The WSHL: 25 Years in and only getting started

by Steffan Waters



“It was absolute craziness.”

                    

TUSTIN,  CA -- Those four words were the first spoken out of WSHL founder and  former commissioner Dr. Don Thorne when he sat back and recounted how it  was when the Western States Hockey League was formed in 1993.

To understand why Thorne would describe it in that manner, you have to  first realize how different the junior hockey landscape was back in the  early 1990s. All the preeminent programs resided in the eastern part of  the United States. If you were a high-caliber youth hockey player, the  only way to further your hockey career was to play at a prep school in  the Northeast, a junior team far away from home, or journey to play in  Canada. The western half of the United States was devoid of junior hockey teams.

That was until Thorne’s son reached the age of juniors and needed a  place to continue his career that did not require being 3,000 miles away from home.

“My son was a really good hockey player but had nowhere to play close to  home”, said Thorne. “I thought it would be pretty easy to just start a  junior team that would provide an opportunity for him and his friends to  continue playing, but it turned out to require a bit more before that  was reality.”

Thorne sought out to start the Anaheim Jr. Ducks and approached USA  Hockey about certifying the team as a Jr. B USA Hockey program. What he  was told next is what got the ball rolling for the establishment of the  WSHL.

“The USA Hockey folks told me that we couldn’t have just one or two  teams playing as independents, that we needed to have a league with a  minimum of six programs to be recognized as USA Hockey programs” said  Thorne. “I know there was doubt that we could do it, they questioned  whether a bunch of ‘surfers and beach bums’ could play hockey  competitively, but we came back to prove otherwise.”

Thorne hit the road and found five other teams to join his Jr. Ducks as  the original members of the Western States Hockey League in 1994. The  six founding members were the Anaheim Jr. Ducks, Arizona Bandits, Las  Vegas Junior Aces, San Jose Junior Sharks, Utah Lightning, and Ventura  Mariners.

Thorne, a holder of a Ph.D. in Toxicology and Pharmacology and an  entrepreneur by trade, did what he could to keep the league solvent. The  league buy-in was $15,000 for the original members, just enough to show  commitment, but not exorbitant enough to deter parents from becoming  owners if they desired, which as it turns out, many did.

The  early years were tough. The league, or really Thorne, had to subsidize  dues for many teams. But he did so to keep the league together. Thorne  knew that there would be growing pains, but he felt eventually, the  league would grow to a point where the teams could help each other out  and not rely on a single person to do so.

“A lot of people worked to make the WSHL a reality” said Thorne. “I was  at the forefront of it all as the league founder, but we had coaches,  parents, players, owners all working hard to make this work. We needed  to make it work for the kids coming up.”

The WSHL faced quite a bit of turnover from its teams in the early  going, with some teams changing ownership and names to others folding  completely. Don exhausted his limited contacts in the hockey world, but  eventually, his reach ran out. The WSHL did replace many defunct teams  with others in the same region, but it wasn’t until 1996 when Thorne  approached Ron White, a rink owner in Southern California, with a  proposition that the league started to really take off.

White, aside from owning and operating rinks, was the USA Hockey Pacific  District Chief and the President of Bomber Hockey, the non-profit  organization that ran Southern California Bomber youth hockey programs.  Thorne offered White and the Bomber Hockey organization the Jr. Ducks  with the understanding that within a couple years, White would then take  over as Commissioner of the WSHL. Thorne’s son was no longer playing  junior hockey and Thorne thought the team and the league would best be served under White’s tutelage.

The WSHL underwent a massive transformation over those couple years with  both Thorne and White leading the way. In Thorne’s mind, however, he  had done all he could to get the WSHL off the ground and as with the  other companies he has built, he knew it was time to turn the league  over to someone capable of bringing it to even further heights. He had  that person in Ron White, a true hockey mind, and stepped aside completely prior to the 1998 season.

