TRAVERSE CITY -- After a wild, three-year ride with the now-defunct Traverse City Enforcers, it appears Barry Soskin is in deep trouble with the North American Hockey League.
The Soskin-owned Albert Lea Thunder franchise is being investigated by the NAHL for possible improprieties after it came to light that the team signed players to "pay-to-play" contracts that guarantee players not only make the team, but receive playing time in exchange for significant sums of money.
Steve and Lori Sempeck, the parents of a Thunder player, acknowledged signing a contract for $12,500 to guarantee their son's spot on a team that lost an NAHL-high 49 games in last year's 58-game slate.
Soskin owned the Traverse City Enforcers from 2002-05, but the team folded in 2005. The Continental Elite Hockey League, under which the Enforcers played, collapsed shortly thereafter.
Minnesota-based Albert Lea is in the same league as the Traverse City North Stars, but they occupy different divisions and the squads are not scheduled to play this season.
Troubles with Soskin's Albert Lea franchise struck a familiar chord with local hockey officials who recall Soskin's era here.
"It was a rather tumultuous time," Centre ICE director Terry Marchand said. "There were some money issues. There were bus issues. It just seemed like everything was done on a shoe-string. And that was the end of the team and the league."
League issues demands
Soskin came into ownership of the Thunder last year -- the expansion team's first season -- and also owns an entire Junior A league, the non-sanctioned Northern Junior Hockey League. He also is listed as the owner of a team in the seven-team league and another that is poised to enter the league next season.
On Nov. 17, the NAHL's Board of Governors met for a conference call and the Executive Committee sent a memo to all teams recommending the league's Albert Lea entry be terminated or come up with nearly $400,000 to remain in the league, the Albert Lea Tribune reported.
The memo says the Thunder must pay the NAHL a $50,000 fine, post a $200,000 cash bond, refund all money taken through pay-to-play deals -- which the league estimates at $100,000 -- and pay the league's legal costs for the matter. Albert Lea must also serve a three-year probation.
Albert Lea coach Chuck Linkenheld, who took the helm after the team fired Brad Zangs on Oct. 20, doesn't think the team will survive.
"If the fines I'm hearing are accurate, I don't understand how any owner would put that kind of money back into a team," Linkenheld said. "It doesn't make sense. The team isn't worth $400,000, so why would you put in $400,000? I just don't see it happening."
The memo that summarizes the Executive Committee's preliminary findings states, "Albert Lea misrepresented itself to the NAHL as being 100 percent owned by Barry Soskin" and later says, "Albert Lea has willfully implemented a 'pay-to-play' model."
The team's Web site lists a man named Jim Perkins as part of team ownership, with Soskin. Perkins has held three different titles with the team in the last year.
"From the players' standpoint and the city of Albert Lea, obviously we don't want Perkins around, period, and neither does the town. Neither do I," Linkenheld said. "But as far as Barry's concerned, Barry's the owner. He's in control of this. It looks like he wasn't watching his business too well.
"I think we should have new owners altogether. I'd rather see the league get rid of both of them and say, 'Hey, enough is enough. Let's bring in new owners and start fresh.'"
Soskin did not return a Record-Eagle reporter's calls, Perkins did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment, and NAHL commissioner Mark Frankenfeld's office would not comment aside from a statement from the league, in part saying, "These allegations are not a reflection on the NAHL or its 18 other members who adhere to the applicable Tier II Junior A standards."
There is no mention of the memo -- or any trouble in Albert Lea -- on the NAHL's Web site.
The NAHL's legal counsel, Bob Riley, also declined to comment.
At lower levels, "pay-to-play" deals are legal. They are common in Midget AAA and Junior A tier III, but are not allowed in the top two tiers of Junior A, where Albert Lea resides, said Traverse City North Stars coach and general manager Anthony Palumbo, who added that the Stars do not have any pay-to-play contracts.
Linkenheld -- who said he has coached hockey for over 20 years, mostly at the AAA Midget level in Chicago -- said Soskin hired him and gave him complete control of player personnel, including decisions over the roster and playing time.
"Of course, when I started to take things under my control, all this stuff came to light," he said.
Early on in his tenure, Linkenheld didn't activate player Matt Sempeck when he was medically cleared after suffering a broken ankle in the off-season.
"I brought him in my office the first day I was there and said, 'What is it that's keeping you around here?' I told him he should go someplace where he could actually get some ice time and play. He didn't say much. I told him, 'You're welcome to practice anytime you want, but I'm not going to activate you.'
"Then I get a phone call from his mother, saying, 'Don't you know the deal?' I said, 'No, I don't know the deal, and I don't want to know the deal. There's no more deals. Whatever your deal is, it's not with me.'"
