Federal Hockey League Spotlight: Staffers of Outlaws & Whalers Reflect on Past Season

As a change of pace from the normal coverage here on FNYTSF, I wanted to post some interviews from two people who work behind the scenes at a couple of the most successful hockey teams in the Federal Hockey League, a professional hockey league that could be compared to Single-A baseball, as players can get called up to the ECHL, from there, the AHL, and then lastly, and hopefully, the NHL. Nobody really thinks of the importance of minor league hockey here in the United States, though we spend a lot of time and money going to minor league baseball games. Up in Canada, however, it is reversed. The fact is, leagues like the FHL can provide the same entertainment that the NHL can, albeit in a much different (and cheaper) atmosphere. Why would I be writing about this, you may be wondering? Well, it is because of a few friends I have that happen to work for FHL teams—David Zohn and Rob Boertlein of the New Jersey Outlaws, and Chris “Gootz” Hoeler for the Danbury Whalers, who has a regular hockey column on this blog.

Because of these three people, I was able to closely follow the end of 2011/12 season even without attending a game, something that I definitely plan on doing next season. Zohn started working for the Outlaws in the past few months, doing stats on their PointStreak system, while Boertlein is the team’s Director of Game Day Operations. For the Whalers, Hoeler serves as the team’s Assistant Director of Player Personnel, and more importantly, got a chance to coach the team for three games earlier this season, making his professional hockey coaching debut in the head coach’s absence. While I can see how great and important this league may be for hockey, unfortunately, certain members of the media took some shots at it during the past season, namely Ron Duguay and Ken Daneyko, after MSG Network aired a special on it. The two made fun of the fact that some of these players should hang it up, but what good would that be for hockey? It may not be the NHL, but as long as these guys are playing professional hockey, the dream is still alive. To me, that’s what matters most. David Zohn remarks, “The FHL fills a hole in the market for a Single-A hockey league up north where most hockey fans live. It’s a cheap alternative to the NHL and you know the players are playing for the love of the game. They want to compete, and they want to play. These guys want to be out there on the ice—money is no factor. The fans get a chance to be closer to the action, to meet players and staff, and become a part of the team themselves.”

I would now like to feature interviews of Rob Boertlein and Chris Hoeler, basically asking them the same questions, with different variations based on their team’s result at the end of the season. Why does this become interesting? Well, because the Outlaws and Whalers met in the finals just a few short weeks ago, with the Outlaws coming out on top to win the Commissioner’s Cup.

David Zohn (middle) and Rob Boertlein (right) with the “Hockey Maven” himself, Stan Fischler, upon his visit to the Outlaws home arena, the Capital One Ice Vault.

Interview with Rob

GC: What was your overall experience like working with the New Jersey Outlaws this season?

RB: Overall, this season has been a great learning experience. To go from a rushed start in August to winning the championship at the end of March, it was a growing process. We didn’t have much time to make a mistake, or any leeway in the event that we did, but we made it work and it ended up being a success.

GC: Your team made it to the finals this past season and won. What was the playoff atmosphere like for your games?

RB: The playoff atmosphere was amazing in the finals. We knew Danbury would bring a bunch of their fans to our arena, but our fans responded by bringing the noise. The crowd was well stocked with cowbells, air horns, megaphones, and even a mac truck horn that was plugged in! Our fans rose to the task and then proceeded to take it up to Danbury and it was an amazing experience getting to sit with the Outlaws fans in Section 105 of the Danbury Ice Arena.

GC: What do you see in the future of the Outlaws?

RB: Hopefully there will be another championship next season along with growth in the fan base and awareness of the product. That was our biggest struggle early on. Trying to make people aware of a little known league and a brand new team was not the easiest task but the product on the ice and the use of social media helped us see results as the season went along.

GC: What would you say is the biggest difference between the FHL and the NHL, skill level aside? Are there any similarities?

RB: I’d have to say, from an experience visiting the Hershey Bears, that the biggest difference, even to an AHL level, is the organization of the league. The Bears are far more organized which, I’m sure, has a lot to do with being owned by a corporation that owns their arena, whereas we’re guests in our home arena.

GC: Has being involved with a professional hockey team given you any insight or help that this is really the career you want?

RB: This is absolutely the career I want. As a Rangers fan, my ultimate goal is to be working for the Rangers one day. But if anything, this has taught me that busting your butt will get you where you want to go.

GC: Popularity for the FHL is growing, but it is still not at a level that, let’s say, minor league baseball is at. If you had to make a sales pitch to the die-hard hockey fan, and even the casual sports fan in general, what would you say about the league?

RB: I think the main thing about this league is to focus on the amount of call ups to the ECHL and even AHL this past season. People that are die-hard hockey fans understand the legitimacy of those leagues, but question the FHL to an extent because it’s a growing league going through its growing pains. But the level of hockey is excellent and you’ll end up paying about the price of a movie and be entertained for even longer….and you don’t even need those 3-D glasses!

Chris Hoeler manning the bench during his coaching debut with the Whalers.

Interview with Chris

GC: What was your overall experience like working with the Danbury Whalers this season?

