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LNHB: THE FIRST PRO BALL HOCKEY LEAGUE

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  • By Carl Lemelin
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LNHB: THE FIRST PRO BALL HOCKEY LEAGUE

Hope is running high that the LNHB will help legitimize ball hockey as a spectator sport worthy of consideration by the IOC.

 

Ball hockey – in all its forms, including dek hockey – has always been seen as a recreational sport, a right of passage for all hockey players. That’s where we started playing the game before learning how to skate, right? Playing ball hockey in the street with our buddies. We all remember the “CAAAR!!!” calls that really meant “Timeout!”

As we got older, we realized that ball hockey is very different from ice hockey. It requires a different set of skills, and different team strategies. Despite obvious similarities, it’s simply a different sport.

If we use baseball as an analogy, you can say ball hockey is to hockey what slowpitch softball is to baseball. Most adults play softball but will only watch and follow pro baseball. Although many people play ball hockey, they haven’t taken to watching the game as spectators.

That’s mostly because ball hockey has never been offered as a spectator sport like ice hockey has, with the NHL and all its development leagues (junior and pro levels).

Ball hockey as an organized sport is still in its infancy. To develop elite level competition in any sport, you need a solid structural foundation, and that is what ball hockey is still sorely lacking.

In my last blog YOUTH BALL/DEK HOCKEY: ENSURING THE SPORT’S FUTURE, I touched on the structural challenges the ball hockey community is currently facing at the developmental level.

Maybe the solution to ball hockey’s growth starts at the top. If the sport can establish itself as a viable viewing option at the elite level, that could facilitate the growth of more structured grassroots levels that can feed it and help grow interest in the game among a younger generation of players and fans.

Enter the LNHB (Ligue Nationale de Hockey Balle), the world’s first ever professional ball hockey league.

 

THE LNHB: THE CULMINATION OF A LABOUR OF PASSION

Based in Quebec, the LNHB was founded back in 2020 as the global COVID-19 pandemic was hitting the planet with unprecedented shutdowns. Therefore, what was set to be the league’s inaugural season had to be cancelled.

What a start, right?

2021 was also fraught with challenges, but the league finally was able to enjoy its inaugural season.

“It wasn’t that bad,” says Mathieu Hainault, who works for the NBHPA (North Ball Hockey Players Association).

The NBHPA’s mission is to provide structure to ball hockey in North America, therefore promoting and legitimizing it as a full-fledged sport. It does that by developing a ranking system for all registered players, sponsoring leagues that register accredited players, and fostering efforts to promote the sport.

The stated goal is to create such a buzz around the sport that it eventually gets to the ears of International Olympic Committee members.

There is quite a way to go for ball hockey to get to that point, but helping make possible the first ever professional ball hockey league is a significant step forward.

Since the world was still marred in COVID-19 protocols that limited gatherings and cross-region travel in 2021, that inaugural season was limited to 8 games – instead of the full 20-game regular seasons the LNHB currently offers.

The mandates had loosened enough by then for the league to open its facilities to paying spectators, although in a limited number.

“Everything went very smoothly (that first season),” states Hainault.

“The fact that we couldn’t play the first year helped us be more ready and organized (for the first season).”

The pro league is the brainchild of former NHL player Alex Burrows and his co-founder Patric Ducharme. Both were avid ball hockey players who saw the growing popularity of 3-on-3 dek hockey in their home province of Quebec as an opportunity to put their sport on the map.

 

QUEBEC AND 3-ON-3 DEK HOCKEY, A PERFECT MATCH

The LNHB plays a version of ball hockey that caught on in Quebec, for which many outdoor rinks – and indoor facilities – were built over for past few decades for play during the summer. The best outdoor surface is a plastic tile-based floor called dek, thus the dek hockey denomination.

The plastic tiles are textured for better grip. They also come with openings that help evacuate moisture from condensation or rainwater. Additionally, they are easy to replace once they wear out.

Since the LNHB season (including playoffs) runs from mid-May to the end of August, the league schedule consists mainly of outdoor events. Some of the league’s 12 teams have the option of going indoors if it rains. Only two organisations (Mirabel and Quebec City) have strictly indoor facilities, but theirs are state of the art.

Why 3-on-3? At the recreational level, this format lets every player touch the ball on a more regular basis, making it more fun for everyone. It is also a mode of play that allows for more teams to be created, since you only need two lines of runners and a goalie – 7 players, as opposed to the 11 needed for 5-on-5.

 

BALL HOCKEY AS A BUSINESS MODEL

Creating a professional sports league from scratch in today’s economic context is quite an endeavor. People’s entertainment dollars are stretched like never before, so the LNHB has taken the gradual approach: start small and build up through multiple channels of visibility.

New league commissioner Gab Marineau is a web content creator, so he brings a much-needed set of skills and contacts to help promote the league on social media. Previously, Marineau served as the game announcer for The Québec Remparts QMJHL franchise.

