More than 120 teams played professional hockey in North America during the 2019-20 season. List them in order of total games won and scroll down, all the way to the bottom, and you’ll find a team called the Battle Creek Rumble Bees.
Their 1-45-2 record looks like a mistake in the standings for the Federal Prospects Hockey League (FPHL), which represents the lowest rung of professional hockey in the U.S. But it’s real. And the club based in Battle Creek, Michigan, didn’t just forfeit a bunch of games. The first-year team really played 48 times, and it really did lose 47 of them (45 in regulation, two in overtime).
One win in 48 tries, good for a .021 win percentage.
“You could either laugh or cry,” said Shea Carey, a 31-year-old forward from Chicago who was with the Rumble Bees from start to finish this season. “I’ve done both.”
You have to dig pretty deep into the record books to find a hockey team with fewer wins. That distinction belongs to the 1948-49 Windsor (Ontario) Ryancretes, who went 0-25-6 in the now-defunct International Hockey League. But the Ryancretes at least collected six points in the standings, one for each tie. The Rumble Bees finished this season with just five points, thanks to a three-point regulation win and one point in each of their two overtime losses, despite playing 17 more games than the Ryancretes did during their winless season. That pretty much solidifies Battle Creek as the worst team in the history of modern professional hockey.
Among the many cartoonish stats, the Rumble Bees were outscored 304-94 for a minus-210 goal differential. They allowed more than six goals per game while managing to average just two of their own. They gave up nearly 100 more goals than the next closest team in the standings, and opposing power plays beat their penalty-killing unit a third of the time. Only two Battle Creek players hit double digits in goals on the season. You get the point.
The season came to a merciful conclusion when the coronavirus pandemic forced the FPHL to suspend operations on March 13. Maybe the Rumble Bees missed out on a few more chances to win. More likely, it was the only way a season like that could end.
“Our famous saying throughout the whole year was ‘Never a dull moment,'” said Adam Stio, the general manager who took over as coach early in the season. “Everything was like Murphy’s law. If it can go wrong, it will go wrong unless you find a way to prevent it.”
‘I knew what I was kind of walking into’
The Federal Prospects Hockey League, or the Fed as it is also known, bills itself as Single-A hockey with 10 teams east of the Mississippi River, as far north as Watertown, New York, and as far south as Columbus, Georgia. It began in 2010-11, though none of its original six teams remains. The teams have no NHL affiliation, and FPHL players are not members of the Pro Hockey Players’ Association, which represents players in other minor pro leagues not under NHL contract. The FPHL operates largely as a feeder league to the more established minor leagues, such as the Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL) and ECHL. But for most, it is the end of the line.
“I think it’s a good league,” Carey said. “But the way hockey is set up now, it’s essentially a dead end.”
It’s perhaps fitting that the FPHL was formerly known as the Federal Hockey League — the same name of the fictional league that was home to the Charlestown Chiefs in the iconic movie “Slap Shot.” The league occasionally catches headlines for a noteworthy raucous brawl, like one earlier this season that included coaches of the Columbus River Dragons and Carolina Thunderbirds. One of the coaches had his dress shirt torn off. And in 2014, two enforcers went viral when they feigned a fight at center ice, then hugged and literally shared a beer to a mix of cheers and boos. Both players were banned from the league for the stunt.
The 2019-20 Rumble Bees were an amplified minor league hockey cliché, too. Broken-down buses. Practicing in soggy equipment. Getting chased off the ice for the home arena’s popular public Sunday skates. And of course, a cavalcade of new players coming in and out through the revolving door. According to Elite Prospects, 53 skaters dressed for Battle Creek at some point, and seven goalies stood in the crease. This season was always going to be difficult. It was, after all, the franchise’s first.
The team was formed late last offseason in an effort to round out the FPHL with a 10th team. According to one team owner, it was all about making the league easier to schedule. The ownership group for Battle Creek included two businessmen who already owned multiple teams plus a few outside investors. There was no expansion draft, so the team had to be built from scratch in a matter of months.
Stio was charged with putting the slapdash operation together, having just completed a one-year run with the Evansville Thunderbolts in the SPHL. His career had included stops all over minor league hockey and some time in Las Vegas working in casinos. Building from nothing wasn’t easy, and veteran players with experience were hard to come by. By the time the Rumble Bees were a reality, the most desired players had found a home.
Carey and Ryan Alves, who finished as the team’s leading scorer with 30 points, actually sought out the Rumble Bees. The chance to be leaders and play big roles on a new team was attractive. Many other players were rookies. Stio, who seems to be an exceedingly positive person, called the Bees a “team of opportunity.” Players who had been buried on a roster elsewhere or just hadn’t been given a shot now had the chance to play regularly at a professional level.
