‘Extremely frustrating’: Billings Blizzard hockey team suspends operations | Local

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BILLING — The return of ice hockey to Magic City will not be through the Billings Blizzard in the Western Professional Hockey League.

The Blizzard, which was expected to be a freshman team, had hoped to start play in the WPHL’s inaugural season in 2022-23. Where they were to play their home games was never announced.

On its league website on Saturday, the upstart WPHL announced that it had cut ties with the Blizzard. The WPHL said Blizzard ownership group Pick Six Entertainment “failed to meet contractual obligations that would affiliate them with the Western Professional Hockey League.”

Reached by phone Tuesday, Pick Six’s Keith Russ said the Blizzard had suspended operations.

During a press conference in Billings last November announcing that professional hockey would be coming to Magic City for the 2022-23 season, WPHL co-founder Frank Santelli said Billings was the first WPHL team to be announced, but that the new league would have eight teams. for its first season.

Teams were to be located in Montana, Wyoming, Texas, New Mexico and possibly Kansas. It was revealed that a team from Las Vegas could join the WPHL for the league’s second season.

The Billings Gazette and 406mtsports.com reported earlier that Russ, who no longer lives in Billings, said the WPHL schedule would be around 44 games, half of which will be at home.

According to the league’s website, the WPHL is a “single A professional hockey league that spans the western portion of the United States. The Western Professional Hockey League serves as a development league for professional players.

Although “about us” information about the league is the focus of the WPHL, no teams are listed on the league’s website under “Teams”.

Under the “Scores/Schedules” tab on the league’s website, a full 24-game schedule is listed from November 11 to April 9. For the 24 total games listed league-wide, the teams are the Santa Rosa Growlers, Las Vegas Millionaires, Vail Yeti, Reno Ice Raiders, Fond Du Lac Bears, Breckenridge Vipers, Park City Pioneers and Norcal Stampede.

Russ said the type of season expected and the level of talent was not what Billings promised when he agreed to join the league. Russ said the contests amounted to a 20-game exhibition season.

“We were promised that we would have opponents at a comparable level,” Russ said, noting that the schedule is also not what was offered.

Pick Six also belonged to the Billings Outlaws indoor football team of the Champions Indoor Football League. The group no longer owns the Outlaws, which are under new ownership, but as the transfer of ownership of the football team was taking place at the end of the season, there were allegations of unpaid bills, unpaid wages and bad sponsorship deals against Pick Six.

Stu Bertrand was hired as general manager of the Blizzard in January. Bertrand, who now umpires in the Pioneer Baseball League, said he still owes Pick Six wages and is in the process of seeking reimbursement.

The Blizzard had never been granted an arena for home games. There have been conversations with First Interstate Arena at MetraPark, but the facility is unable to manufacture or service ice. While Centennial Ice Arena might have been an option, the team preferred to strike a deal with the much larger Metra and Russ said the franchise was considering purchasing portable ice-making equipment.

“It’s extremely frustrating. I almost feel like I was sold a dream, a vision, and there was absolutely no follow through,” Bertrand said. “I almost feel taken advantage of as someone from Billings and the Billings community.”

Eddie LaPera was hired as the Blizzard’s coach in mid-March. He said Pick Six still owed him wages for his work. LaPera said for the most part that he stepped down as Blizzard coach from mid-June to late June as it became increasingly difficult to reach Russ to communicate about the team and his salary.

However, LaPera said no one from Pick Six told him or Bertrand that “officially, as an employer-employee relationship, they terminated either of our jobs.”

LaPera said it wasn’t his or Bertrand’s fault for trying that the Blizzard never laced up their skates and took the ice. But as coach and general manager, they said they could only control too much.

“I’m extremely disappointed. It was put in my hands and Stu’s hands,” LaPera said. “We had worked hard on every avenue. We had everything ready to go, players ready to sign and three different avenues looking for different ice and venues. “A lot of people were excited and Stu and I get all the questions we can’t even answer. It’s frustrating. You want to be able to answer them.”

Russ said the Blizzard tried to join another league, but were turned down for geographic reasons.

If he had to do it again, would securing a home arena before announcing plans for a hockey team be first on Russ’ list?

“Yes and no, the problem is that even if you secure a building, if you don’t have the planning it’s hard,” he said. “Even for arena football it’s difficult. We had many conversations with (Metra staff). We had tentative dates and were in the process of purchasing the portable ice making equipment.

“We’re not going to buy $300,000 worth of ice making equipment and not have a schedule. It’s not worth the money.

Bertrand said he “had been under the impression that all the necessities for a hockey team to play at the Sports Plex or Metra were going to be provided by Keith Russ and that didn’t happen.”

Bertrand said that if he visited potential hockey franchise owners in Billings, he would recommend that they have a home arena before announcing his intention to play.

“Absolutely,” he said. “I think that was the very first surprise I had was that Keith and Pick Six had met with MetraPark and the county to get the lease put in place for the football, but there had never been a hockey lease from MetraPark. .”

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