The North American Hockey League is returning to New Mexico after a five-year hiatus.
The New Mexico Ice Wolves will begin play at Albuquerque’s Outpost Ice Arenas in the fall.
The Ice Wolves are owned by Stan E. Hubbard and his family, which bought the Outpost in August. The family, which also owns KOB-TV, has lived in Albuquerque for a decade since moving its REELZ television network from Los Angeles.
“We’ve always had ideas of bringing in junior hockey at the very top level that this community can and should support,” Hubbard said. “We’ve got the facility, the seating and we’ve got the ability. What it does for hockey in the area is create more excitement and it brings in more hockey experience into Albuquerque and will get more kids to play the game.”
As of Monday, the new team also has a coach. It’s Phil Fox, a native of Stillwater, Minn., who played in the NAHL, Northern Michigan University and four years professionally. He has been head coach of the ice Wolves Bantam A you team the last two years.
Other than the University of New Mexico club team, the state has been without high-level hockey since the NAHL’s New Mexico Mustangs left Rio Rancho for Richfield, Minn., after a brief run from 2010-2012.
The Santa Fe Roadrunners played in the NAHL from 2004-07 before relocating to Topeka, Kan.
The NAHL is the oldest junior hockey league in the U.S. and will be entering its 44th season in the fall. It is geared toward players ages 16 to 20 who are still looking for college scholarships or possible pro contracts, Hubbard said.
Most of the players will fall into the middle of the age range, he said.
“They’ll be out of high school and at the very top of their game,” Hubbard said. “But maybe not quite ready for the DI college team they’re hoping to play for, but after another year or two of seasoning they could be ready.”
More than 30 percent of the current Division-I players have come out of the NAHL, he said, and over the past five years, 30 NAHL players were drafted by the NHL.
Players like Pat Lafontaine, Mike Modano and Todd Marchant traces their roots to the league.
“As the NAHL continues to evolve, the growth of hockey in the South has played a large role in our league’s success,” NAHL Commissioner and President Mark Frankenfeld said in a statement. “And the addition of the NM Ice Wolves continues to solidify the footprint and add another strong community-based team.”
Hubbard said his family is committed to making the team a fixture in the community.
“We don’t want to have a program where we just create hockey players,” he said. “We want a program where these young men can become great people and at same time, develop their game so they can take it one step further and get to next level, D-I college and some cases to drafted in NHL.”
Significant improvements are planned for the Outpost to bring it to a satisfactory operating level, Hubbard added. That means the facility, which has two rinks and ice-filled tunnels connecting the rinks, will be closed April 1 through May 16 for major renovation of the ice surfaces.
In all, some $2 million will be spent on the upgrades, with the idea of bringing seating to about 1,200 including bleachers and a bar rail in the mezzanine, he said.
The Ice Wolves will play in the South Division, renewing old Central Hockey League rivalries with such cities as Amarillo, Corpus Christi, Odessa and Shreveport.
Hubbard said the team should start signing players soon.
“We’re going to be bringing in more people that can help teach hockey,” he said. “The kids who are playing or the coaching staff. The players on the NAHL teams get involved in the community. They’re visiting schools and hospitals. They’re going to be engaged in the community.”