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Excitement Peaks As NAHL, USHL Playoffs Begin

By Ryan Williamson, 04/16/18, 8:00AM MDT

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Fan interest, skill level continue to increase in junior hockey leagues across the country

The Fairbanks Ice Dogs of the North American Hockey League are used to fans attending every home game and creating a fun atmosphere at Big Dipper Ice Arena in Fairbanks, Alaska. But when the playoffs get underway, the town reaches a new level of excitement.

“Our diehards are always there, but there seems to be a few more casual fans that show up to see what it’s all about,” said Trevor Stewart, Ice Dogs head coach. “Their interest helps ratchet up the energy level.”

With the NAHL, USA Hockey’s Tier II junior hockey league, and the United States Hockey League, USA Hockey’s Tier I junior hockey league, kicking off their postseasons this month, excitement ramps up across the country as both leagues continue to improve on previous success.

The NAHL's Robertson Cup began play last Friday (April 13). Fairbanks, which entered the playoffs with a league-best 97 points, has won three Robertson Cups since 2011. With that success comes more home games for the Ice Dogs. The atmosphere created by the team and fans has made it a favorite destination for many in the NAHL.

“We create a great game atmosphere,” Stewart said. “Even visiting teams really like playing in our building. The fans are right on top of you.”

A similar type of atmosphere has been developed in Waterloo, Iowa, with the Waterloo Black Hawks of the USHL. They are headed back to the Clark Cup playoffs behind a strong team and a group of fans that have kept their ties with the team.

“Our fans are pretty knowledgeable when it comes to hockey,” said P.K. O’Handley, Waterloo head coach. “We’re very much part of the fabric of this community. We have third-generation fans rooting on the team. I think they’re always excited this time of year.”

Season after season, both leagues have seen their playoffs generate more excitement. But O’Handley says the regular season has played a big part in fostering fan excitement and developing better players.

“Our regular season has a lot to do with the development of our players,” O’Handley said. “There are no off nights. You have to bring your best.”

With the increased competition in the USHL, the league has expanded its postseason from four teams to six this year. 

“We have to play it out to see how it goes competitively,” O’Handley said. “It certainly helps the players get more experience. That only benefits their development.”

There’s also growth in the NAHL, which will showcase the league at the Robertson Cup Final Four, held at Fogerty Ice Arena in Blaine, Minnesota, this year. 

“It should be a good location not only for the players to embark on, but also for college scouts to be able to come and see some of the players that aren’t committed yet,” Stewart said. “It’s going to be quite the event.”

After the postseason ends, many players from the USHL and NAHL will move onto other leagues, including the NCAA. Junior hockey has continued to be a place for players to develop their skills before heading off to play college hockey.

“Every year, more and more players committing from our league to play at the Division I and Division III level,” Stewart said. “There becomes more of a focus on development. Year after year it gets better. It’s been a pleasure to see the development of our players and the league.”

With these players’ development continuing to result in more attention from college programs, the rest of the hockey world has also taken notice and will likely have their eye on the upcoming playoffs. 

“The NHL has recognized us as a legitimate proving ground for hockey players,” O’Handley said. “Everyone in our league is doing everything they can to find top players and compete.”

The 2018 Clark Cup Playoffs begin today, April 16,  and continue through the month of May. For more on the USHL's Clark Cup, click here.

The 2017 Robertson Cup National Championship will be played at the Essentia Health Duluth Heritage Center in Duluth, Minnesota, from May 11-14, 2017. Information surrounding the NAHL'S Robertson Cup can be found here.

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