Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane has won the Stanley Cup twice and the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2013. But the NHL star added to his trophy case this summer when he raised the Father Charles Cup in his hometown of Buffalo.
He even paid $265 for the honor.
This is the Fattey Hockey League, the finest summer league in Western New York, where high school players skate against some from the NHL.
"There's never been a great skate in Buffalo in the summer. The concept was, 'How do we make it?" said Nik Fattey, the founder and namesake of the FHL. "There are so many good hockey players in Western New York. So how do we get everybody together to play in a league?"
Since launching in 2005, the league has expanded from four to 12 teams and become a popular weekly game for current and former NHL players, including Kane, Zemgus Girgensons of the Buffalo Sabres, Cory Conacher of the New York islanders, Tim Kennedy of the Washington Capitals, Chris Mueller of the New York Rangers, and former Sabres defenseman Jay McKee. Consisting of several current or former players from the NHL, American Hockey League, ECHL, United States Hockey League and the NCAA, each team is required to ice four "rookies," local high school players.
That's typically where things get interesting.
Before each season, Fattey hosts a combine featuring as many as 90 high school players competing for a roster spot; 48 make the cut.
"It's always packed. It's like a tryout for a real hockey team," said Scott Diebold, a goaltender at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute who won league MVP this summer. "It's insane. It's by far the best league in Buffalo. You've got Patrick Kane out there; you've got high schoolers trying to compete against him. It's a really fun league."
That element is ultimately what has kept players coming back, including Kane. The level of competition is impressive, but this wouldn't be a proper summer league if it didn't have a few player-friendly wrinkles.
There are no penalties in the non-checking league; players are awarded a penalty shot after drawing a penalty. Any pucks that hit the roof or netting remain in play, and games are running time with a horn that blows every 75 seconds to remind players to change. Failure to do so results in a penalty shot.
"We do that because who's going to tell Pat Kane to get off the ice?" Fattey said. "It also keeps the pace up."
A Buffalo native, Kane was invited to the league by former youth hockey teammate Vinny Scarsella, one of the league's original players and a forward for the Utah Grizzlies in the ECHL. As captain of Milli Vanilli (each team was named after a 1980s band this summer), Scarsella led a vaunted roster that included Kane, Girgensons, Conacher, Kane's 17-year-old cousin Cullen, and Cole Schneider, an Ottawa Senators prospect who was named FHL MVP in 2013.
"We had a pretty stacked team," Schneider admitted. "I think those guys intimidate some of the younger kids a little bit. I think I would be a little intimidated too, seeing guys like Kane out there. It's fun though. They get to tell their buddies they played with one of the best players in the NHL."
Coaching at nearby St. Francis High School, Fattey launched the league primarily as an outlet for his players, which at that time included Scarsella. The Father Charles Cup is named after Father Charles Jagodzinski, a longtime priest and administrator at St. Francis who is a campus minister at Wake Forest University.
Almost a decade since its inception, the league has expanded in scope and reputation. The entry fee for every player, including the NHL players, is $265.
It's continued to be led by Fattey, a Sabres scout who is the director of hockey at Harborcenter. When the sprawling harbor-front development opens in October, it will house two ice sheets, including one with seating for 1,800 spectators. Harborcenter could be the FHL's new home next summer.
In just a few years, the league has become a testament to the quality of players in the area. FHL players include the son of former Sabres coach Lindy Ruff and the two sons of Sabres president Ted Black.
The league is dotted with NHL draft picks, including Dylan Blujus (Tampa Bay Lightning) and Alex Lepkowski (Sabres), who this summer were teammates on Flock of Seagulls. Kennedy played on Toto with brothers Pete and Mike Ratchuk, who were drafted in the first round by the Colorado Avalanche and the second round by the Philadelphia Flyers, respectively.
"This is not a beer league. This is a skill skate," Fattey said. "If you were to put a beer league team in our league they would lose 20-0."
To be fair, Kane and Scarsella did show up for one game at an area beer league in July. Scarsella scored seven goals and the longtime friends combined for 19 points.
Kane and Scarsella didn't run quite as wild in the FHL, although they did get to drink Gatorade out of the Father Charles Cup after winning the best-of-three final against Pet Shop Boys, a team primarily of teenage USHL players, including University of New Hampshire commit Andrew Poturalski and Sabres draft picks Justin Bailey and Sean Malone.
"That team we played in the championship this year beat us three out of four games before we played them in the championship," Scarsella said. "So even though we've got all these guys, we still lose games. It just goes to show how good of a league this is."
Days after the league closed for the summer, players were still marveling at how much the FHL has grown. Anyone who managed to beat Kane's team at any point wasn't quite ready to stop talking about it.
"My team beat Kane's team twice," Fattey said. "He wasn't there but everyone else was."
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