BLAINE, Minn. – Before passing through the automatic sliding doors at the Super Rink in Blaine, Minnesota, hockey personnel and fans are met with plenty of branded signage to indicate they’re arriving at the annual NAHL Showcase.
Beyond the entry inside, a large staircase sits in the middle, leading upstairs where hockey fans and scouts can take their pick of multiple NAHL games happening at once.
This year marked the 20th anniversary of the NAHL Showcase. Held Sept. 13-16, it continued a long run of success for the 32-team league starting its season playing in packed rinks and in front of the eyes of hundreds of scouts. It also attracts more than 9,000 fans overall.
“When scouts and coaches and hockey people come in here and they walk up the stairway to hockey right there, they know the season’s starting,” said Mark Frankenfeld, NAHL commissioner. “And everybody’s here. Everybody knows each other. It’s like a class reunion of every year gone by all just smashed together in hockey.
As teams played a variety of opponents each day, only the Northeast Generals finished the event with a 4-0 record. Joseph McGraw scored twice, including the overtime winner, in a 4-3 victory over the Janesville Jets on Saturday to seal the perfect weekend.
The South Division finished with a 19-12-2 record, East Division 20-14-2, Central Division 12-12-0 and Midwest Division 12-15-5.
When the NAHL Showcase started 20 years ago, Frankenfeld was an NAHL coach. The following three seasons, he was part of the NAHL hockey operations department before taking over as commissioner in 2007.
Over the years, the NAHL has stuck to the core principles of the league’s DNA. They’ve done things that are best for the players, the league, teams and the league’s brand. The NAHL Showcase simply kept growing as the league expanded from 20 to 32 teams.
“I don’t think we ever sat down and said, ‘This is what we want to grow this into,’” Frankenfeld said. “We just kept going. We just kept working down the court of the journey, and the path kind of emerged. All just from the core DNA.”
The showcase provides exposure for players and scouts all under one roof. With so many games happening at once, it can be challenging to be in multiple places at once, Frankenfeld acknowledged. But he added that the scouts are good at scheduling and have chances over the four days to watch as many teams and players as possible.
Due to the amount of action packed into four days, the showcase eventually became dubbed with the tagline “The Greatest Show On Ice.”
While many sports leagues see their biggest events happen at the end of a season — think Stanley Cup, Super Bowl or World Series — the showcase is the NAHL’s biggest event, one of its best and it kicks off the hockey season. It’s the most attended NAHL event by scouts, with more than 300 of them checked into this year’s event.
“When you bring everybody under one roof, it just creates this environment of, the word that scouts use the most is overwhelming,” said Alex Kyrias, NAHL director of communications, sales and marketing. “Because they’ll bring two or three coaches from their staff, and there’s so much hockey to cover, that that’s the word I hear most often. It’s a spectacle, and it’s overwhelming.”
The NAHL’s Robertson Cup, also held in Blaine at Fogerty Ice Arena, “is an equally important event,” Frankenfeld said. However, the showcase is still the biggest event, very powerful and all part of the process of getting everyone together so scouts can identify the teams and players early on in order to track them throughout the season before they go watch them in their own markets. The NAHL expects college commitments for players after each of their big events, including the Top Prospects Tournament in February.
With the NAHL being partners with USA Hockey and the NTDP since its existence, the NTDP teams have also played a couple of exhibition games at the showcase for the past six years.
Rink 4 was filled to the rafters with fans and scouts for the Friday and Saturday exhibition games with the NTDP Under-17 team this year. The U17s defeated the El Paso Rhinos 5-3 on Friday after taking a 3-0 lead in the first period. Saturday, the New Mexico Ice Wolves represented the NAHL well with a 7-3 victory over the U17s when they erased a 2-0 first-period deficit by getting six consecutive goals from six different players.
“This building was packed,” Frankenfeld said. “It’s the first time they’ve played in front of that type of crowd. It’s really good for our guys to play against that level of skill, and compete, and let those scouts watching see how our guys compare now.”
Seeing the rink packed with fans is the most rewarding feeling for Frankenfeld and it gives him feelings of pride for the NAHL and its owners.
The Super Rink and its eight sheets of ice have hosted all 20 NAHL Showcases, which is helpful from many standpoints, including the ease of access to players for the scouts, Frankenfeld said, adding that the players win in that regard.
Kyrias said the league is in a golden era right now.
“There’s a fine line between making it as big as it can be but keeping the quality,” Kyrias said of the showcase. “That’s something that we’ve really focused on, especially the last 10 years.”
As far as how to continue to grow the showcase in the future, Frankenfeldsaid that’s a tough question.
“I just want it to keep being great,” Frankenfeld concluded. “And if growth is part of that, great. But the level of hockey’s high, everybody’s in good spirits and again, like I said, it’s the stairway to hockey. Everybody knows the season’s starting.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.