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Professional Hockey an Opportunity for North Adams

By Andy McKeever
Sports Column

There are too many factors that go into any venture to say something will or will not succeed even before it's begun.

A recent Berkshire Eagle column suggests that there is little chance an independent pro hockey league would survive in North Adams. But I say it can and here's why.

It hasn't been tried.

The column suggests the No. 1 reason why the team will fail is because of population numbers. It cites that Pittsfield and South County as being too far away to supplement ticket sales. I question why that is so vital.

Pittsfield has a historic baseball field and in 10 years saw five teams start up — only to strike out. During that period, the North Adams SteepleCats have continued to outlast nearly every other team in the NECBL, becoming second to the longest tenured team in the league. They've outlasted cities with much larger populations. And they didn't build their fan base over time as suggested — the fan base was there from the start.

Oddly, the column cites Hoosac Valley championship teams as reasons why local sports fans are more interested in high school instead. While I agree high school sports are well followed around here, that doesn't mean fans wouldn't be interested in others.

To explain why I prefaced that with "oddly" is because Hoosac's success is the town of Adams' success - not the entire county's. One should never underestimate Adams when it comes hometown support.

While Pittsfield has basketball programs struggling to keep the doors open, Adams' Dana Labbee Youth Basketball League continues to grow and the town continues to pay for infrastructure to support it. Thousands of people go to Adams for a ski race — that's only been run once in three years. The town is supporting growth of PAL leagues, the Youth Center and has a die-hard football program. Sports are so important to Adams that town officials are branding Adams as a center of recreation.

How can they do this without a teeming population? (By the way, they are the third largest population in the county.) They do this because it is who the people of Adams are. There is a huge sports base in Adams. They will be more dedicated to a local team than almost any other town in the Berkshires.

Plus, what about Bennington, Vt.? Might they want to take a trip to see a hockey game before dinner at the Freight Yard Pub? What about students at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts who do not have a hockey team of their own?

What an independent team poses for North Adams is more than a show: It is an opportunity.

The Northern Berkshire Black Bears Youth Hockey has been a thriving organization and the Peter W. Foote Vietnam Veterans Memorial Skating Rink is a hotbed of activity — from adult and youth leagues to open skates. And the city has continually supported that facility.

The league is an opportunity for North Adams and North County to continue to build a name for themselves.

North Adams is sick of seeing things being taken from them. There was outcry when the North Adams State College changed names. There was outcry when the North Adams Transcript was merged with a larger paper.

Every time the city's name has been pulled off a nameplate or business card, it is a pang to the heart of everyone who lives there. Now, there is a chance that their city can boast a professional hockey team.

There will be exceptional players on the same ice that the residents themselves have skated on trying to achieve greatness. And if I know anything at all about North Adams, they'll be damned if they don't try their hardest to make that succeed.

It isn't just an opportunity for a city. It is an opportunity for the youth hockey program as well.

Massachusetts pumps out a lot of talented players. But, sadly, the Berkshires have been left out of that for too long. That can change. The semi-professional team can add to that program.

There is a smaller pool of players drafted and playing in minor leagues in the professional hockey so many of our players go off to college and return undrafted. They may be very talented. One option would be to stay in junior hockey leagues but many of those leagues are far away. A local team and a chance for those players to come back and continue to pursue their love.

Meanwhile, any players reaching higher level success will have the Berkshires attached to their resumes and brings excitement to the local youth hockey programs.

I won't say it is going to be easy to succeed. Hockey is an expensive sport, attendance is hard to drive and there are other options (Springfield Falcons are only an hour away, Albany Devils even closer). But it can work with the right business model. There is no reason why the city wouldn't support them.

It is easy to say something will fail. It is difficult to say it will succeed. That's human nature. But if you don't try it, it never has a chance.

Somewhere in a long faded memory some of the best bare-knuckle boxers in the world traveled to North Adams for matches and training. For years, the city supported boxing and that was their sport. Now, let it be hockey.

Andy McKeever is the Pittsfield bureau chief and occasional sports writer for iBerkshires.

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