Linkenheld then tried to make a roster move and discovered ownership had activated Sempeck, who last year had seven points and a minus-24 rating in 38 games. He's yet to see the ice this season.
When Sempeck was benched, his parents complained to Soskin. They then sent a fax to Frankenfeld that included a list of seven other players they allege had the same deal in place.
"Some of the kids that were named belong at this level and some of them are good hockey players and have a future ahead of them," Linkenheld said. "Unfortunately, the ones that don't belong are the ones that we're having a problem with right now.
"If the intentions were to help an organization get started, and there is nothing asked in return, there's no problem with it," he said. "But that's the problem, is that Perkins and the Sempecks were looking for something in return. That's ludicrous."
Linkenheld said he voiced his concerns over the deals to league commissioner Mark Frankenfeld while on a road trip, and the team's roster soon was frozen.
"I know there's attorneys for Barry, the Sempecks, and the league involved in it," Linkenheld said, "so I'm assuming it (was frozen by) the league."
Linkenheld also refuses to play two of eight players with the contracts, despite being short on skaters due to injuries and illness.
The eight players named by the Sempecks as having contracts with Soskin were all on its inaugural season roster. Only five have played for the team this season.
The Tribune reported that the "Advance Player Guarantee" has the names of Soskin and Perkins at the bottom and is signed by Perkins.
The contract states that the player 1) Will not be traded from the team 2) Will not be released from the team. 3) Will only be required to pay housing fees in the player's second year. 4) Will have to earn their position on which lines they play on and if they play on special teams.
"According to the parents I spoke with, Jim Perkins' signature is on all the contracts," Linkenheld said. "But, again, it's Barry's business. I find it hard to believe he wouldn't have known about it."
Contracts, losing linked?
The Thunder were a league-worst 4-49-5 last year, 11 points behind fellow expansion team Motor City (11-45-2). They are 4-17-2 this year prior to Saturday's game against Owatonna, again worst in the league. Linkenheld said he thinks the "pay-to-play" contracts are a big part of the team's poor record.
Linkenheld described problems with Soskin's ownership that mirror those told by people close to the Traverse City Enforcers -- trouble getting equipment and a run-down team bus that has broken down on several occasions.
"We sing the 'Slapshot' song ... on the bus," Linkenheld said. "There's water coming out of the ceiling and it's broken down twice. We got grounded in Minneapolis. The clutch plate is bad on it. It's comical."
Former TC Enforcers player Nick Anton said the Enforcers had similar problems when Soskin owned the team.
"I remember one time we hitchhiked -- literally our team hitchhiked from an hour outside of Jackson. We were going in carloads hitchhiking to go play a game in Bay City," Anton said. "Our bus broke down four or five times."
Soskin has a history in junior hockey of owning and folding teams.
In 1998, he was sued for $29,626.41 over non-payment of employee leasing services while the owner of the now-defunct Nashville Nighthawks.
Soskin signed a four-year contract to run the Toledo Storm of the East Coast Hockey League in September of 2005, but the Storm -- a Detroit Red Wings affiliate -- folded in 2007. Soskin founded the Storm, and owned the team from 1991-98.
He also owed money to many sources when the Enforcers folded, said Marchand and Jeff Price, who ran the pro shop at Centre ICE while the Enforcers were tenants there.
"I took care of all those kids from an equipment standpoint," Price said. "He owed me a chunk of change, too, when he left town. It wasn't nearly as much as some people in town were owed, but money is money."
The TC Enforcers later were resurrected by Soskin as the Pennsylvania Enforcers, and are now the Pittsburgh Cougars, with Soskin as CEO and his wife Fran as vice president of operations.
Former TC Enforcers director of operations Paul Contreras was head coach of the Pennsylvania Enforcers and is now director of marketing and sales for the Thunder.
Price, who coached the Downriver Lumberjacks in the same league as the Enforcers in 2001-02, said he was offered the Enforcers coaching job, but turned it down.
"I couldn't take it and I wouldn't take it because of some of the things I heard throughout the league," Price said. "The bottom line is, he does it for business. He'll sit there and tell you until he's blue in the face or you're blue in the face listening to him that he's in this just because he loves junior hockey.
"It is solely a business for him and nothing more. He is all about making money. If it means that he's in the basement of the league but making money hand-over-fist, he's happy."
And those who knew him think Soskin -- who owns an entire non-sanctioned Northern Junior Hockey League, including two of the teams in the -- will continue to operate junior hockey teams.
"I don't think he's going to be gone," said Price, who was an assistant under former Enforcers coach Scott Gardiner last season with the Bay Reps high school team. "That man can wiggle out of just about anything."