 “I think he will be great for the league,” says Hainault, who takes care of all the logistics for the LNHB (scheduling, coordinating with league partners, etc.).

“Olivier (Primeau, ex-commissioner) also still helps out. He has a vast array of business contacts.”

That’s the other aspect that any pro league needs to generate more revenue: sponsors. The LNHB can already count on two solid partners in Couche-Tard (a very well-known corner store chain in Quebec) and Bet99.

The former helps bring visibility to the league in its stores and provides gift cards, while Bet99 sponsors the league’s player uniforms. That makes it possible for franchises to pay the players using the proceeds from ticket sales ($10 per ticket).

“Most teams either break even or make a little bit of money.”

You can sense the pride in Hainault’s voice, as the league does not have to pay the NBHPA for his services. The LNHB is a project that everyone in the ball hockey community in Quebec seems to genuinely care about, and there is a common belief in its long-term viability and in its role as the main engine to grow the sport.

The league enjoys an impressive following on all social media platforms. A group of sports journalists called La table du hockey, lead by Jean-Michael Fortin, reports daily on the league’s activities. They run a website and are the official broadcaster of LNHB games on their YouTube channel and Facebook page.

“Jean-Michael does a great job covering the league,” Hainault adds. Watching a few clips myself, I would agree.

The games are professionally packaged, and Fortin obviously knows the league inside and out and lets his passion for the sport shine through in each broadcast.

La table du hockey’s Facebook page currently boasts 7.4K followers, a significant number for a new spectator sport at a provincial level. Add to that a podcast that often features popular Quebec celebrities, articles about the LNHB on the website, and an Instagram page and you have the makings of a solid PR machine. Each individual team also runs its own social media platforms.

But for a start-up pro league like the LNHB, the key to legitimacy is attendance.

“When you see crowds of 700-800 show up, it’s impressive,” Hainault recounts. That happened in Sherbrooke and Mirabel. In Granby, the Dek Hockey center Hainault owns and runs, they’ve seen up to 550 spectators attend their games.

“In Lévis in the final two years ago, it was incredible!”

 

WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?

Now that we know the foundation seems solid and the LNBH has the wind in its sails, how do they plan on keeping this momentum going in the years to come?

The brass clearly understand that growth starts at the grassroots level, because in 2023 they launched the LNHB Prospect league, where every LNHB franchise has its own affiliated team of prospects – players not yet drafted into the pro league. Those teams must include 3 pros from the parent club, but they serve as a showcase for free agent talent that can then be drafted into the LNHB.

The NBHPA also oversees junior leagues all over the province and an 8-team women’s league.

Just how well is junior dek hockey doing in Quebec?

“We just got 200 registrations in 7 days here in Granby,” affirms Hainault, clearly enthusiastic about what that means for the outlook of the sport that has become a lifestyle for him and many others.

For more on the development of junior ball hockey in Quebec, read my previous blog, YOUTH BALL/DEK HOCKEY: ENSURING THE SPORT’S FUTURE.

Expansion has been talked about as many more Quebec markets have expressed interest in joining the league, but for now Marineau’s focus is on expanding each existing team’s outreach.

“There are more and more small businesses that inquire about sponsorship and partnership possibilities with their local team,” states Hainault, a sure sign that they see the visibility potential of the league as a viable advertising option.

“The Prospect league brings in many young players (to the LNHB), and they bring in their friends and families to watch the games.”

The injection of young talent in the LNHB also makes the product better, which also helps build up the fan base.

Star power is another way to increase the pro circuit’s overall visibility. Current leading scorer, Mirabel’s Danick Martel, enjoyed a lengthy pro ice hockey career. Most of it was spent in the AHL, but he did get a brief look in the NHL with Philadelphia and Tampa Bay.

Martel now plays in Europe during the winter, but like many ice hockey pros, he finds that ball hockey is a great way to train in the off-season while maintaining general hockey sense and individual skills.

Lévis’ Cédric Paré was just signed by the Toronto Maple Leafs as a free agent. Commissioner Gab Marineau has mentioned that one of his goals is for the league to feature more NHLers in the league. It just provides so much more opportunities for the league to get airtime in the more traditional media outlets, which exposes it to a broader sports fan audience.

The league was also well represented at this year’s World Men’s Ball Hockey Championship held in Switzerland, despite these players not being accustomed to the 5-on-5 international format. McMaster’s Jean-Philippe Moquin and goalie Christian Lantin (Dek Hockey Town’s very own), as well as Anjou’s Karl Léveillé all were part of Team Canada’s gold medal winning squad. Our Christian Lantin even brought home tournament MVP honors. Congrats old buddy!!!

 

If you are anywhere near an LNHB rink this summer, check out the schedule and catch a game. I know I will during my summer vacation! Check out our comment section below, and please tell us about your fan experience with the league.

Watch the comment section for my account (early August) of a double-header I will attend in McMasterville in mid-July.

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