Heading into the 1998 season, the WSHL only had two original teams  remaining, the Anaheim Jr. Ducks, now known as the Southern California  Jr. Bombers (today they’re known as the Long Beach Bombers), and the  Ventura Mariners, but had added 12 others to play alongside them. The  geographic footprint of the WSHL heading into that 1998 divisional  season was enormous. There were two teams in California, one in Arizona,  one in New Mexico, two in Utah, one in Colorado, two in Nevada, four in  Alaska, and one in the Yukon Territory.

The expansive reach of the WSHL did not last long as the financial  demands of such travel caused nearly every team to fold within the first  couple years of White taking over as commissioner.

“Unfortunately, we had to essentially wipe the slate clean of our teams”  said White. “They could not meet the financial demands that playing in  the WSHL required of that time. But we rebounded and came back  stronger.”

Now back to six teams, the number needed to keep USA Hockey sanctioning,  White took a different approach to expansion than his predecessor did.  His connections as the USA Hockey District Chief allowed him to approach  people, rink owners, coaches, etc., that Thorne did not have  connections with. White pitched these people, people he thought would be  good owners, on owning a team in the WSHL. Several of them bought in.

Expansion was once again happening for the WSHL, but it was happening at  a slow and methodical pace. They got to 10 teams with owners White  described as dedicated, and the league started to build from there.

In 2007, the league changed their status as a Tier III Jr. B league to a  Jr. A league to attract higher-quality prospects and increase  competition. But those next few years brought change that no one saw  coming.

Changes were coming at USA Hockey that greatly affected junior hockey  leagues. The autonomy that each league enjoyed, which gave them the  ability to expand freely and move into various markets, was going to be  limited by what White called “lots of red tape”.

The Amateur Athletic Union, known better just as the AAU, pitched all of  the junior leagues in the United States on leaving USA Hockey sanctioning and joining the AAU, which promised to maintain the autonomy  they were accustomed to.

“For the WSHL to remain viable, we required that ability to expand  without getting approval from 10 different organizations” said White.  “We have to operate in a number of states and a number of districts  because of gaps the desert we have out here causes. The best move for us  was to go with the AAU and drop our USA Hockey sanctioning. It wasn’t  an easy decision, but it was a necessary one.”

In dropping its USA Hockey sanctioning, the WSHL did lose a few teams,  including the Phoenix Polar Bears, winners of six Thorne Cups. The  losses stung, but the opportunities that presented themselves following  the move helped ease those losses.

The WSHL was able to add teams from all over the western half of the  United States, expanding membership to nine states, including Oklahoma,  Kansas, Texas, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, California, Oregon, and  Washington. This time, expansion came from owners of teams who were  dedicated to success of the league and the players that play in it. The  financial consideration to join the new WSHL was in the six figures, a  far cry from the $15,000 it was to join in 1994.

Between the expanded territorial coverage and the capital investment in  both league and team success, the WSHL was making a name for itself in  junior hockey circles and teams from other leagues were beginning to  take notice. Three teams came over from the Northern Pacific Hockey  League, helping membership reach a peak of 29 teams during the 2015-16  season.

A few teams from that high of 29 have ceased operations and a couple  more have taken a hiatus but plan to return in a year or two. Today, 23  teams play in the WSHL, including four from the brand new Provinces  Division.

The Provinces Division is not something that popped up overnight. It was  the culmination of nearly three years of planning. The WSHL Board of  Directors conducted research, White made visits to each of the locations  petitioning for membership, and finally, the decision to move forward  came this summer.

“I had no doubt by the end of the process that this would be  successful”, said White. “We placed teams in communities that wanted Jr.  A-level hockey, found owners that bought-in to the vision of the WSHL,  we did our due diligence.”

The Provinces Division has been a major success so far. It is headed up  by Derek Prue, who serves as the WSHL’s Provincial Division Director. He  and Mike Murphy, who is a representative of the WSHL Executive  Committee, organized a cross-division event earlier this season, where  teams from the Northwest Division traveled north to Canada to play six  games against Provincial Division teams.

