TRAVERSE CITY — It had been more than a year since a junior hockey game had been played in Traverse City.
April 14, 2012, was the final Traverse City North Stars game at Centre ICE Arena. With a 3-2 overtime loss the Stars were bounced from the North American Hockey League’s postseason — and the team was sold and moved to Sault Ste. Marie.
This year on Oct. 11, that stretch ended when the Traverse City Hounds defeated the Alpena Street Cats 6-3 at Centre ICE.
The return of junior hockey to Traverse City is our No. 6 story of the year.
As solid a product as the North Stars consistently put on the ice — they were playoff regulars, made it to the Robertson Cup and advanced numerous players to the collegiate level — attendance lagged, making it a financial casualty.
Enter a new business model.
The Hounds — who play under the auspices of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), along with the rest of the seven-team Midwest Junior Hockey League — find players willing to pay for another shot at moving up the hockey ranks. The thousands of dollars players and their families pay to keep their dream alive pay for the team’s costs.
So while the Hounds draw an average of 569 fans a game, similar to what the North Stars did near the end, the Hounds are able to make a go of it financially. Ticket sales are almost gravy for the team’s bottom line.
That average of 569 spectators per game is almost half of the league’s total, according to the MWJHL’s attendance figures. TC has a total attendance of 5,693 in 10 games so far this season, while the league has 12,243 altogether in 86 home dates.
The Hounds have a league-best record of 19-3-1-2 and have already had two players earn promotions to the NAHL. The rest of the league has had one player move up the NAHL.
Traverse City was supposed to have a junior team in 2012-13 — the Cohos — but that team wasn’t able to secure enough player contracts in time and went dark for the season and essentially became the Hounds. Scott Gardiner and Randy Montrose jointly owned the Hartland Hounds and were also behind the Cohos, and moved the Hounds to Traverse City following last season.
“We’ve been talking with the rinks down here, between Hartland and Brighton,” Gardiner said when the team’s plan were unveiled in March. “It came down to ice time and being able to accommodate us as far as a locker room. Last year we did not have one, and this year they were assuring us we’d get one. Now, they’re kind of backpedaling. So we thought, ‘You know what, Traverse City wants us. Let’s go where we’re wanted.’ We really want to be there. I think it’ll be a good fit.”
Hartland won the MWJHL regular-season championship last year with an almost unblemished 47-0-1 record and then swept the Bloomington Jr. Blaze and Tennyson Chevrolet to capture the inaugural Veteran’s Memorial Cup.
Hartland then bowed out in the national semifinals of the AAU/UHU national tournament in Las Vegas to eventual champion Idaho Jr. Steelheads of the Western States Hockey League.