Hockey fans are some of the most passionate and loyal you’ll find, and when a new team comes to town they don’t hesitate to support it by purchasing season tickets. That appears to be exactly what the CEO of the USACHL (USA Central Hockey League) was counting on.
Earlier this year it was announced by the former Central Hockey League franchise owner, Bill Davidson, that a new junior hockey league was forming. This league had plans to revive the previously defunct Laredo Bucks and Rio Grande Valley Killer Bees with a promise that 4 more teams would be added to make a 6 team league by the 1st puck drop. The promise of 6 teams was cut to 4, and the Bucks and Bees were joined by the Wichita Falls Force and the Texas Lawmen.
From the start, the league was plagued with hiccups and questions of viability. According to juniorhockey.com’s Stephen Heisler, who was a paid consultant to the USACHL for 3 months early on and assisted in placing some of the players, the 1st paychecks to the league’s coaches bounced causing coaches to depart before the season even began. Other red flags started to arise shortly after, as it soon became clear the league had no intention of streaming their games online. In junior hockey, it is imperative that games are streamed, as this is how the young players are seen and scouted.
According to Heisler, no company was ever approached to handle the streaming of the leagues games as is the norm in junior hockey. “Those games were never gonna be streamed.” Heisler stated. Other money issues arose as well. Troy Mick, the announced president of the league, used $8000 of his own money, expecting to be reimbursed. Heisler continued, “Troy was buying pucks and paying for vans to go down from Wichita Falls to Dallas for practice, expecting to get reimbursed and then the guy never did (get reimbursed)”.
Ryan Egan, a coach previously of the Coulee Region Chill of the NAHL, was brought to coach the Texas Lawmen by Heisler. “He started calling me saying something was really weird. They’re not doing the basic things. They kept promising the kids stick orders from Warrior…that was all a lie. They covered Ryan’s bounced check with cash and that left me very concerned.” Heisler explains, noting that in hockey, as with any business, it is unusual to conduct business transactions with cash. Checks continued to bounce to coaches as well as venues. Previously, Bill Davidson had told Heisler that he had the funds to run the league independently for 3 seasons, at 1 million dollars per season, without a dime of revenue. Heisler later discovered this was not the case. He also discovered that the claim that Davidson intended to purchase Frio Grande Ice Center in McAllen, TX was untrue as well.
In spite of the financial issues, the league started to play games as planned. But, it wasn’t long before players started to leave. The league has blamed this on Heisler, although not by name. In a statement to the Laredo Morning Times, Director of Scouting Craig Sterzer said "It’s a situation where this guy, who has control of a lot of players in our league — and unfortunately he had control of a lot of players on (the Lawmen) — told them to hightail it out of town. He did the same thing in Wichita Falls. He … promised whatever. None of them even had a chance to play on that weekend, and they were all cut by that Monday. One is back in Wichita Falls now,” Sterzer continues, "It’s just not cool what this guy has done. He’s affecting not only kids’ lives but also my life and the lives of coaches, managers, sales and anybody that’s working for any of our teams”. Heisler denies any of this is true. He says none of the players have been sent home and all are currently playing on other teams.
Heisler maintains he only moved players that he placed after an incident between the Force and the Bees, in which a Bees player came off the bench to engage in a fight, attacking a player from behind while he was engaged with another player. “A guy can’t come off the bench. That’s a major, major hockey rule. You can’t do that. Second, you don’t go third man into a fight. Well this guy did both, and he didn’t even get a penalty on the play. No suspension, no penalty, nothing for doing that. And the parent called me and said ‘Stephen, we’re done’”, Heisler states. It was at this point parents wanted their young players pulled out of this league. Heisler claims he was simply doing his job by assisting in reassigning players at their request. Heisler added that coaches have been purposely sabotaging player’s careers by threatening to try to black ball them with other, higher leagues, if they left the USACHL.
As players continued to leave the league, it was forced to get creative to keep playing games. On November 24th the Lawmen and the Bees had a scheduled game at State Farm Arena in Hidalgo, Texas. By this point the Texas Lawmen consisted of just 4 players. Rather than cancelling the game, the league decided to take some of the Rio Grande Valley Killer Bees, put them in Lawmen jerseys, and play what they called a 3-on-3 exhibition game. Prior to the game, Bees coach Terry Christianson confiscated cell phones from all of the players so they could not tell anyone what was going on.
On November 30th a game in Wichita Falls vs the Bees was cancelled. The league claimed it was due to issues with transportation while the City of Wichita Falls claims the league has not paid for use of the arena and has been locked out. Previous wire transfers for the venue have bounced and the city now requires that the league pay with a cashier’s check, which was not done by the deadline of 5 pm on game day. As of December 1st, it was announced the players of the Wichita Falls Force have been sent home, and that team has folded as well. It is speculated that the entire league is folding in the coming days.
At this point Heisler says that Bill Davidson, a Canada native, has disappeared and hasn’t been heard from in over a week. In his wake, Davidson has left season ticket holders with nothing but empty promises. “Season ticket holders were promised replica jerseys. They were never ordered. It was a lie. He never intended on getting those”, Heisler states, “He targeted these markets due to their lack of basic understanding of what the expectations (in hockey) were.”
Heisler says that Davidson has the experience to know what it takes to build a functional hockey league, so in his opinion it is clear the entire league was simply a purposeful scheme for Davidson to defraud season ticket holders and sponsors. Although it is typical for season ticket and sponsorship money to go into an escrow for a startup league, Heisler says this did not happen. He has spoken to the authorities in Wichita Falls, and is happy to do so again if needed. Davidson, who was indicted in 2003 for stealing 14 pairs of skates from his players in El Paso, has a history of financial difficulties. Heisler says his biggest concern now is helping the season ticket holders get their money back and seeing Davidson brought to justice for the damage he’s caused to the fans, players, and the reputation of the sport. USACHL representatives did not reply to a requests for comments.
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