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Published: Thursday, 5/15/2003

Top travel-hockey organization eyed

BY STEVE JUNGA
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

With one full season under his belt at the revamped Team Toledo Ice House, local businessman Mike Bihn is looking forward to bigger and better things for the facility and its hockey program for 2003-04.

Bihn, 43, the president and owner of the Oregon-based Bihn Excavating, Inc., is the principle investor in the group that purchased the Ice House last year, refurbished the complex,and returned it to hockey service at a cost of around $1.5 million.

The Alexis Road facility had housed hockey games and practices as well as recreational skating from 1973 to 1985 before giving way to a succession of other activities (indoor soccer, flea market, batting cages, laser tag, etc.) over the next 17 years.

If Step 1 was simply finding a place to play, Step 2 for Bihn was moving his Junior-A hockey team, the Team Toledo IceDiggers (formerly the Toledo Junior Storm), out of the Sports Arena and into its new home along with selling ice time to other local teams.

Now, after the IceDiggers completed their successful first year at the Ice House with a respectable second-place finish in the Continental Elite Hockey League playoffs, Step 3 for Bihn is establishing a top-quality travel hockey organization in Toledo so that the area's top players have a chance to play closer to home on a regular basis.

The IceDiggers, coached by former St. John's Jesuit High School skipper Mike Mankowski, were swept in a best-of-five series for the CEHL title by Detroit Lightning, which capped things with a 5-2 win at the Ice House last Wednesday night.

Currently, the top local talent usually goes north - to Detroit or Windsor or much farther into Canada - to compete on travel teams based in those areas. This means a substantial time commitment and, sometimes, a financial burden, for parents of the players who wish to maximize their competitive hockey experience.

Bihn's plan would lessen those problems significantly.

“When my son [IceDigger forward Dayne Bihn] was coming up, I had to drive 90 minutes one way four or five times a week up to Michigan so he could play,'' Bihn said.

Plan For Travel Teams

The objective is to place an entire travel-team program under one umbrella, with complete teams ranging from the Squirt (age 10-11) level through Junior-A (20-and-under), the top rung of amateur hockey.

“Our goal is to become a Compuware or a Honeybaked,'' said Bihn, referring to two well-established travel hockey organizations in the Detroit area.

Bihn recently agreed, in principle, to purchase the Pittsburgh Forge, a Junior-A franchise that competes in the North American Hockey League. The price is $100,000, but the deal is contingent upon several factors.

If there is a sticking point, it is the uncertain future of the NAHL, a 27-year-old league that is considering an upgrade from the (lower) Tier 2 level to Tier 1 while simultaneously losing some members.

The NAHL has 11 teams, but as many as four may move to the United States Hockey League, two others may disband entirely, and another - a U.S. National 18-and-under squad based in Ann Arbor - does not figure into the equation.

To keep the NAHL afloat, a minimum of six franchises are needed. With the Pittsburgh-Toledo entry counted, two additional teams may be required to keep the circuit in business. Bihn indicated, however, a possibility that two other teams from the six-team CEHL may jump to the NAHL.

Among other reasons, the attraction of the NAHL is its sanctioning by USA Hockey, the nation's top governing body for the amateur ranks. Also, and perhaps more important to the players, the league has been well scouted by college hockey programs over the years and has produced many scholarship players.

“If this thing goes through,'' Mankowski said, “schools like Michigan, Michigan State, Bowling Green, and Ohio State will be recruiting our players.''

If things do not fall into place for the Pittsburgh-Toledo deal, Bihn said he would keep the IceDiggers in the nonsanctioned CEHL next season.

If the sale is completed, Bihn would bring the Forge to the Ice House, and all the teams here - one for each birth year - would be called the Toledo Forge. This part of the equation, except for the team nickname, is already in place, according to Bihn.

Thus, there will be two Toledo-based travel teams for each nationally recognized age grouping - one age 10 Squirt team, one age 11 Squirt, and so on through the Pee Wee (age 12-13), Bantam (14-15), and Midget (16-17) divisions, for a total of eight squads. Players aged 18-20, plus the top 16 and 17-year-olds, would be eligible to try out for the Junior-A team, or a Junior-B squad which Bihn hopes will be part of the fold.

The Toledo Cherokee, a Junior-B team which played this past season in Monroe, Mich., will likely fill Bihn's planned B slot.

This organizational structure, similar to a baseball farm system, would theoretically upgrade the competitiveness of the youth teams and ultimately produce a better crop of hockey talent while at the same time eliminating a great deal of the travel time for parents.

Working Together

Also in the works are plans to add another ice surface at the Ice House to accommodate the influx of teams.

“If this keeps snowballing, we'll put in another rink next year,'' Bihn said.

He insists he is not out to compete with the hockey programs in place at the Sports Arena or the local hub for the sport and Tam O'Shanter in Sylvania, and that he is simply striving to improve the overall hockey structure here.

“We don't want to compete with them,'' he said. “We want everybody to work together. There's about 1,200 kids who play hockey in this area, and if all the people who believe in hockey around here can work together, everyone will be helping themselves.''

Although his son has just one year of amateur eligibility remaining, Bihn said he will continue his quest.

“After you've been involved with hockey for a while, other people's kids become like your kids,'' Bihn said. ``It's a neat thing to be a part of. But my goal with all of this isn't to have the Mike Bihn Show; it's to have a hockey association with maybe 30 people involved in running things.''



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