Saturday, 31 January 2015

The New Frontier

I have been critical of the AHL for several years for allowing NHL franchises to dictate how it runs its business. For far too long since the NHL and AHL agreed to work together have the NHL teams been allowed to move AHL affiliates whenever they please. Long-time, successful minor-pro cities such as Adirondack, Norfolk, Oklahoma City, Manchester, and Worcester are all being abandoned after this year as the AHL looks to expand their reaches to the west coast by establishing a brand-new Pacific Division. The AHL's new rules surrounding this "experiment" will be systematically destroyed here on HBIC, but it's time for AHL owners to start caring more about their product than the money they receive from the NHL.

AHL teams have closer roots to their communities than the players who play there. Free agency, trades, and promotions all have impacts on AHL franchises, making the franchises more important than the players who represent them. That's not to say that long-term players aren't rewarded by AHL teams; rather, it's harder to find them in this day and age. In saying that, fans associate with teams more than they do players because the team is constant in the community as opposed to the players.

The second reason AHL teams do well in communities is because of the affordability. Families can go to games in most markets for less than $100. Tickets closer to the glass can be bought by younger men and women who are looking for a night out for some fun for less than $50. When entertainment dollars are stretched thin already in today's society, the AHL is a great alternative to the uber-expensive NHL. In some cases, the AHL is the biggest game in town. Either way, the entertainment is affordable and fun.

On the other hand, I understand - yet respectfully disagree - with NHL teams who talk about the distance between their NHL teams and AHL affiliates. When Los Angeles complains about needing a full day to recall a play who is playing in Manchester, I empathize with them, but I'm calling them out on it as well. Every NHL team has the ability to charter airplanes. While there may be some logistics with airspace and flight paths that I fully don't comprehend, it baffles me that Los Angeles can't get an AHL player to Staples Center in less than twelve hours. Adding in timezones, there should be plenty of time to get a player across the country in that timeframe.

According to Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose, Calgary, and Edmonton, it's not enough time.

Say goodbye to the AHL in Norfolk, VA, Manchester, NH, Worcester, MA, Glens Falls, NY, and Oklahoma City, OK. While there's an opportunity for the ECHL to fill these voids - and it should - the fact that the AHL is moving out of cities that have excellent AHL history is proof that this model of the NHL tail wagging the AHL dog is wrong.

An "Adirondack" franchise has called Glens Falls, New York home since 1979 when the Adirondack Red Wings were founded as an expansion franchise. They called the city home until 1999 when the Detroit Red Wings to claimed the IHL Grand Rapids Griffins as their minor-pro affiliate. The Adirondack IceHawks took their place in 1999 as part of the UHL and survived until 2004. The name of the UHL team changed to Frostbite, and they would live through 2006. In 2009, the AHL Philadelphia Phantoms migrated to Glens Falls after the Spectrum was destroyed, and remained there for five years. Following the Phantoms' move to Lehigh Valley in 2014, the Abbotsford Flames moved to Adirondack.

In total, 26 years of AHL action, 4 Calder Cups. Pretty good history.

Norfolk, Virginia has a shorter history, but they made an appearance for a single year in the 1970s. 1971-72 saw the Tidewater Wings play a season before becoming the Virginia Red Wings from '72-75. After 1975, the Tidewater Sharks played in the Southern Hockey League from '75-77 before hockey abandoned Norfolk until 1989. The ECHL came calling, and the Hampton Roads Admirals were founded. They would stick around until the franchise was converted to an AHL franchise in 2000. Since that time, they've been the Norfolk Admirals.

In total, 16 years of AHL action, 1 Calder Cup. Pretty decent history there.

Manchester, New Hampshire has had a few teams, but no other AHL experience other than with the Monarchs who started play in 2001. There have been a few Manchester-based "Monarchs" teams as well, but all of those teams played low-level minor-pro or senior league hockey. Manchester has established itself as an AHL town, though, and the fans provide excellent support of this team.

In total, 14 years of AHL action.

Worcester, Massachusetts saw the IceCats move into town after the Springfield Indians moved their franchise in 1994. The IceCats called Worcester home until 2005 when the Sharks were founded in 2006 following the sale of the Blues' affiliate to Peoria, Illinois.

In total, 21 years of AHL action.

The Oklahoma City Barons are the only team with less than double-digit years of history. The Barons arrived in Oklahoma City to displace the highly-popular CHL Blazers in 2010, essentially killing 44 years of CHL action in OKC. In the five years that the Barons called Oklahoma City home, they lost in the Western Conference final twice.

In total, 5 years of AHL action.

With the move west, the AHL is moving into cities that have extensive ECHL success or failed IHL and ECHL attempts. There are two prime examples of success. The Stockton Thunder have led the ECHL in attendance in four-straight years in their state-of-the-art 9737-seat arena. Since 2003 after moving to the ECHL, the Bakersfield Condors have enjoyed considerable box office success.

The failures, though, should be noted. The IHL's San Diego Gulls were a mess at the box office for its five years of existence from 1990-95, but did make the IHL Turner Cup Final in 1991-92. They were resurrected for the WCHL which became part of the ECHL, but didn't make past the 2006 season. However, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune, the people of San Diego are already onboard for their unnamed AHL squad! Maybe professional hockey will work in San Diego this time?

San Jose hasn't had a deep minor-pro hockey history, but San Francisco watched the Bulls die a slow, painful death in the ECHL. The Oakland Seals/California Golden Seals didn't last long in the San Francisco Bay area either, but there's hope that with Stockton nearby, a natural rivalry will occur.

Ontario has also enjoyed a solid run of success in California thanks in large part to their affiliation with Los Angeles. The Texas Wildcatters moved to southern California in 2008, and have seen seven years of pretty good box office success, but no major successes on the ice as of yet.

In short, the AHL is trading the history of 82 years of hockey in five cities along with five Calder Cups to appease the travel needs of a few NHL teams. We've heard about the costs that some teams faced in the AHL being so isolated - Abbotsford, Manitoba, Omaha, and Oklahoma City to name a few - so having five teams playing on the west coast may only re-open the travel schedule wound. It was a costly experiment for these teams the first time, and now we're going to see it again unless the AHL does some serious cost-sharing. If anyone should know better, you'd think Calgary and Edmonton would want less travel rather than more.

Granted, the rest of the AHL teams could road trip through California and Texas, but that's a long seven-game road trip for any team when you consider that most AHL teams play on the weekends. Are we talking two-week, seven-game road trips? And what about the west coast teams? Do they do a two-week, divisional road trip to keep costs lower? Either way, the costs of traveling will skyrocket compared to this season's costs.

What's worse is that Texas is literally the only stop between the Eastern time zone and California in the AHL. You can possibly swing up to Iowa to play the Wild, but there are very few teams in the Central time zone with Oklahoma City pulling up roots. Cities like Kansas City, Salt Lake City, and Las Vegas should have been considered in a gradual move west. St. Louis, Colorado, and Phoenix all would have benefitted, and it would have led to the next wave of moves west. Instead, we're jumping the Central time zone altogether and forcing AHL teams to criss-cross the map because five NHL teams decided it was the right time.

Personally, I don't buy the garbage that an NHL team can't get a player to its NHL rink on game day. Maybe NHL teams need to carry one or two more players on its traveling roster if it means destroying the AHL. I wasn't a fan when Winnipeg suggested that it was interested in moving the IceCaps from St. John's to Thunder Bay, and I'm not a fan of these five moves.

Nevertheless, head west, young men. The AHL Pacific Division will take form for the 2015-16 season whether I like it or not. How long it lasts, though, is anyone's guess.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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