BY JAMES COOK
TRAVERSE CITY — Where does Hockeytown North turn for its hockey fix now?
With the North Stars' seven-year run in Traverse City over — they were sold to Sault Ste. Marie for next season — the region is left with a hockey void.
Traverse City still has its competitive high school teams, various Detroit Red Wings camps at Centre ICE, plus youth hockey.
But the North Stars departure means at least 30 open game dates a season at Centre ICE.
Centre ICE director Terry Marchand is working on filling that void.
"I've had a couple conversations with teams that have shown some interest," Marchand said. "We've traded information, and I'm letting the process take it's course."
A potential replacement for the North Stars — who were in the Junior A Tier II North American Hockey League — is likely to come from the Tier III level.
The Kalkaska Roughnecks — a Tier III team similar to what may come to Traverse City — drew an average of 84 fans a game to the Kaliseum in its inaugural season. That ranked ninth in the 11-team Great Lakes Junior Hockey League, with Michigan leading the way with 155 spectators per home contest in the western Detroit suburb of Wayne.
The Roughnecks finished the season with a 13-26-2 record, earning the league's final playoff spot before a first-round exit.
The Tier III business model is a more stable one from a financial standpoint for areas that struggle to draw fans. While revenue from ticket sales tend to be lower, teams can balance that out by collecting several thousand dollars per player a season for the privilege of being on the team.
Marchand said the Tier III model may be the solution to have a Junior team in Traverse City.
"I think without a doubt," Marchand said. "The North Stars tried it for years, and unfortunately it wasn't successful. It's a pretty big advantage to have pay-for-play."
Under the umbrella of USA Hockey, Tier III is allowed to have pay-to-play, while Tier I and II teams are not.
"Being the dad of a player who is about that age, I personally would have a really difficult time paying that kind of money to have him play Midget AAA or something," said TC Central head coach Chris Givens, whose son Cam is a standout sophomore for the Trojans.
The North Stars spent upwards of $40,000 a year on ice time as Centre ICE's top team tenant.
Marchand had the advantage of knowing for awhile that this was coming. The league announced on March 2 that the Soo Eagles had been granted membership in the league by purchasing the North Stars, but many saw it coming long before that.
"I was at pretty much every home game over the years, and they really put a good product on the ice," Marchand said. "I just don't understand why it never worked."
Success on the ice was not a major issue for the North Stars, who had a winning percentage of .643 over the last four seasons. Tickets to North Stars games were $8, or less per game if a season ticket package was purchased.
The North Stars drew an average of 440 spectators per home contest. Only two franchises in the 28-team NAHL — Alaska (387) and Kalamazoo (234) — had lower totals.
Meanwhile, the league set new records for total (1,128,098) and average (1,342) attendance, buoyed by eight teams that brought in over 2,000 fans a game. Fresno, Corpus Christi and Wenatchee each drew over 3,000 a contest, led by second-year franchise Fresno's 3,557.
"It was nice to have that level of hockey right here in town," Givens said. "It gave kids that wanted to play at that higher level and were talented enough a good place here at home where they didn't have to leave. With Anthony (Palumbo), Chad (Fournier) and Dallas (Drake) involved, it's been good for the local kids."
The North Stars had eight players on this year's team with local ties — seven from Traverse City and one from Cadillac.
"Kids could stay at home for their junior or senior year ... knowing that the North Stars staff was going to come watch," Givens said. "And if you're doing the right things, they were more than willing to give those kids the opportunity. Having them here certainly helped us keep kids."