The Journal Gazette
Sunday, March 29, 2020 1:00 am

Federal Leaguers say some stories are true

JUSTIN A. COHN | The Journal Gazette

Anyone who has played in the Federal Prospects Hockey League has stories that seem to come right out of the movie “Slap Shot.” Just this month, there was a game between the Carolina Thunderbirds and Columbus River Dragons that featured a melee so ridiculous it resulted in 28 games' worth of suspensions, including 15 games for the respective coaches, Andre Niec and Jerome Bechard, for taking their sportscoats off and getting into the fray as the goaltenders brawled.

“There's that reputation of it being a goon league and everything, 'Slap Shot' and all that. It was kind of funny because some of the rumors were true,” said Alex Gregorich, a former Indiana Tech player who was a rookie in the FPHL this season.

Sometimes life imitates art and most hockey aficionados adore “Slap Shot,” in which the Charlestown Chiefs play for bloodthirsty fans in the fictional Federal League. The real-life Federal Hockey League was founded in 2010, 33 years after the movie came out, but rebranded itself as the Federal Prospects Hockey League last year.

Goonery aside, for young players such as Gregorich and college teammate Jarrett Pfeiffer, it's provided an opportunity to get exposure for their skills and continue to play the game they love in front of spectators.

“As far as the goons, physicality, yeah, there are some teams,” Gregorich said. “I'm sure you saw the big brawl between Carolina and Columbus – that happens – but as far as everyday goings on, the hockey was way better than what I expected.

“It is definitely a prospect league because players are getting exposure and getting called up to the (Southern Professional Hockey League), the (ECHL) or to overseas.”

Indiana Tech, which won a national championship in the American Collegiate Hockey Association in 2019, graduated Gregorich, Pfeiffer and Stavros Soilis to the FPHL. They were with the Battle Creek Rumble Bees when the season was suspended March 11, and canceled March 16, because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Of course, they've got stories.

Pfeiffer and Gregorich were with the Port Huron Prowlers when the old bus got stuck on a boulder making a U-turn on a curvy, Tennessee mountain road.

“It almost tipped over on the mountain. It was really wedged on a rock,” Pfeiffer said. “On the way home from that trip, in Tennessee again, we blew a tire and it took five hours to get that fixed.”

That was nothing compared to the game in Columbus, Georgia, where the Prowlers were so shorthanded they had to have two radio broadcasters in their lineup as goaltenders.

“Kelly Curl was the (color analyst) for the Carolina Thunderbirds and he drove from Carolina to Columbus to play in our Sunday game,” Gregorich said of an 11-9 loss. “And we had Jeremy Skiba, our broadcaster, call the game from our bench – in full goalie gear. But that was awesome. In that game, we only had 10 skaters, too, and we called ourselves 'The Dirty Dozen.'”

The Prowlers were among the best of the FPHL's 10 teams, 28-14-4 when the season was halted, but Gregorich and Pfeiffer had been traded to the less-experienced Rumble Bees in a five-player deal Feb. 12. Battle Creek was 1-45-2.

Pfeiffer, 27, a hard-to-hit player, had 10 goals and 16 points in 43 games this season. Gregorich, 26, a physical two-way forward, had two goals and seven points in 39 games. The playmaking Soilis, 23, had 10 goals and 20 points in 33 games.

For all, it was a step up in play from Indiana Tech.

“As far as Indiana Tech, that was more high-speed, run-and-gun, younger players, less experience,” Gregorich said. “Coming into The Fed, I didn't think the speed was that far off. It was faster, but it wasn't much different. But the strategy and system play, guys knew where to put the puck and they just knew the game. Harder workers all the way around.”

Whereas the Komets play in the ECHL – two tiers below the NHL – the FPHL is two tiers below the ECHL and one below the SPHL, in which former Indiana Tech defenseman Felix Kronwall, 26, was a rookie with Evansville.

FPHL players don't earn much money; Pfeiffer and Gregorich pocketed $200-$225 every two weeks, while some players make three times more and some less. Gregorich had part-time work as a web content specialist, and he knew of players bouncing in bars and cooking at restaurants to make ends meet as they hoped to play well enough to earn training camp invitations from SPHL or ECHL teams for next season.

While some FPHL teams struggle at the gate – Battle Creek averaged a league-low 353 fans – Elmira (N.Y.) averaged 3,077, Columbus 3,046 and Carolina 2,831.

“You're going to some of these places and they're basically filling the rink, creating this awesome atmosphere, which I don't think many people realize,” Gregorich said from his home in Madison Heights, Michigan.

Are many of those fans there as much for the fisticuffs as the goals? Absolutely.

“It was a different ballgame,” said Pfeiffer, who lives in Fort Wayne. “We went out and played Delaware and they had this guy Anthony Pisano, who is 6-6, 250 pounds, just a brick wall, and I'm 5-11, 167 pounds soaking wet, and this guy is trying to kill me because I'm out there scoring. Especially (playing) in Battle Creek, and we didn't have any real fighters on the team, it could be kind of scary being out there and knowing that if something happened, nobody would protect you.”

While Gregorich fought five times this season, Pfeiffer didn't drop the gloves – especially not with Pisano.

“He tried to hit me one time and I saw him coming and thought, 'Oh, man, this is going to hurt,'” Pfeiffer said. “So I just dished the puck to Stavros Soilis and just quickly got out of the guy's way. He bungled himself into the boards.”

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