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The Most Turbulent Professional Sports League Of Which You've Never Heard

By Daniel S. Greene

It has been a very busy off-season for North America's biggest and most popular professional sports leagues. The National Basketball Association had the DeAndre Jordan fiasco (http://grantland.com/the-triangle/sorting-out-the-deandre-jordan-carnival/), the National Hockey League (NHL) has been handling its latest expansion efforts in Las Vegas and Quebec (http://sports.yahoo.com/blogs/nhl-puck-daddy/las-vegas--quebec-city-hit--phase-ii--of-nhl-expansion-process-191056907.html), and, of course, the National Football League has been engulfed with "Deflategate" (http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nfl/patriots/2015/08/04/tom-brady-new-england-deflategate-testimony-phone-records/31126443/). Yet these leagues have not had as tumultuous and interesting off-season as the Federal Hockey League (FHL, league), the little known professional hockey league mainly based in small cities of the northeastern United States.

The league, which played its first season beginning in 2010, is essentially a Single-A minor league (below the East Coast Hockey League (AA) and American Hockey League (AAA)), but has no affiliation with any of the NHL franchises. While this season will mark the five year anniversary of the FHL, it is honestly amazing that it has lasted this long, considering that it has followed the script of the classic hockey film "Slap Shot" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TJ2L2SgPldU).

The league has seen numerous teams start up and fold within a year, move, not complete a full season, and be taken over by league management due to financial issues. Teams have struggled to draw fans over the years, but have drawn some spectators due to the rough and tumble brand of hockey played. Furthermore, in the 2013-14 season, two players even staged a "hug and beer fight" to try to gain some publicity (http://www.si.com/nhl/home-ice/2014/04/01/hockey-fight-with-hug-and-beer-stunt-falls-flat-with-players-suspended). Other notable moments in FHL history include: Questionable player transactions (http://espnwilliamsport.com/opinion-the-fhl-finals-are-now-officially-a-joke/); the commissioner's daughter owning and coaching one of the teams (http://sports.yahoo.com/blogs/nhl-puck-daddy/nicole-kirnan-first-woman-coach-men-pro-hockey-130716495--nhl.html); and the creation of a website criticizing the league, along with details of certain incidents (http://thefhltruth.blogspot.com/).

Per FHL tradition, there has been no shortage of fireworks this summer. First off, the Berkshire (MA) Battalion moved to become the Dayton (OH) Demolition, and the Danbury (CT) Whalers moved to become the Stateline (NY) Whalers. The off-season also saw the folding of the Dayton (OH) Demonz and Steel City (PA) Warriors, along with the Watertown (NY) Wolves suspending its operation (but saying that the team will come back next season after construction on its rink is finished). However, the Berlin (NH) River Drivers, Danbury (CT) Titans, and Port Huron (MI) Prowlers joined the league as new franchises. So, for those of you keeping score at home, the Danville (IL) Dashers will be the only "non-new" team for the 2015-16 season.

In addition, before the Stateline Whalers even played a game, it changed its name to the Brewster (NY) Bulldogs. While there has been no officially stated reason for the quick name change, it is likely that it was due to trademark issues. The New England Whalers of the World Hockey Association (WHA) first used the "Whalers" nickname in 1972. The team's owner, Howard Baldwin, moved the franchise to Hartford, where it played in the NHL as the Hartford Whalers from 1979 to 1997, before moving to North Carolina to become the Carolina Hurricanes (http://www.courant.com/sports/hockey/hartford-whalers/hc-whalers-historical-timeline-story.html#page=1). The Whalers name remained dormant until 2009, when Baldwin founded Hartford Hockey LLC (also known as Whalers Sports & Entertainment), which was hired a year later by the NHL's New York Rangers to manage the day-to-day operation of its AHL franchise, the Hartford Wolf Pack. As a part of this agreement, the team was renamed the Connecticut Whale, until the Rangers terminated the company's contract in 2013 (http://articles.courant.com/2010-09-20/sports/hc-baldwin-wolf-pack-0920-20100920-5_1_whalers-sports-entertainment-new-logo-hockey-fest). The Connecticut Whale recently returned in the form of the one of the founding members of the National Women's Hockey League in 2015 (http://www.courant.com/sports/hockey/hc-connecticut-whale-women-hockey-0327-20150326-story.html). It is therefore likely that the team in Brewster would have needed permission to use the Whalers moniker, and even if it asked for such, it would have been odd for Baldwin to allow two teams to use the same name. There could have also been issues with the former Danbury Whalers management. Yet, like most things with the FHL, we will probably never find out the true answer.

