Hockey enthusiast hopes new league boosts sport's culture in Michigan
Fraser — Drake MacKenzie thinks hockey culture stinks throughout Michigan.
So the brash 24-year-old Hadley native is trying build it from the ground up.
“We have to build that foundation,” MacKenzie said. “Minnesota didn’t wake up one day and have 1,000 hockey rinks, people filling the barn every day. It started from somewhere and we have to figure out where that somewhere is and we have to start that here.”
If MacKenzie has his way, it starts with his 12-team, single-A, semi-pro Interstate Hockey League starting this fall throughout Michigan. It's an owner-free league with players earning a revenue share.
The word is getting out to minor league hockey players across the region, a group used to driving long miles across several states, often for disappointment.
“You’ve got a lot of players and you have limited spots,” said Josh Cicurillo, 36, who drove 10 hours from New Jersey for the tryouts. “What’s great about what they’re doing is putting a show together, and leaving the (stuff) to the side.
“Hopefully these guys will prosper.”
About 150 players came to Fraser Hockeyland earlier this month for one of the tryouts, with representatives from each of the 12 teams evaluating players, many which crossed state lines or the Canadian border.
Players paid $150, but if they make the league, they have the potential to earn money based on a revenue share with the IHL from gate receipts.
When the teams open their 32-game schedules in November, Fraser will host four teams — the Hadley Nepessings, Macomb Stags, Oakland Vipers and St. Clair Gulls — while the league’s other eight teams, from St. Ignace to Alpena to Holland, each have their own rink.
So many leagues and teams have come through the state that it might be a leap to put faith in the IHL, its green founder and staff. But a former NHLer has added his name to the league this month as commissioner.
“I like the concept,” said John Blum, who played 15 years of pro hockey at all levels, including eight NHL seasons. “I like that the players own the league, there’s no owners, there’s no dictators. Everyone is in this together for a lot of fun, good entertainment.”
Hockey leagues and franchises come and go, but MacKenzie wants to build a product that stays.
“If you run into a brick wall over and over again, it’s not going to move,” he said. “That’s what we’ve done with hockey. We think every kid is going to the NHL and that’s not the case. A lot of guys want to just play hockey.”
Growing up as a Flint Generals season-ticket holder, MacKenzie was quickly drawn to minor league hockey — maybe the moment was meeting some players at his grandparents’ house for regular card games, or the time his dad got into a fight with longtime Generals player Bobby Reynolds.
“To see those guys, they were part of the community,” MacKenzie said. “Nothing against the Red Wings, but they’re kind of this big, global company. With the Flint Generals, that was our team, our town. And you were proud of that.”
With no college degree and just seven years working at McDonald’s under his belt, MacKenzie said he has a natural talent for organizing.
A 2014 Lapeer West High graduate, he organized sports games between his friends in his original hometown of Hadley in Lapeer County with new friends from his next home of Goodrich.
MacKenzie was also a referee for a scrimmage at the tryouts and has been putting out fires along the way. For instance, his home rink in Lapeer, the Polar Palace, recently closed down. There’s also been tension from the existing Federal Prospects Hockey League, which had a team in Port Huron last year and announced a new team in Battle Creek on Tuesday.
But MacKenzie said it’ll all be worth it when he steps onto the Fraser ice for his hometown Hadley Nepessings this fall, a player in the semi-pro hockey league he started.
“I’ve been working my butt off for the past five years and I’m certainly going to take the opportunity to play professional hockey,” he said.
But to lace up without being involved in more in-season controversy, MacKenzie needed an impartial ally to oversee the league as commissioner.
While working as a project manager at Fraser Hockeyland where MacKenzie and his staff have set up operations, Blum was keeping tabs on a group of fresh-faced kids with a dream.
“I love the enthusiasm,” Blum said. “I’m the cat that swallowed the canary. They have dreams, these kids. I’m lucky I fulfilled my dreams. They want to fulfill theirs. They want to chase it, they want to have some fun with it.
“It seems I’ve walked into something where my experience can help a bunch of kids.”
