot of yelling from their bench and taunting of our players, and we knew they were going to stand up for themselves (today) and obviously it got out of control, one of their players tried to enter our locker room to confront one of our players and it just got out of control.
“It got broken up pretty fast, we had security in place ... But for whatever reason, they felt threatened.”
Because of concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, the FPHL season, which usually gets under way in November, was postponed several times before Elmira and Watertown agreed on a Feb. 3 start date.
The two teams, currently the only two in the league that have attempted to play a season, were to meet 16 times over the course of the month.
“It’s extremely disappointing, we have a great team and we swept them over the weekend, and we looking very good to try and repeat that again today,” Johansson said. “We were looking forward to some great hockey, and seeing it all fall apart now, it’s hard to really put it into words.”
As of Wednesday evening, the FPHL had yet to release a statement about the incident.
“I think unfortunately, this is probably it,” Johansson said of the prospects of the season finally getting under way. “We were going to play back and forth with Elmira for three or four weeks in the hope of other teams coming in. But at this point, with what happened today, we just feel we can’t rely on them to keep on playing and I think the league is very disappointed with what happened.”
Johansson added: “Unfortunately, unless something comes up in the next day or two, we’re going to have to send our guys home and be back and regroup for this fall.”
Some Wolves players remained hopeful that the situation can be resolved to avoid canceling the season outright.
“We’re just trying to stay positive,” Hein said. “Maybe we can still work something out with them or some of the other teams in the league to play.”
“What can you really say right now?” Clarke added. “It sucks that we’re not playing, but we’ve got to keep them kind of calm as well and just see what happens from here. We’ll revisit here in the next couple days and see what this means for us.”