It’s a warm Monday evening in July when the players begin trickling into the cold confines of HarborCenter. Dressed in shorts and t-shirts, hockey bags slung over their shoulders and sticks in hand, they look like any bunch of guys playing summer league men’s hockey.
But this isn’t your typical men’s summer league.
See over there? Yes, that’s Buffalo Sabres forward Zemgus Girgensons.
Who are those guys wearing Ottawa Senators gear? Forwards Shane Prince and Cole Schneider, who played in the AHL last season.
Check out the other rink and some of the best college players in Western New York – Alex Iafallo (Minnesota-Duluth), Ryan Schmelzer (Canisius), Nolan Sheeran (Canisius) and Vince Muto (Niagara) – are skating.
Mix in the best high school players in the area along with guys playing junior hockey in the OHL plus a host of ECHL players and you start to see the building blocks of the Fattey Hockey League.
Named after founder Nik Fattey, the FHL is in its 10th year this summer, its first playing in the downtown Buffalo facility.
Fattey, who is vice president/director of hockey at HarborCenter, began the league in 2005. While playing Division III hockey, he found it difficult to find a good place to play in the summer.
“There were men’s leagues but they were mostly fighting leagues with a lot of dirty hockey going on,” Fattey said. “The good players didn’t have a place to go.”
He found ice time on Sunday nights at Leisure Rinks and started the FHL with four teams the first year, relying heavily on fellow alumni and players from St. Francis High School.
The league grew rapidly and in the last five years has grown from a “Frannies and Friends of Frannies” league to a regional option that draws elite players from all levels and fields 12 teams.
“It’s a skills skate,” Fattey said. “The concept is you can come and get your legs and stay sharp. The games are very fast. It’s quicker than anything men’s league-wise.”
What does an FHL game look like?
• Each game is 30 minutes of running time and the teams play two games, back to back, each night.
• The only faceoff is the opening faceoff.
• Penalties are resolved with a penalty shot.
• There is no checking.
• There must be a high school player on the ice at all times.
• A horn blows every 75 seconds for a mandatory line change. “Because who is going to tell Patrick Kane to get off the ice?” Fattey explained.
That’s right, three-time Stanley Cup champion Patrick Kane plays in the FHL. Last year he was named the MVP of the summer league and the story was picked up by Chicago and national outlets.
Kane plays when he’s available for Mordor, the team captained by former Canisius and St. Francis standout Vinny Scarsella. So don’t expect to see Kane every Monday and Wednesday night in the FHL. Fans can also leave their Sharpies at home. The games are free and open to the public, drawing anywhere from a handful of friends and family to 100 spectators, but the league strictly enforces a no-autographs policy.
“That way everyone’s comfortable. It makes it easy for the guys to come. They know that they’re not going to be bombarded,” Fattey said. “We’re all here to play.”
The league begins play in mid-June with playoffs scheduled for Aug. 11 and the championship on Aug. 12.
Fattey describes the FHL as “players league” – an opportunity to skate against good competition in the summer.
While there’s no hitting, there is some light trash-talking, because after all, what is hockey without chirping between friends?
And friendships are the heart of what makes the league so much fun for so many players.
“The best is just being with your buddies all the time and playing against them. You get to come to the rink and hang out with them,” Schmelzer said.
“I look forward to it every summer,” said Scarsella, who played for Utah and Stockton in the ECHL last season and has been part of the FHL since its inception. “It’s really a great chance to see your buddies and play hockey with them and against them. It’s a fun time on the ice and a chance to play with guys with a ton of skill.”
The other main attraction is the skill and level of competition. That’s what attracted Prince, a native of Rochester and one of the top prospects in the Senators’ organization, to play in the league this year.
“I heard some of the guys that play, a lot of pro guys and NHL guys, and I heard it was pretty competitive and a good summer league,” Prince said “It’s kind of hard to find good summer leagues around here. It’s awesome they have this going and I’m happy to be a part of it.
“For the pros, you’re playing to keep your job every year so you try to do the best you can in the offseason to get better and stay in shape. That’s what I do every year and I thought this would be a good thing to add to my schedule.”
For Girgensons, the games provide a great conditioning opportunity. There are never more than three lines and everyone is skating for 75-second shifts so that hour of hockey can be a pretty solid cardio workout.
Then there’s the freedom that comes with playing a high-paced, high-skill game without hitting.
“My game is to play hard. I’m not the best at this kind of hockey but it’s fun,” Girgensons said. “You get to work on stickhandling, everything. You’re not afraid to make turnovers. You just try some crazy moves if you can. It’s fun.”
There’s fun and freedom for the pro players, but there’s a little bit of a “wow” factor for the young players in the league.
It’s the fourth summer that Schmelzer has played in the FHL, three of those coming while he was a member of the Buffalo Jr. Sabres and going to high school at Williamsville East.
“It’s pretty intimidating because when you think of summer league you don’t think of the best quality hockey and this is pretty top notch,” Schmelzer said. “So if you’re younger playing in this league, it’s very fast paced so you’re very intimidated but for the most part it’s good.”
And as Schmelzer looks to build on his impressive freshman year with Canisius, the FHL gives him a chance to stay sharp mentally as well as physically.
“You’re making quick decisions and staying sharp that way because when you come back into training camp that’s usually the first thing that’s most rusty,” Schmelzer said. “You’re not able to make quick decisions and seeing the ice. Being able to get those reps is good.”