“I saw there was not much experience at the beginning, so I thought, for me, that could be a good thing,” said Alves, who works construction in the offseason to offset the relatively low pay in minor league hockey. “I knew what I was kind of walking into.”
For Carey, the Rumble Bees offered a lifeline after a delayed work visa scuttled his plans to play professionally in France. At 31, he would be the Rumble Bees’ oldest player. But summers working at his father’s logistics firm had dissuaded Carey from hanging up the skates just yet.
“I keep coming back because I’ve had a taste of a real job. I did it every offseason, but those five months [in an office] will make you want to play hockey even if it’s for free,” he said. “I just love the game. It’s not about the money, it’s never been about that.”
There isn’t much money in the FPHL, anyway. According to Stio, players on the Rumble Bees made between $ 100 and $ 120 per week. The team provided housing, some meals and a modest road per diem. There is no glamour and little glory, but there is hockey … and for a lot of the players, that is enough.
‘Hard to accept that this was honestly reality’
It didn’t take long to figure out that Battle Creek was facing a much taller task than expected. The Bees allowed 20 goals in their first three games. When the team started off winless through nine games, Stio put himself behind the bench in a move that had as much to do with saving money as anything else.
Ten games went by without a victory. Then 15. On Nov. 29, they hit a new low, losing 14-1 on the road to the Thunderbirds. They were outshot 79-21 and faced a nine-goal deficit after one period.
As the calendar flipped to 2020, the Bees were winless in 24 contests. They had yet to give up fewer than four goals — and had allowed 10 or more three times — despite scoring four goals themselves just once. And that one outburst of offensive output still ended poorly as the Rumble Bees blew a 5-1 lead and lost 6-5 on a late short-handed goal.
“Even when we were in close games, the bounces I would see in play was s— I had never seen in my life. I’ve been playing since I was 4,” Carey said. “It was hard to accept that this was honestly reality.”
The Rumble Bees got a late start on marketing to Battle Creek, a town of about 50,000, most famous for being the home of Kellogg’s. It didn’t help the struggling team to fill bleacher seats at The Rink Battle Creek. The team finished last in attendance with an average of 353 spectators per game over 20 home dates. Top teams in the FPHL averaged more than 3,000.
Those who did show up, however, were passionate. That included, and was perhaps epitomized by, Jeff and Tracey Harinck. All too excited to have a professional team they both could support, the Harincks were among the Rumble Bees’ most dedicated fans. So much so that they occasionally cooked dinners for players, one night going through six pot roasts with nary a scrap left. Jeff called the Battle Creek players “very outgoing” and said they “would talk to anyone and were happy with what they were doing.”
Even as the losses piled up, the Harincks could not stay away.
“It made me cheer them on more,” said Tracey, who had never experienced hockey before attending her first Rumble Bees game. “They’re my boys.”
The Harincks also considered themselves the Rumble Bees’ loudest fans, with Tracey noting she once caught the ire of an opposing player who actually stopped on the ice to have words with her.
“If the glass wasn’t there, I would have had him,” she said. “He was going down.” No wonder Battle Creek players refer to her as Mama Bee.
But unfortunately for the Harincks, the Rumble Bees’ one win came on the road. After starting the season 0-24, the Bees traveled to New York to take on the appropriately named Elmira Enforcers, one of the league’s better and more popular teams, thanks in part to their pugilistic nature.
‘The start of a new season’
Both Carey and Alves recalled that they arrived to that Jan. 3 game only a half-hour before warm-ups. The team bus had broken down — a fairly common occurrence — somewhere in Ohio the day before. When the team finally reached the arena, the Rumble Bees learned Elmira was running a “Guaranteed Win Night” promotion. It seemed like a safe bet at the time.
But this night belonged to Battle Creek, thanks in large part to goaltender Joel Eisenhower. He had been Stio’s first signing, previously playing elsewhere in the FPHL and with NCAA Division III Lebanon Valley College. On this night, Eisenhower, 24, was nearly perfect. He made 41 saves, fighting through a first-period groin injury that would sideline him for weeks afterward.
Forward Jake Mortley scored in the third period to put Battle Creek up 2-1, and Eisenhower made 13 final-frame saves. It had taken 25 games, but the Rumble Bees entered the win column.
Elmira owner Robbie Nichols has been operating professional teams for years. He was acting head coach that night because injuries had forced his regular coach, Brent Clarke, to suit up for the game. (Nichols, 55, had done the same a week earlier.)
“It was actually our coach’s fault. [Clarke] had like five unbelievable scoring chances, and he missed them all. I’m blaming the coach for that loss,” Nichols told ESPN with a laugh.
The relief of finally winning brought out the emotions. Carey said he kissed Eisenhower on the helmet and even shed a few tears.
