HELENA — The NA3HL season is mere days away.
At least, it was supposed to be.
Now, there will be two fewer teams playing in the league’s Frontier Division this season and the schedule will need to quickly be remade. Out for 2017-18 will be the recently relocated and renamed Butte Cobras, along with the Billings Bulls.
Multiple league sources confirmed the news to 406mtsports early Friday, and the two teams then posted an announcement on their respective Facebook pages later in the afternoon.
"(The) Butte Cobras are saddened to report that we unfortunately will not be having a team this year," an unsigned post on the team's page said. "With a few hiccups through the summer we just couldn’t get enough players in time to get the rosters filled. So for this season only we have had to make a hard decision and go dormant this season. We will have a scout out getting potential players for next season so we can come back strong and be Butte Cobra Tough. Thank you to all our fans and sponsors for loving this team. We will be back for the 2018-2019 season."
The Bulls, meanwhile, have long been an established team. But the organization has struggled to bring in the fans it once did, and recorded just five wins last season.
"After 24 AMAZING years the Billings Bulls have decided to go into dormancy status for the 2017-2018 season," said a posting signed by owners Joe Robillard and Chris Dunbar. "The ownership team would like to thank everyone that has helped make this organization a success. From the dedicated players, staff, billet families, and life long fans.
"By placing our franchise in dormancy, it gives us this year to reevaluate for our 25th season in 2018-2019. We ran into significant hurdles this offseason regarding our coaching staff and roster. It is tough placing the Bulls in dormancy for the season, but without the necessary confidence, the owners made an honest and professional business decision to preserve the integrity of the Bulls."
The Frontier Division owners will meet this weekend, with a focal point of that meeting a rescheduling of the season. The NA3HL had released the 2017-18 schedule in July, and teams in the Frontier were set to open next weekend.
New Helena Bighorns owner Randy Rose didn’t comment on the news Friday morning, but did confirm a meeting would be taking place.
“We currently don’t have any details, but there will be a meeting tomorrow for the Frontier Division owners,” he said, “and we can report after that meeting.”
Butte's program has gone through its share of hoops during the past year. Then-owner Michael Burks donated the team to the city of Butte while trying to deal with the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder stemming from a plan crash in which he was involved.
The Butte Amateur Hockey Association took over the rights to the team and purchased a team out of Glacier, giving it the Cobras name. The Glacier team had just slogged through a season that saw it win only twice in 47 games.
At that same time last spring, the BAHA hired Greg Sears to be the head coach. He’d served as an assistant with Frontier Division champion Yellowstone Quake, who made a run to the national semifinals. But during the summer recruiting process, Sears bailed on Butte and took a job with the Florida Eels of the U.S. Premier Hockey League.
Multiple players recruited by Sears followed him to Florida, leaving the Cobras with a short roster and no coach.
Joe Liquori, who had coached in Butte in two previous stints, was hired, but was unable to fill enough of the spots. The NA3HL this season has mandated that teams are required to have at least 15 players on their rosters -- 13 skaters and two goalies -- in order to qualify for league play.
"The bylaws state that if we don’t field a team in 2017-18, then our membership is rescinded," said Jason Manning, who sits on the Cobras' Board of Directors. "We want dormancy. We want to be able to come back next year. If we fold, then our membership is rescinded."
The team has 10 days to appeal its rescinded status to the league, which Manning said it plans to do early next week. The league will then have 20 days to respond.
"I went to the league and requested dormancy," Manning said. "I did not request a fold. Dormancy means that we get to come back; that we get the opportunity to come back.
"We’re very confident it’s going to happen. I have the backing of the other six or seven teams in the Frontier Division that we’ll be able to come back."
With the decisions coming after signed players were already in camp, it leaves that group and their parents suddenly scrambling. But there are regional options, still. Helena has had nearly two dozen players in camp, and so clears the 15-player hurdle. Other teams, though, haven’t been as fortunate. Numbers in Butte and Billings were too few to make a go of it, but Bozeman also, according to one source, has a short bench and could take on some skaters.
A big reason for the player shortage is, in fact, the Florida Eels and others in their league.
In Juniors, players wanting to grow, get scouted and have a chance to either progress up the hockey ladder, or earn a college scholarship, Tier III hockey is a pay-to-play setup. The investment can be worth it in the long run, but the USPHL is throwing a significant wrench into the works.
Operating outside of USA Hockey sanctions, the league can set different rules. That being the case, players aren’t required to pay to play for teams in the USPHL, or the Western States Hockey League. As a result, leagues like the NA3HL are seeing huge losses of players, even in major metro locations.
Those losses have now ended the Cobras’ Frontier Division debut before it could officially begin, and have put an end -- or, at least, a pause -- on hockey in the Magic City, as well.