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Northern Pacific Hockey League undergoes shakeup

Four teams defect to form new league

Hockey season will take on a completely different look for the Yellowstone Quake this winter following an announcment last week that Northern Pacific (NORPAC) members Helena, Missoula, Bozeman and Billings have departed the league to form their own organization.

“We knew months ago that there was conversation, but I thought we had an agreement reached to do things in a common sense way,” said Yellowstone Quake president Bob Bole. “Then, bang, it just sort of happened.”

The four departed franchises, all former members of the America West division with Cody and Butte, had been suspended by the league one month earlier for undisclosed reasons. They will join an expansion franchise in Gillette and an existing team in Great Falls, Mont., to form the six-team America West Hockey League.

Cody had been invited in the initial talks to join the breakaway teams, Bole said. The club’s proximity to the other prospective new league teams made the offer worth consideration. When the decision was made to suddenly speed up the timetable, the team president didn’t feel he could agree to a move prior to the upcoming season in clear conscience, noting it would have created several headaches for the remaining NORPAC teams the Quake have played alongside.

“Originally, we were part of the plan,” Bole said. “But when things sped up, with the timing and the manner it was done, I didn’t think I could go along with that. I chose not to screw some folks, and the board agreed.”

The restructuring leaves the Quake as one of eight remaining NORPAC members. As a result of the league’s membership changes, the NORPAC has abolished split-division play for the 2011-2012 season. A decision on the league’s playoff structure — an eight-team affair for the past several seasons — will be forthcoming as the remaining teams ponder the effects of the change.

At least one of those effects, Bole notes, should be seen as a positive by the fans.

“It’s exciting from the standpoint that we’ll see some new teams coming to town this winter,” Bole said. “There will be some teams coming to town that we haven’t seen in Cody before. For fans, that’ll be something new and exciting.”

Yellowstone and Butte will be joined by an expansion franchise, the Glacier Nationals, in Kalispell, Mont.; Washington teams Seattle, Vancouver and West Sound; and Oregon teams Eugene and Southern Oregon in the unified NORPAC. All seven teams will face off in home and away games as part of the league schedule.

Additionally, as part of the approval process for the creation of the AWHL, teams in the new league agreed to a series interleague contests during the upcoming season, meaning each of the six AWHL teams face off against the Quake this winter as well.

“We’ll have 13 different teams on the schedule,” said Bole, who expects the Quake schedule for the upcoming season to be finalized soon. “As you can imagine, it’s pretty dang complicated to coordinate between leagues to come up with a schedule that works for everybody. It’ll take some time to get the kinks worked out.”

As for the sudden shake up to its league, Bole said he’s not concerned for the future of junior hockey in Park County .

“I am 100 percent on board and committed to this,” Bole said of the Quake and junior hockey in Cody. “We have a strong nucleus on the board that are not going to let this go away. I truly see no danger of junior hockey going away in Cody. We’re going to bust our buns to see that it doesn’t happen.”

If anything, Bole noted the Quake could be in a stronger position now. The league has a guaranteed option to join the AWHL should it wish to reunite with its former divisional rivals. The option is good for no fewer than two years following the conclusion of the 2011-2012 season.

“There are also other leagues out there that are options for us,” Bole said, adding that none are as attractive to the organization as either NORPAC or the AWHL.

The league shuffle is expected to increase travel costs for the Quake in the upcoming season. Bole estimated the cost of a road trip to Washington or Oregon at between $8,000 and $10,000 — considerably more than the cost of travel to Helena or Missoula, the Quake’s previous longest NORPAC regular-season road trips.

To help offset the cost associated with the move, the memorandum of understanding between the NORPAC and the fledgling AWHL allows for all cross-over games between the two leagues to take place at the home arena of the NORPAC teams this season.

“The reason we have it that way was the thought that each (NORPAC) team could get a little extra gate money and some extra concessions money to help offset the sudden increase in travel costs,” said Bole.

Despite that caveat, Bole notes travel costs for the Quake will undoubtedly increase in the upcoming season. Once the team knows its schedule for the season, he said the franchise would be in a better position to determine how much costs would increase for the upcoming season.

“We’ll definitely be paying more for travel, I have no doubt of that,” Bole said. “As for how much, I can’t say.”

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