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Will Birmingham play in the South East Hockey League?

August 15, 2003
The formation of the South East Hockey League was announced today in Boaz, Alabama. John Cherney, the league's founder and first president, announced that the Huntsville Channel Cats, the Knoxville Ice Bears, the Cape Fear FireAntz, the Tupelo T-Rex, and a planned franchise in Birmingham comprise the original five teams. Additional cities are expected to be announced next week.

The SEHL will begin play in mid-October and will play a 60 game schedule.

The four teams named were previously members of the Atlantic Coast Hockey League, which seems to have folded with the defection of those teams. The mass exodus, the second to hit the ACHL since a few teams left to form the World Hockey Association2 in April, was led by Cherney, owner of the Huntsville Channel Cats.

ACHL president and founder William Coffey was left out in the cold. His league is down to one team, Winston-Salem which he owns. The league faces extinction unless he can regroup. Coffey's team is not expected to be offered a spot in the new league and the SEHL expects to put a team in Winston-Salem next week under new local ownership.

Cherney, who doesn't receive a salary to serve as the league's president, has been openly critical recently of the way ACHL founder Coffey was running the league. "There won't be one dictator. Each team will have an equal part in the ownership of the league." He plans to serve a one year term as president of the SEHL, and at the end of his term, a different league owner will be elected to the position. He added that unlike most independent minor leagues, teams will not be required to pay a large franchise fee. Instead, the teams will pay a smaller monthly sum that will cover the league's operating expenses. The teams will vote on the amount of the league dues, along with other rules, at an organizational meeting to be scheduled within the next few weeks.

Former Birmingham Bulls coach Mike Zruna plans to be involved with the local team. "I am quite familiar with the members that have formed the SEHL; they are professionals that know the business and I am excited to be a part of the return of professional hockey to the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center."

"With the addition of Birmingham and structure of the league being stronger, the current situation looks extremely positive. I expect this to be an improved year on and off the ice for the FireAntz organization," said Cape Fear's president and general manager Kevin MacNaught.

MacNaught went on to say that the FireAntz have been weighing their league options since owner David Waronker took his four teams and started the WHA2. After more than a month of negotiation and threats, Coffey and Waronker agreed to peacefully go their separate ways. Shortly thereafter, the FireAntz chose to stay with the ACHL.

But even then, MacNaught said he still had his reservations. And he wasn't the only one. Cherney, in particular, had been concerned about the financial well-being of the ACHL. So much so, that he asked Coffey to let him inspect the league's books. When Coffey didn't produce the requested documents by Monday, Cherney made the decision to strike out on his own. MacNaught said he learned of Cherney's intentions on Thursday. He said that once the Huntsville owner made the decision to start the SEHL, the FireAntz had little choice but to follow.

All of the owners are excited about the new league's structure, especially Cherney. "I've got a whole different philosophy on minor league hockey. Dues and franchise fees are too high. A lot of teams fold because of that. Most leagues are started to make money for the league president and commissioner. This is going to be different. I've worked hard all my life, I don't need the money. At this stage, I just want to play hockey."

Cherney also indicated that a merger with the WHA2 is possible in the future, but that it was too late for anything to happen between the leagues this season.

August 18, 2003
Frank Poe, building manager of the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center, says that he is not aware of any hockey teams scheduled to play in the BJCC arena this fall and is upset at Cherney for announcing plans to put a team in Birmingham without his approval. "I've got a copy of the release and I've notified John that it would totally not be true. Even if I were interested in doing hockey (in the fall), this building wouldn't be ready until Thanksgiving."

Poe said that before a team could play hockey at the Civic Center, he'd have to order new nets, a new ice dam, and several other pieces of equipment. He doesn't plan to order that equipment until he has a signed lease with a local ownership group.

"Last week, I got a call from John Cherney saying that they had formed this new hockey league and wanted to talk about hockey this year," Poe said. "At that point I told John, and I think my exact words were, 'it would be pretty crazy' to try to do hockey here this year. I don't appreciate them releasing an announcement that they're putting a team in a building that can't have hockey right now."

Ron Hansis, who came over from the ACHL to be the new league's vice president for hockey operations, said that Cherney was in Birmingham meeting with a group of local investors. Hansis admitted that there's still a little work that needs to be done in Birmingham, but said that things there were "still moving forward." He said that Cherney hoped to have the few remaining issues resolved by today or Wednesday.

MacNaught said that he was unaware of the problems in Birmingham but said he was still confident in the SEHL and its ability to put at least five teams on the ice this October. "I'm not worried. There's still a possibility of having six or seven (teams), but at worst, we'll have at least five. That's where we've been at (with the ACHL)."

The confusion in Birmingham isn't the only unresolved issue the SEHL must deal with. Another question involves the Tupelo T-Rex. According to a minor league hockey source, the Central Hockey League still holds the territorial rights to the Mississippi city from when Tupelo played as a member of the Western Professional Hockey League. The CHL and WPHL merged in 2001. Unless T-Rex owner Monty Fletcher reaches a settlement with the CHL, that league could go to court to prevent Tupelo from playing as a member of the SEHL, or any other professional league, this season.

However, Hansis said he didn't think the legal questions involving Fletcher and the CHL will present a major obstacle to overcome. "Monty Fletcher has not made us aware of any problems. He's agreed to come on board with us. I don't think he would have done that if he wasn't sure he could."

August 28, 2003
The SEHL announces that a team will play in Winston-Salem for the 2003-04 season. Jim Riggs, the league's commissioner, said that they are seeking local ownership for the franchise within 30 to 60 days.

September 17, 2003
The South East Hockey League releases their inaugural 2003-04 schedule. A franchise in Birmingham was not included.

South East Hockey League                           
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  Cape Fear Fire Antz logo   Huntsville Channel Cats logo   Knoxville Ice Bears logo   Winston-Salem T-Birds logo  
  Cape Fear Fire Antz   Huntsville Channel Cats
  Knoxville Ice Bears   Winston-Salem T-Birds  

September 30, 2003
Representatives from a potential Birmingham ownership group were present at league meetings over the weekend in Asheville, NC. Also, league spokesmen said that franchises for Huntington (WV) and Jackson haven't officially been awarded expansion franchises for 2004-05, but they are on solid footing. "The doctor (Jim Grotting) from Birmingham was there and they are positive about bringing a team in (for next season)," Knoxville Ice Bears general manager Preston Dixon said. "They are a little behind the other two teams, but extremely committed."

The South East Hockey League successfully played their 2003-04 season, but that would be their only season.

A year later, the Cape Fear and Knoxville franchises would join the newly formed Southern Professional Hockey League. In October of 2017, the Birmingham Bulls began play in the SPHL. The league and the Bulls continue to play to this day.

Unfortunately, the SEHL would not be able to secure replacement teams in time for a second season.
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Last update: March 20, 2022