By Tom Williams
The United States Hockey League wants a franchise at the Chevrolet Centre this fall.
YOUNGSTOWN — The commissioner of the United States Hockey League believes the United States is producing more high-caliber hockey players than ever.
Skip Prince, the commissioner of the top amateur league in the country, says his league is prepared to grow to accommodate those players.
Wednesday, Prince visited the city to tour the Chevrolet Centre with Mahoning Valley Phantoms owner Bruce Zoldan, who wants to create a USHL team to play in the 4-year-old arena this fall.
Zoldan and Prince also met with city officials to promote their plan.
If Youngstown gets a team, it would be part of a seven-team division as the USHL expands to 14 franchises.
“We’ve never been larger than 12 before,” Prince said. “The reason is ... we didn’t [want to] sacrifice anything in the quality.
“We now recognize that the United States hockey pyramid has a top that is big enough to be able to sustain 14 or 16 teams,” Prince said. “I’m not sure you could have said that 10 years or five years ago.”
The U.S. National team, which plays in the Phantoms’ North American Hockey League, is joining the USHL in the fall.
Asked if the Mahoning Valley could support hockey enough for a team to draw 2,000-2,500 fans, Prince said, “I think you could do better than that.
“We recognize that the quality of [our] on-ice product at this point is the virtual equivalent of [Canada’s] major juniors,” Prince said. “Shift for shift, player for player, we are at that level. It’s taken a lot of people who have worked hard to get there.”
Like the Phantoms, the USHL use teen-age players with big dreams. Some USHL players get selected in the National Hockey League’s draft while many others earn scholarships to Division I colleges.
The Youngstown SteelHounds of the Central Hockey League were the arena’s main tenant from 2005-08. The CHL uses players ages 21 to their mid-30s.
Last June, the CHL booted the SteelHounds from the league, creating a vacancy that continues to nag the city as it struggles to pay the arena’s mortgage.
The SteelHounds averaged around 3,000 fans.
This season, Zoldan’s Phantoms played 25 games at the Chevrolet Centre. Attendance has been about 1,000 per game.
Zoldan believes fans would rather see players on their way to top careers.
Prince said the USHL is the solution.
“There is no forgiveness in this league for anything but the best quality in this game,” Prince said. “I think that’s what the fan base here and ownership here are looking for.”
Prince said Zoldan’s organization is well-prepared, “having looked already into the community of elite players.”
Prince downplayed an immediate deadline for a decision, saying plans already are in place for an expansion draft in May.
He added that the league is preparing a futures draft to reach out to more players.
“The draft has always been held in October,” Prince said. “We’re bringing it to May to let the 16-year-old hockey player know that not only are we here but we’re watching.
“It’s our perception at this point that we need to take care of America’s finest hockey players and the way to do that is to scout them, talk to them a lot earlier and a lot more often than they have been talked to,” Prince said.
A year ago, Columbus had a USHL franchise that struggled, playing in Nationwide Arena, the home of the NHL’s Blue Jackets. It folded.
Despite that, Prince believes that Ohio and Pennsylvania are “an area having a lot of hockey growth.”
“I’m a fan of hockey of every level so we won’t disparage any level of hockey,” Prince said. “What we are saying is that when you are elite , when you are the very best, which we believe we are, we’re just trying to be very careful to go to places where we can sustain that.
“We think Youngstown might be a good place for that,” Prince said.