In 2006, the Washington Capitals vacated the National Hockey League (NHL) team’s long-time practice facility, Odenton’s Piney Orchard Ice Arena, to move to a new, modern, dual-rink facility in Northern Virginia, the Kettler Capitals Iceplex.
What followed during the next decade at the old barn back in Maryland was a mixed bag. While the rink was still used by area teams, organizations and the local community, it was also in a period marked by a lack of investment, which it lacked to the point where the planned addition for a second sheet of ice was abandoned.
That was the situation until two years ago, when the facility was purchased by Black Bear Sports Group (BBSG) and Piney Orchard Equity LLC, a partnership that invested $750,000 in upgrades to the structure while it looked to acquire a junior hockey (which is similar to Major League Baseball’s minor league system) team to play at the arena.
Today at the rink, there is much reason for optimism. Not only are plans going forward to build the addition with the second sheet of ice in a market that badly needs more capacity, but BBSG has purchased not one, but two junior franchises: one in the Tier 2 North American Hockey League (NAHL) and another in the Tier 3 Eastern Hockey League (EHL).
They are scheduled to begin play at the Piney Orchard Ice Arena this fall for the 2018–19 season.
There may not be NHL players hanging around the rink much, but there will be increased vibrancy with NCAA and NHL scouts in the stands, assessing players in the 16–21 age range as they vie for spots with NCAA division 1, 2 and 3 programs — as 1,300 NAHL players have made NCAA commitments, with 17 more drafted directly out of the league into the NHL during the past five years.
BBSG’s acquisition of the franchise was made possible three years ago when the NAHL, which was founded in Michigan in 1976 and operates out of four regions of the U.S., decided to create an East Division, in which Maryland will become the sixth team.
“Our roots are in Michigan, and the league was once more of a regional operation,” said Alex Kyrias, director of communication for the Frisco, Texas-based NAHL. “We eventually merged in 2003–04 with the American West Hockey League, adding teams from the Dakotas and Alaska, plus some expansion franchises. Then we started to grow in the south, into Texas,” which has evolved into a hotbed for the sport.
There were only six to 12 teams in the NAHL until 2003, but that number has fluctuated between 20–28 teams since. “The addition of Maryland puts six teams in all four divisions,” Kyrias said. The teams play 60 games per season, starting with four games for each at a showcase event that starts the season in Minnesota, then 28 games at home, 28 away, all against division rivals.
The local market is attractive to the NAHL “for various reasons,” Kyrias said. “There is a good talent pool, not just locally, but in the mid-Atlantic. Hopefully, many of the players (who will try out in May, before the June draft) will be local,” he said, “but we know that more players will come from all over the region and country, and maybe even from Europe.”
Kyrias went on to say that the Tier 1 United States Hockey League (USHL) and the NAHL are “way above any other league in terms of players getting NCAA opportunities and occasionally players picked in the NHL free agent draft,” adding NHL teams can only draft 18-year-olds. The Tier 3 leagues include the EHL, NA3HK and Rocky Mountain. All five leagues are sanctioned by USA Hockey, though other leagues exist.
Another interesting aspect to the local market is that there is no sanctioned top-level high school hockey in Maryland, as there is for other sports.
“The only state that has top players playing in high school hockey is Minnesota,” said Kyrias. He added that “one reason [the juniors concept] has worked for the last 10–12 years is because owners may take a big financial risk (new franchises are said to cost approximately $500,000), but they have figured out a business model that works. It includes modest ticket prices, a family-friendly atmosphere and the players, who are amateurs, staying with host families.
“Juniors are a step available in hockey that doesn’t exist in other sports, where young talent can develop for a year or two,” said Murry Gunty, the CEO of BBSG and head of Blackstreet Capital, both based in Chevy Chase, who noted that more improvements will be coming to Piney Orchard Ice Arena, including improved food options.
As for the EHL franchise, Neil Ravin, the spokesman for the Boston-based league, would only say that there “are still many moving parts” to establishing the Maryland franchise, “but we’re glad to expand our footprint into Maryland and the mid-Atlantic.” He noted that there also will be new teams joining the league for the 2018–19 season based in North Carolina and in South Carolina.
Right on Time
BBSG bought the Piney Orchard Ice Arena in 2016 due to its location and because “it has great facilities that were once state-of-the-art for the NHL,” said Mike Weiss, executive director of Team Maryland, based in Rockville, which is part of the ownership group for the arena. “It collected dust for a long time before we bought it, but now it’s in good shape for an NCAA or junior team.”
For Weiss and others, acquiring the new franchises are the culmination of a few years of effort, combined with some patience.
“We’ve tried to get a team here in recent years, but the timing wasn’t right, but now the time has become right,” said Weiss, who coached both of Gunty’s sons for five years for Team Maryland, and worked together to operate ice rinks like Abingdon’s Ice World (in Harford County) and two more in New Jersey.
And today, final arrangements for what will hopefully become a local junior hockey boom are being made.
“We’re looking forward to filling out our roster, and Dec. 1 is the go-live date for the second sheet of ice. We’re in permitting now,” he said, “with the first shovel set for around Memorial Day.”