’Hounds scramble to find a league

By Tom Williams

Owner Herb Washington and the Central Hockey League have been at odds over money for some time.

YOUNGSTOWN — A day after the Central Hockey League delivered a bodycheck to the Youngstown SteelHounds, ownership began scrambling to find another league for the 2008-09 season.

Monday night the CHL announced that the SteelHounds “are no longer participating in the league,” which came as surprising news to coach Kevin Kaminski and general manager Joe Gregory.

Owner Herb Washington has not responded to phone calls requesting an interview. Neither has Duane Lewis, the CHL’s senior vice president of operations.

Washington and the CHL have been at odds over money since the team’s first puck drop in October 2005.

Last fall, Washington said he had paid his expansion entry fee (believed to be $500,000) but still owed money to the league. He said he hadn’t paid it because he believed the league owed him for travel expenses.

Neither Washington nor the CHL are discussing economic specifics.

In November 2007, Washington, citing travel expenses as his motivation, said he made inquiries about joining the ECHL, which has teams in Wheeling, W.Va.; Toledo; and Johnstown, Pa.

Most of the CHL teams are located in Texas, Colorado and Oklahoma. Both are considered the equivalent of AA leagues in baseball’s minor leagues.

If the SteelHounds take to the ice in October, most likely it will be with the six-team International Hockey League, which was known as the United Hockey League until spring 2007. It’s also considered a AA-level league.

Paul L. Pickard, IHL president, said Tuesday he and Washington have spoken about the possibility of bringing the team into the league for the 2008-09 season.

Pickard said he is trying to set a date for a visit here.

“Youngstown would certainly fit into our business model,” Pickard said. “We will do what we can to try and accommodate them.”

The IHL has four teams in Michigan (Port Huron, Flint, Kalamazoo and Muskegon). The other cities are Bloomington, Ill., and Fort Wayne, Ind.

The IHL web site has posted a 2008-09 schedule.

“There is a lot of due diligence, but it’s not like they [SteelHounds] are an expansion team,” Pickard said. “They’re a franchise with a track record and are an up-and-coming team.”

Pickard said he’s proceeding slowly.

“We try to act with the utmost integrity, so out of respect to the other leagues nothing has been decided,” Pickard said.

The IHL league meetings are set later this month.

Kaminski coached a Missouri team for two seasons in the UHL.

“It’s more of a veteran league,” said the SteelHounds coach who just completed his second season here. The SteelHounds qualified for the playoffs both years.

The CHL permits each team to carry up to four players age 26 and older. Kaminski said he thinks the IHL allows each team to have seven veterans.

He described the level of play in the IHL as “a little more old school with clutch and grab style. But it’s very good hockey.”

Should the SteelHounds join the IHL, Kaminski said the older SteelHound players from last season would be more interested.

Younger players with dreams of playing regularly in the AAA-level American Hockey League would be better off in the ECHL because those clubs have affiliations with National Hockey League teams.

SteelHounds goaltender Andy Franck, this season’s co-Most Valuable Player, said he “was a little shocked” at Monday’s announcement.

Franck, who lives in Lakewood, wouldn’t rule out playing for the SteelHounds again, but said it’s too soon to make a decision.

After a terrific start with the SteelHounds last fall, Franck was called up by the AHL’s Providence Bruins where he went 7-1 before returning to the SteelHounds.

“Hopefully, my performance up there stirred up some interest in me from some of the teams I played,” said Franck, 26. “If that doesn’t happen, anything is possible.”

Franck said he signed with the SteelHounds two weeks before last October’s training camp. He said most AA players ink deals in later summer.

Right wing Mark Odut, who lives in Manitoba, said he learned about the CHL’s move from defenseman Adam Smyth, who had signed a contract for next season.

“Adam said the CHL notified him that his contract ‘has been suspended,’ ” said Odut who played for Kaminski in the UHL before joining the SteelHounds in 2006-07. “It’s quite strange.”

Defenseman Jeff Alcombrack, who suffered a concussion in late January and missed the rest of the season, prefers the SteelHounds join the ECHL.

“I was hoping to stay another year in the CHL,” said Alcombrack who added that he enjoys living here. “The league has been good to me and gotten a lot better.”

Alcombrack, 28, is concerned because the IHL does not play with NHL rules.

“You can clutch and grab, you’re allowed to hook,” Alcombrack said. “It strikes me as more of a fighting league, rather than run-and-gun.”

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