Professional hockey comes to Akwesasne

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AKWESASNE – Professional hockey is coming to Akwesasne, a small Mohawk community on the United States/Canada border.

The Akwesasne Warriors are one of six clubs that will compete in the inaugural season of the Federal Hockey League.

The new circuit, which is scheduled to begin play in late October, is considered one of the lower levels of pro hockey.

The Warriors, the lone Canadian entrant in the FHL, will play at the A`nowara`ko:wa Arena. The facility, nicknamed “The Turtle Dome,” is located on the Ontario side of Akwesasne.

The border community, which also dips into upper New York state, has a population of about 12,000.

Warriors’ president Basem Awwad believes his new club will be well received.

“I’d like to believe we’ll average around 2,000 (fans per game).”

Left winger Kyle Lagace, from Kahnawake, Quebec plays for the Akwesasne Warriors. He previously played at the Junior A level, and is Mohawk.

Akwesasne’s home rink has seating for 2,200. About another 800 can watch the game if they choose to stand.

The Warriors were already garnering their share of community support as more than half a dozen major sponsors had come on board by late August.

“There’s a lot of interest in sponsorship,” Awwad said. “We’ve now got people starting to call us instead of us calling people.”

Though the club will play its home games in Ontario, Awwad is hoping the Warriors can attract numerous fans from the U.S., who will have to cross the Canadian/American border to get to and from the contests.

“I can see that being a bit of a deterrent, especially for non-Natives who have to pay the road tolls,” Awwad said.

Native people are exempt from paying the $3 road toll each way.

As of late August, the Warriors had sold about 200 season tickets. The majority of them were to local businesses.

The cost of the Warriors’ season tickets range from $200 to $350. Awwad is confident individuals will soon start purchasing season tickets as well.

“A lot of the fans are waiting for our schedule to be announced.” That schedule was officially released Aug. 30.

The majority of the Warriors’ home games will be Friday or Saturday nights or Sunday afternoons.

Awwad said FHL officials had to wait for the American Hockey League – North America’s top minor pro hockey league – to release its schedule for the coming season before releasing their own.

That’s because a handful of FHL squads are in rather close proximity to AHL franchises. And as much as possible FHL officials wanted to avoid having their league games on the same night as nearby AHL clubs.

The FHL includes four franchises in the State of New York. They are the New York Aviators, Rome Frenzy, 1000 Islands Privateers and Broome County Barons.

Connecticut’s Danbury Whalers are also in the league.

All FHL squads will play 60 regular season contests.

Akwesasne is scheduled to begin its campaign on the road Oct. 28 versus the host Barons. The Warriors’ home opener will be two nights later, Oct. 30, against the visiting Frenzy.

All FHL teams will be allowed to carry 17 players on their active roster. Three others are allowed on a club’s inactive roster.

And players cannot expect to get rich playing in this league. Each team will have a weekly salary cap of $6,000, which translates to about $350 per player each week.

Awwad said the Warriors will also provide accommodations as well as some other expenses for out-of-town players.

As of late August, the Akwesasne team had signed 12 players.

“As far as us on the ice, our team looks really good,” Awwad said. “We’ve got some players with professional experience and some NHL draft picks.”

Among those who had been signed to deals were two aboriginal players, center Nick Montour, who is from Akwesasne, and left winger Kyle Lagace, from Kahnawake, Quebec. Both players, who previously toiled at the Junior A level, are Mohawk.

The Warriors were also supposed to have an aboriginal presence behind the bench. Joe Phillips, Mohawk, who had previously coached an Akwesasne Junior B hockey team, had been hired as the Warriors’ head coach in April.

But Phillips resigned from this post in late August due to other work commitments he took on this summer, which will require extensive travel.

Mike Piquette, who has held various posts for junior hockey teams in eastern Ontario in recent years, was named the Warriors’ new coach/general manager in early September.