CH: Overall there is so much I could say about the year. I started as the Assistant Director of Player Personnel a little over a year ago and the experience I have had is something I am willing to bet is pretty unique for someone my age. Seeing the inner workings of a professional hockey team and league really opened my eyes even more as someone whose biggest interest in life is hockey. As a fan, people see certain things, but when you are involved almost daily in the operations of a team you see so many things that you never could imagine. Fans see the players go on the ice and play the games and after the games to sign autographs. But there is an entire world behind all of that and every day is just as important as the last. When the work pays off in wins and recognition as one of the top teams in the league, it really makes you feel good. Yes, there were some times where things weren’t as bright as they could be, but the experience as a whole is something I will never forget and I am looking forward to another season with the Danbury Whalers.

GC: Your team made it to the finals this past season but lost. What was the playoff atmosphere like for your games?

CH: The playoffs were a great experience to witness. I was there for 7 of the 8 playoff games and every one I went to was a nail biter. There were three overtime games, last second goals, and furious play. I have to say the atmosphere was definitely very high considering Danbury fans really supported this team and went on the road all playoffs long.  It was a rollercoaster ride which unfortunately ended on the lower end of the slope but the atmosphere was never dull. The amount of passion the players had in every game was amazing and being in the locker room for the highs and lows really shows you the kinds of swings that can happen in the playoffs. As fans, people know that the playoffs are different than the regular season but when you are with the team you really feel it. I sort of felt like a rookie just kind of wide-eyed and taking everything in and it will help me in the future whether working for a team or just watching a game. The loss really hurt but if anything it has motivated me more about wanting to win it all and knowing what it feels like to be on the losing end will make being on the winning side THAT much sweeter.

GC: What would you say is the biggest difference between the FHL and the NHL, skill level aside? Are there any similarities?

CH: I would say the NHL and FHL have a few similarities…the passion among the players and the amount of work that has to be put in. But I think the biggest similarity, and you will see it at every level of hockey, is the people. There are a lot of good people involved in the sport and that is true at every level. Some of the best people I have met professionally were through this season and I have a feeling that it is like that at every level. Of course the FHL is a bit more like Slap Shot and more than in just name. The characters you see in the league and in games is unreal and it makes things interesting to say the least, in both a good and bad way. There is never a dull moment and I am sure the NHL has its fair share of characters. Ultimately though, its a group of people who love the sport of hockey and I think you will find that with any sport you work in. I’m very glad I got involved with hockey and a big big reason is because of the people.

GC: Has being involved with a professional hockey team given you any insight or help that this is really the career you want?

CH: It certainly has made me realize just how much goes into putting players on the ice to play. I’m not going to lie, it isn’t the most glamorous profession. You spend significant amounts of time away from your family and friends, have a lack of sleep, work long hours, travel long distances, and still deal with day to day problems. By the time the season had ended you are just exhausted and want to make time for the people and things you want to do before it all starts over again. That being said, I realized it is exactly what I want to get into. There is work and a lot of time but in the end, its all about something that I love. I figure if I am going to be working for the majority of my life I may as well work in something I love and pour my hardest work into. Not to mention you have some great stories and have plenty of laughs.

GC: What was it like getting to coach the Whalers for 3 games this season?

CH: The three games I got to coach were something that I really can’t describe. Despite the fact I know it was a forced decision, I can’t thank Head Coach Phil Esposito (no relation to the NHLer) enough for trusting me to do something that I had never done before those three games. It was a huge learning experience for me especially for someone who never got to go on the ice and play hockey. Learning systems, line changes, line matching, who is on the power play, what to do in certain situations, what constitutes a good and bad chirp…it was really a lot to learn but when you get to stand behind the bench you just do what you have to do. Like an NHL player who remembers their first goal, I remember the first goal scored and I remember getting the win in my first game. All of the credit goes to Coach Esposito for making sure the players were ready to go that night and all season, but those two wins I got will always be mine…at least in my head.

GC: Popularity for the FHL is growing, but it is still not at a level that, let’s say, minor league baseball is it. If you had to make a sales pitch to the die-hard hockey fan, and even the casual sports fan in general, what would you say about the league?

CH: I would say that hockey is hockey and some of the players in this league are very skilled guys. The league has come a long way in two years and will only get better as it progresses. Things are in motion that will make the league much more legitimate and will really get it on the map of the hockey world. Obviously being an affordable alternative to big league games is a big reason to go but I think the experience you can get by going to these games is similar to any other and even better in some respects. You can really feel involved with the players who are always out to meet and greet fans and make memories for kids. One of the big reasons I love hockey is because of being able to meet players when I was younger and have the experience of being the shy kid who was too afraid to talk to his heroes. Kids will have heroes in their lives and these games allow kids to not only pick heroes but really have a much better chance to interact with them than with major league players. But honestly, hockey is hockey. If you love the sport you will watch any level of it and I can tell you the jump in the level of play between year one and two was significant. I’m excited to see the jump between years two and three and the improvements the league will have by the time the puck drops again in the fall.

I would like to thank David, Rob, and Chris for taking the time to contribute to this article. Please take the time to check out the websites for the New Jersey Outlaws and Danbury Whalers, and also, keep them in mind next fall! The Federal Hockey League was created in 2010 and currently has eight teams scattered in the northeast—four are in the NY/NJ/CT area, with others in Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Ontario, Canada.

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