The WSHL: 25 Years in and only getting started
“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