Still fresh from completing the most successful Northern Pacific Hockey League season in the four-year history of the franchise, the Missoula Maulers have cut ties with the 10-year-old Tier III Junior-A league.
According to a NorPac release on the league's official website dated May 23, the Maulers, along with the Bozeman Icedogs, Billings Bulls and Helena Bighorns, were suspended from playing in the NorPac.
But Maulers owner and president Michael Burks vehemently denies NorPac's claim of a decision to suspend the four Montana clubs.
"All four teams claimed dormancy (for next season) before the deadline mandated in the league bylaws," Burks told the Missoulian by phone early Thursday evening. "The league in turn was very upset with the situation and claimed they had suspended us. What's ironic about the whole thing is that we were recently named the NorPac franchise of the year. Then they go and air some of the league's dirty laundry and say they've suspended us."
Mike Butters, president and owner of the Helena franchise, joined Burks in voicing his displeasure with how NorPac handled a situation that left the league with two teams from the Treasure State for the 2011-2012 season - the Butte Roughriders and a first-year franchise in Whitefish named the Glacier Nationals.
"The comments made by the league were erroneous and absolutely (egregious)," Butters said. "The four Montana teams informed NorPac that we would not be playing in the NorPac next year. Then they take these measures that have no substance to them whatsoever. I guess people are entitled to giving their opinions, but it's upsetting that it was handled like this in such a public forum."
Despite breaking from the NorPac, the Maulers and the three other franchises will be playing hockey when next season rolls around.
Though he refused to speak of specific details until returning from next weekend's USA Hockey Junior meetings in Colorado, Burks said that all four teams will be competing next fall in another Tier III Junior-A league.
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"I can 100 percent absolutely guarantee we will be playing Missoula Maulers hockey at Glacier Ice Rink next season," Burks said. "The difference people are going to see is that there's going to be parity on the ice that's going to be 10 times what it was the last four years in the NorPac."
NorPac commissioner Gord Whitaker explained the league's actions when contacted by the Missoulian.
"It wasn't so much that we had a problem with the fact that they wouldn't be participating in the NorPac and creating a new league in competition with the NorPac," Whitaker said. "I guess everyone got a lesson in league protocol and corporate law. The short of it is that the (NorPac) board of governors put a motion on the floor that the league would support a new league, but not until the 2012-13 season. By creating a prosperous new league and doing it immediately, those teams put some of the others in the NorPac in great financial hardships."
It's also likely NorPac members were upset at losing the NorPac champion Bighorns, who went on to win a national title, as well as the Maulers, who led the NorPac in attendance in each of their four seasons in the league.
Last year the Maulers averaged 1,085 fans at Glacier Ice Rink in 25 regular-season home games, according to pointstreak.com. In their three playoff games at Glacier Ice Rink this spring, the Maulers drew an average of 1,667 fans a game.
Additionally, the first-year Great Falls Americans were supposed to join the NorPac next fall. Though the Americans' website currently states the team will participate in the NorPac in the upcoming season, the NorPac is not identifying Great Falls as a league member, leaving speculation as to if the Americans will join the upstart league.
"I can't confirm or deny (Great Falls) joining our league or any other one," Whitaker said. "We considered them a member in the past and we would like to have them scheduled for next season. I'd like to get their answer as soon as possible."
Michael Heinbach can be reached at 523-5209 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.