While the league has survived many changes and financial hardships thus far, it might have finally met its match: a default judgment against the league to the plaintiff for $800,000. The suit, filed on January 23, 2014, stems out of an on-ice incident on February 10, 2012 that caused former Danville Dashers player Kyler Moje to become legally blind in one eye. According to the plaintiff: "Michael Stacey, a player for the Akwesane Warriors, made an illegal maneuver by lifting his hockey stick and thrusting the blade end forcefully under Kyler Moje's helmet" (http://www.courthousenews.com/2014/01/28/64882.htm). In addition to suing Oakley, Inc., the manufacturer of the visor he was wearing, Moje claims that the FHL was negligent in allowing the Warriors to play the game, since the league allegedly had "knowledge of the Akwesane Warriors' history of violent and illegal game play, although it knew or should have known that permitting game play on the day in question could cause injury to persons lawfully participating in league play therein." Stacey claims that he did not intend to injure Moje, stating: "I went to lift his stick in the corner and missed. I high-sticked him. No question. The puck left the zone and the ref left. No one saw it happen. I stayed with the kid and called for their trainer and after the game I went over and talked to their coach" (http://www.tsn.ca/hockey-league-loses-court-appeal-in-player-blindness-case-1.329444).

Now, this is where the suit gets interesting, since the court did not reach the issue of liability. According to court records, the FHL hired a Syracuse-based attorney named John LoFaro, who had provided legal services to Commissioner Don Kirnan in the past. Then in March 2014, the league was told that no defense had been filed despite LoFaro showing Kirnan documents that were allegedly the answer to the complaint. However, on October 9, 2014, National Casualty Co., the league's insurance company, notified Kirnan that the United States District Court (Northern District of Illinois - Eastern Division) issued a default judgment against the FHL for $800,000. Approximately two months later, the league asked an appeals court to vacate the judgment, claiming that LoFaro misled it by showing Kirnan fake legal papers (http://www.tsn.ca/hockey-league-loses-court-appeal-in-player-blindness-case-1.329444).

The United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit filed its decision on July 7, 2015, and did not vacate the judgment. Within the opinion, the Court stated that LoFaro has never been asked to explain his conduct and the FHL has not filed a complaint with the legal-ethics panel in New York. The latter issue likely wouldn't matter, as LoFaro is not in good standing because of nonpayment of dues. The Court further held that the FHL did not deserve a ruling in its favor for two reasons: "first, the League failed to tender the defense of Moje's suit to its insurer when it received the complaint; second, the League failed to act prudently after being alerted by Oakley that there was a problem." It was also noted that the league should have approached its insurer first instead of hiring LoFaro, who seems to only provide legal services in Personal Injury law relating to DWI, speeding, and traffic matters, and is not admitted to the bar in the Northern District of Illinois. Overall, Judge Easterbrook noted that the league "did nothing to protect its interests" (http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1706898.html).

Meanwhile, while the league has been preparing to play the 2015-16 season, there seems to be a discrepancy as to whether it can afford to go ahead with the schedule. Kirnan has said that the FHL could fold and reform under a different name to avoid paying the judgment, stating that, "we are a limited liability corporation... It's not like we have any real estate" (http://www.watertowndailytimes.com/sports/pro-hockey-federal-hockey-league-says-it-may-be-forced-to-fold-20150417). However, it has also been reported that Kirnan claims that the league "has $1 million worth of insurance and the legal wrangling would only be a temporary hiccup" (http://www.thetimesherald.com/story/sports/2015/04/20/fhl-rocky-week-holds-onto-hope/26058215/). At this moment, it seems like the latter is true, considering the 2015-16 FHL schedule has been released (http://www.federalhockey.com/view/thefederalhockeyleague/news-739/news_313776).

So, while you should be able to see one of these games this winter, you might be more inclined to follow the FHL from afar and keep tabs on its off-ice situations.

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