“It was like that movie … what was it? ‘Bad News Bears.’ We were the Bad News Bees. I said it all year, so I for sure teared up” Carey said. “It was just great to see the guys happy, to see what a win feels like in pro hockey. It shouldn’t have been the only one, but it is what it is.”
Nichols made sure to have a larger postgame spread for the visiting team. Even though the Rumble Bees’ first win came at his club’s expense, he was happy for the players and their beleaguered general manager.
“It was a franchise that was put together in the 24th hour,” Nichols said. “One of the owners stepped up. Barry Soskin, who owns a couple of teams [in the FPHL], stepped up and said ‘I’ll own it and take the lumps.’ Props to him for doing it, but, boy, did he take his lumps financially, because the team was pretty bad.” Pausing, he reconsidered for a second. “Although not that bad,” he admitted. “They beat us.”
The win had particular meaning for Stio. Nichols had given the Battle Creek GM his start in pro hockey as an assistant coach with the ECHL’s Elmira Jackals in 2007-08.
“I went into one of the rooms down the hall, and I had to take a breath,” Stio said. “I had a very big responsibility to let these guys know that they still had another game to go tomorrow night. This is the start of a new season.”
The victory instead was merely a one-night reprieve from the sustained misery. Elmira dominated the next game, winning 6-3, and the losses stacked up again for Battle Creek. The Rumble Bees gave up 24 goals over three games in mid-January. They squandered a 3-1 lead to the Watertown Wolves on Feb. 1, losing less than a minute into overtime. They were run over by the Delaware Thunder in late February, 13-2.
“Definitely towards the end of the season, it was pretty repetitive. Just going to the rink every weekend was another battle to try to pull the win out,” Alves said.
A week after the 13-2 blowout, the Rumble Bees rallied back from a 6-3 deficit against that same Thunder team, only to again lose in overtime. The next day, March 8, the Rumble Bees played their last game before a home crowd of 386.
Michigan rival Port Huron was in town. The puck dropped at the odd hour of 12:35 p.m. because of those all-important Sunday public skates at the Rumble Bees’ home arena. Eisenhower, who may have been the unsung hero of the season, was peppered with 96 shots by the Prowlers. Despite his incredible 90-save effort, the Rumble Bees lost 6-4. Days later, the season was suspended, leaving the Rumble Bees in a 23-game losing streak with that unsightly 1-45-2 record.
There aren’t many silver linings in a season like that, but Carey wouldn’t take it back.
“I didn’t care if someone says you play for a s— team, I’m still playing pro hockey and doing something a lot of people don’t get to do,” said Carey, who completed his fifth season in the Fed. “It did feel good to see people achieve their dreams to be able to play pro hockey, whether it was for a weekend or the whole season.”
‘Always going to be a Rumble Bee’
As if stomaching a 47-loss season weren’t enough, there would be one more gut punch for the eternally positive Stio. The GM said he was surprised to receive a call from another team official seeking input on an early June afternoon. The official wanted to know who on the Battle Creek roster was worth selecting in the dispersal draft.
That was how Stio learned he would be Battle Creek’s first and last GM.
The Bees were folding, and the league was preparing to hold a dispersal draft to allow the remaining nine teams to pick apart the Bees’ roster. Just as quickly as they had entered the FPHL, the Rumble Bees were out. The team already is absent on the league website, missing from the masthead and the 2020-21 standings.
Stio says he had been working diligently since the season ended, without pay, to try to find the Rumble Bees a new home and save the team. Though he made overtures to the ownership group and provided options, he says there appears to be little desire to keep the team going, even in a new market. As of mid-June, Stio hadn’t personally heard anything from the owners about the official folding of the team and says it has been weeks since he was in contact with them.
The dispersal draft took place Monday, and forward Nathan Pelligra was selected No. 1 by the Thunder. Alves, coming off a team-best 12-goal season, was the third player picked. He was selected by the River Dragons but also has a tryout in the Czech Republic’s second-division league. Each of the nine teams in the Fed made a selection, and the rest of the Rumble Bees’ roster now enters free agency. That includes Carey, who says he hopes to play somewhere next season and has been in talks with a few teams, but he is unsure about his future.
Though some will continue in hockey, many players will indeed move on.
Stio is reviewing his options, although his passion for the sport is undeterred by a year no general manager would envy.
“This is going to be tough for us,” said Jeff Harinck, a retired GI who had been trying to find a way to buy the team’s arena to keep the Bees in town. “I would rather watch their games. I like the Red Wings, too, but it’s very expensive, and it’s so much more separate. These guys became local heroes.”
Just as the Battle Creek Rumble Bees will always have their spot in the hockey record books, they will also have a place in the hearts of many involved with the club. Even with a seemingly unlovable team, record-wise, there are people who will really miss them.
“I’m always going to be a Rumble Bee,” Tracey Harinck said.
Greg Wyshynski contributed to the reporting of this story.