After growing up in Warren, Blum walked on to the University of Michigan hockey team where he quickly impressed.
Only three defensemen in Michigan history have registered 50-point seasons, but Blum is the only one to do it twice. He played 250 NHL games with Edmonton, Boston, Washington, and Detroit, where he played six games in 1988-89.
After an NHL career that saw him share blue lines with Paul Coffey, Ray Bourque and Scott Stevens, Blum served as a player, coach and administrator with several minor league organizations: the Daytona Beach Sun Devils, Detroit Falcons, Detroit Vipers, Saginaw Lumber Kings, Toledo Storm, Motor City Mechanics and Port Huron Border Cats.
Through all those teams and leagues, Blum — or “Blummer” as he’s known — has seen all that can go wrong.
“One of the biggest failures is a lack of communication, egos get in the way: I’m better than you,” said Blum, 59. “This is different. All these kids, they’re young. They’re young GMs, they’re young presidents, it’s really cool. Most of them are half my age.”
An approachable guy with connections, Blum sees himself as a mentor, and that he’s paying back the game by paying his experience forward.
“There are smiles on their faces, they’re like sponges,” Blum said. “Blummer is the teacher, the big brother, whatever you want to call me. It’s great to be around positive, enthusiastic people.”
How the league does remains to be seen, but the belief is there.
But is the money?
While the players will earn as they go, MacKenzie said the league still needs somewhere from $750,000 to $2 million to operate.
He said Budweiser has signed on for a six-figure sponsorship and the IHL is chasing other huge companies like the Big Three automakers — General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler.
Kyle Kabacinski of Dearborn Heights heard about the league while driving home from Mentor, Ohio, and a second failed attempt last season at playing in the Federal Hockey League.
Kabacinski has bought in huge, and was at the tryout in Fraser scouting potential teammates for the Nepessings, where he is a player and general manager.
“One thing led to another and next thing I know, it’s turned out to be something I didn’t expect to be as big as it is,” Kabacinski said. “It’s quite amazing.
“For this league to work, it’s going to take a combination of the right people doing exactly the right things at exactly the right moments.
“Right now, we have all those puzzle pieces that are coming together. I’m super excited for it. There’s a lot of promise. Heads are being turned left and right. People are coming on board that we didn’t expect.”
Low-level minor league hockey is a world filled with skeptical fans and players who have been burned by leagues and teams short of funding, a world New Jersey’s Cicurillo said he knows well.
“I wouldn’t recommend this life to my worst nightmare,” he said. “The American dream? I’ve lived the American nightmare. Literally when every door you knock on, not only do they shut the door, but they have a poke hole and they use a water gun in there and just Super Soaker you.”
MacKenzie said the rinks are largely wary of the startup, but he plans the league will fund about $1 million of upgrades at each over the first few years. At Fraser’s main rink, for instance, a new video board, sound system and on-ice projector are planned.
Down the road, MacKenzie hopes to fund free youth leagues across the state and for players to be active members of the community.
MacKenzie said he believes minor league hockey falls well short of minor league baseball when considering the fan experience. Blum and MacKenzie both likened the IHL’s potential as similar to the United Shore Professional Baseball League at Jimmy John’s Field in Utica.
On the ice, the IHL will feature some old-school hockey — “I saw more hitting in the first 10 minutes of a scrimmage than in a whole Red Wings game,” Blum said — but searches to find it without being gimmicky.
“If you’re here to hurt people or to mess people up, we don’t want you here,” MacKenzie said. “I think there needs to be a good balance of good hockey and physical hockey because these guys have to get up and go to work on Monday.”
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.
Interstate Hockey League
► Who: 12 team semi-pro hockey league in Michigan (Alpena North Stars, Battle Creek Cavalry, Bay City Americans, Flint Wolfpack, Hadley Nepessings, Holland Beacons, Lansing Capitals, Macomb Stags, Muskegon Voyagers, Oakland Vipers, St. Clair Gulls and St. Ignace Grizzlies)
► When: Play is set to begin in November
► Where: Hadley, Macomb, Oakland and St. Clair play in Fraser; other eight teams have their own rink