Billings — The return of ice hockey to the Magic City will not be by the Billings Blizzard in the Western Professional Hockey League.
The Blizzard, who was to have been a first-year team, had hoped to begin playing in the WPHL’s inaugural season of 2022-23. Where they were to have played their home games was never announced.
On its league website Saturday, the upstart WPHL announced that it had cut ties with the Blizzard. The WPHL said the Blizzard’s ownership group, Pick Six Entertainment, “failed to comply with contractual obligations that would affiliate them with the Western Professional Hockey League.”
When reached by phone Tuesday, Keith Russ of Pick Six said the Blizzard had suspended operations.
In a press conference in Billings last November announcing that pro hockey was coming to the Magic City for the 2022-23 season, WPHL co-founder Frank Santelli said Billings was the first WPHL team to be announced but that the new league would have eight teams for its first season.
Teams were to be located in Montana, Wyoming, Texas, New Mexico and possibly Kansas. It was revealed that a Las Vegas team might join the WPHL for the league’s second season.
The Billings Gazette and 406mtsports.com earlier reported that Russ, who no longer lives in Billings, said the WPHL schedule would be approximately 44 games, with half of those being home contests.
According to the league’s website, the WPHL is a “single A professional hockey league that spans across the western part of the United States. The Western Professional Hockey League serves as a developmental league for professional players.”
While the “about us” information about the league is the WPHL’s goal, there aren’t any teams listed on the league’s website under “Teams.”
Under the “Scores/Schedules” tab on the league’s website, a 24-game comprehensive league schedule is listed from Nov. 11 through April 9. For the 24 total league-wide games listed, the teams are the Santa Rosa Growlers, Las Vegas Millionaires, Vail Yeti, Reno Ice Raiders, Fond Du Lac Bears, Breckenridge Vipers, Park City Pioneers and Norcal Stampede.
Russ said the type of season planned, and the talent level, is not what Billings was promised when it agreed to join the league. Russ said the contests amounted to a 20-exhibition games season.
“We were promised we’d have opponents at a comparable level,” Russ said, noting the schedule also isn’t what was proposed.
Pick Six also once owned the Billings Outlaws indoor football team of the Champions Indoor Football League. The group no longer owns the Outlaws, who are under new ownership, but as the transfer of ownership of the football team was occurring late in the season there were allegedly of unpaid bills, unfulfilled salaries and bad sponsorship deals against Pick Six.
Stu Bertrand was hired as the Blizzard’s general manager in January. Bertrand, who is now umpiring in the Pioneer Baseball League, said he was still owed salary from Pick Six and was in the legal process of seeking reimbursement.
The Blizzard had never secured an arena for home games. There were conversations with First Interstate Arena at MetraPark, but the facility isn’t able to make or maintain ice. While Centennial Ice Arena might have been an option, the team had to strike a deal with the much-larger Metra and Russ had said the franchise was considering purchasing preferred portable ice-making equipment.
“It is extremely frustrating. I almost feel like I was sold a dream, a vision and there was absolutely zero follow through on it,” Bertrand said. “I almost feel taken advantage of as somebody from Billings and the Billings community.”
Eddie LaPera was hired as the Blizzard’s coach in mid-March. He said Pick Six also still owed him salary for his work. LaPera said for the most part he had moved on from his duties as Blizzard coach in mid-to-late June as it was getting harder to reach Russ to communicate about the team and his salary.
However, LaPera said nobody from Pick Six had told him or Bertrand that “officially as an employer-employee relationship they had terminated either of our employments.”
LaPera said it wasn’t for a lack of him or Bertrand trying that the Blizzard never laced up skates and took the ice. But as a coach and general manager they said they only could control so much.
“I am extremely disappointed. It was put in mine and Stu’s hands,” LaPera said. “We had worked our butts off at every avenue. We had everything ready to go, players ready to sign and three different avenues looking at for ice and different venues. We had the costs and budgets done and worked our butts off on it. Lots of people were excited and Stu and I get all the questions we can’t even answer. That is frustrating. You want to be able to answer them.”
Russ did say the Blizzard had tried to join another league, but were turned down for geographic reasons.
If he were to do it over, would securing a home arena before announcing plans for a hockey team were first on Russ’ list?
“Yes and no, the problem is even if you secure a building, if you don’t have the schedule it’s hard,” he said. “Even for arena football, it’s hard. We had many conversations with (Metra staff). We had tentative dates and were in the process of buying the portable ice-making equipment.
“We are not going to purchase $300,000 worth of ice-making equipment and not have a schedule. That’s not worth the money.”
Bertrand said that he “came under this impression all of the necessities to get a hockey team to play at the Sports Plex or Metra was going to be provided by Keith Russ and that didn’t happen.”
Bertrand said if he ever visited with potential owners of a hockey franchise in Billings he’d recommend they have a home arena before announcing plans to play.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I think that was the very first surprise I had that Keith and Pick Six had met with MetraPark and the county to get the lease set up for football, but there was no lease ever for hockey from MetraPark .”