“First off, this first season has been a huge success”, said Prue.  “There have been challenges, these four teams started from scratch and  with only a few months before the season started, but they’ve navigated  the first few months pretty well. Ron and the leadership of the WSHL  have been instrumental in making this endeavor successful and deserve to  be commended for their expediency.”

The four teams of the Provinces Division, the Cold Lake Wings, Edson  Aeros, Hinton Wildcats, and Meadow Lake Mustangs, have been embraced and  supported by their hometowns and they’ve responded by being just as  involved in their communities. This has resulted in high attendance and a  number of sellouts, including several during the cross-divisional  games.

The reception of the league’s newest teams has the WSHL looking forward to adding more in other markets in the future.

“Do we anticipate more teams starting in Canada? Absolutely. But it  might not just be Canada. As long as it’s a passionate hockey community  that would welcome and advance the WSHL mission, we’ll consider it”,  said White. “Expansion put us on the map, literally and figuratively. We  now have the resources to invest in league operations to make the  league more noticeable and a geographic footprint that attracts players  from all around the world.”

WSHL teams have players from the United States, Canada, and European  countries. Since they are no longer USA Hockey sanctioned, they do not  follow the same roster limits as other junior hockey leagues, thus,  there has been a large influx of European players in recent years.  Overall, the quality of play has improved and increasingly, WSHL players  have been receiving offers from NCAA Division I, Division III, and ACHA  Division I programs.

Behind a number of those commitments? The Western States Shootout, the annual WSHL showcase held every December in Las Vegas.

The Western States Shootout is in its 18th edition with it being based  in Las Vegas for over a decade. The event attracts over 100 scouts  annually and continues to grow.

“We wanted to do something different with our showcase”, said White. “We  used to hold it in various locations in late September or early October  and only had six or so college coaches in attendance. After four years  of doing that, we decided to move it to Las Vegas and schedule it in  December, when no college teams were playing.”

The move reaped instant benefits. The first year of the Western States  Shootout in Las Vegas had 33 scouts in attendance. From there, the event  has only grown. This year, the WSHL anticipates over 125 college  coaches and scouts will be in Las Vegas, taking in the games at City  National Arena from December 18th to the 21st.

“From a coach’s perspective, our showcase is the premier event of the  season”, said Long Beach Bombers Head Coach Chris White. “Obviously the  Thorne Cup Playoffs are a big deal, but our showcase brings the entire  league together. Over the years, the quantity of coaches and scouts in  attendance increased, as did the quality. We started getting plenty of  DI coaches out here, in addition to the DIII and ACHA DI and DII  coaches. It turned out to be a great decision to put it in Las Vegas.”

When you’re in the business of junior hockey, on-ice success comes  secondary to player development and advancement. The WSHL, unlike other  leagues, do not have alums littering NCAA Division I and Division III  teams. The numbers are growing, but many WSHL players find their hockey  careers taking them to top universities for their studies.

“Would we like more Division I commits? Sure, I think most leagues would  say that” said Ron White. “But at the end of the day, the most  important thing is that we’re helping our players use hockey to get into  school. There are only so many opportunities to play professional  hockey, so the education these guys can get because of hockey is far  more important in the long run.”

In recent years, the Long Beach Bombers, the league’s only remaining  original team, have built a pipeline with New York University. The  relationship started at the Western States Shootout a few years ago and  has led to half a dozen Bomber players going to NYU to play on their  ACHA Division I team while attending one of the most well-respected  academic institutions in the country. Those are just some of the many  successful recruiting stories the WSHL has been able to boast over the  years with many more just like that anticipated in the future.

So with 25 years in the books, how does the man who started it all look back on it now?

“There was a need for junior hockey in the western part of the U.S. and  25 years ago we set out to fill that need” said Thorne. “The WSHL now  provides quality hockey in traditional non-hockey playing communities  and does it at a level that is good for both the kids and the community.  I’m the first to say that the success of the WSHL is all Ron, he’s  taken the mission of the WSHL and run with it. It’s bigger today than I  ever imagined and that’s because of Ron’s leadership.”



-USA Junior Hockey Magazine