Peter Traber had been with the Topeka RoadRunners for all of a day, having just been traded from the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders when he took the ice in Amarillo to face off against the Bulls.
After suffering an earlier 5-3 loss, you wouldn’t have guessed in a few months the young goalie from Houston would post a scoreless streak just shy of 218 minutes and three consecutive shutouts in December. Or that he’d draw the attention of scouts to the stands. Or that he would choose Harvard over Princeton and Colgate for the next stop in his hockey odyssey.
He can thank the North American Hockey League for all of that.
The league that provided these opportunities pretty much started off as a mom-and-pop endeavor in the Midwest. It has since morphed into a 28-team, nearly coast-to-coast circuit, stretching all the way from Pennsylvania through Texas, up to British Columbia and into the heart of Alaska.
Now in its 36th season of competition, the North American Hockey League is the top Tier II Junior A option available for players ages 16 to 20 who are looking to parlay their skills into a college scholarship, and perhaps a shot at the professional ranks.
“The players at this level have a tremendous opportunity to be exposed and scouted,” said NAHL commissioner Mark Frankenfeld, who is now in his fifth full year as commissioner, and 14th year overall in the league.
The NAHL started with five teams in Michigan and Ohio facing off in the mid-1970s in what was originally known as the Great Lakes Junior Hockey League. Expansion elsewhere in the Midwest/East re-christened the association as the North American Junior Hockey League in 1984, eventually shortened to NAHL.
It began with clubs such as the Paddock Pools Saints, Cleveland Barons, Detroit Jr. Wings and Wayne Chiefs. Others, like the Compuware Ambassadors, Niagara Scenics and Springfield Jr. Blues emerged in later years, followed by numerous expansion clubs such as Texas and Rochester (N.Y.), along with the U.S. National Team Development Program.
The Texas Tornado has since become one of the NAHL’s model franchises, winning three consecutive Robertson Cups, named for late league patriarch Chuck Robertson, as playoff champions from 2004 to 2006.
The league’s other major annual events, all heavily scouted, include the NAHL Showcase in Blaine, Minn., in September, which features every NAHL team in action over the course of four days. There’s also the Top Prospects Tournament in Troy, Mich., in February, which shows off the rookies and other players who have not yet committed to a college.
The NAHL also fields two minor-league feeder organizations in the 16-team Junior Tier III North American 3 Hockey League, and the 42-team Midget/Bantam Tier I AAA level North American Prospects Hockey League.
Part of the reason for the NAHL’s own growth and stability in recent years has been strong ownership.
“They’ve made their money in other places, and now they’re trying to provide opportunities,” Frankenfeld said of his current crop of owners.
He added that the business model is different for Tier II leagues like the NAHL than it is for Tier I circuits like the United States Hockey League, which generally pays for all player equipment and housing. The NAHL, though, has a much larger geographical footprint, but one that isn’t expected to get any bigger anytime soon.
“The North American Hockey League has created a good niche,” said former NHL goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck, who chairs USA Hockey’s Junior Council. “They’ve broken new ground in places like Texas and have solidified Junior hockey across the United States.”
The NAHL experienced its greatest expansion in 2003 with the absorption of the 10 teams from the America West Hockey League. That stretched its reach into the Dakotas, through the Rocky Mountains, and up into the Alaskan interior, home of the 2011 Robertson Cup champion Fairbanks Ice Dogs.
Former NAHL commissioner Michael Santos, who oversaw the merger with the AWHL, conceded it was no simple task.
“We did a lot of things and took a lot of risks, and a good number of them paid off,” he said.
From its modest beginnings, the NAHL now boasts no less than five teams in Texas and three in Alaska, along with four clubs in its original Michigan cradle.
“I think they do a nice job providing exactly what it is, which is non pay-to-play,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “It’s a great alternative, and they have many teams strategically located in non-traditional markets.”
Frankenfeld began his own tenure with the NAHL as an assistant coach, and later graduating to director of hockey operations before eventually taking the top job. He admitted that his coaching background still serves him well today.
“I’m like the coach of a 28-team league,” he chuckled. “I’m able to understand the coaches and players, and relay their needs to the governors, [and do] what’s best for the players.”
The NAHL has sent scores of its former skaters on to the collegiate and professional levels during its tenure. It can boast several winners of the Hobey Baker Memorial Award, given to college hockey’s best player, including Kip Miller, Brian Holzinger and Ryan Miller.
Among the many other NAHL alumni who have had prolonged National Hockey League careers include Mike Knuble, David Legwand, Andy Greene and Jim Slater. Then there are those who have also hoisted the Stanley Cup, like Danton Cole, Shawn Chambers, Brian Rolston, Kevyn Adams and Doug Weight.
Over the years the NAHL has not only survived, but thrived.
“They place over 100 players a year into Division I and Division III programs,” said Santos, now with the Florida Panthers. “It makes me proud to see how the league is flourishing now.”
What makes the league such a success is that it continues to stick to a simple but effective formula.
The reason it’s a success is that players such as Traber are able to say things like, “if you perform and play well you have a chance to move on and play college hockey.
“It’s great to be in a league that can definitely move kids along.”