Minor league hockey's massive makeover could cause NHL shockwaves

Harrison Mooney
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The city of Abbotsford was never a particularly good home base for the Calgary Flames' American Hockey League affiliate, and it had nothing to do with the team being just east of Vancouver, in the heart of Canucks country.

Fact is, Abbotsford wasn't a good fit for a Canucks affiliate either, which is why Vancouver signed a five-year agreement to put their AHL franchise in Utica, New York, rather than waiting for the Fraser Valley city with twice the population and a love of all things Canucks to open up.

The problem with Abbotsford: it was just too far away. Not from Calgary or Vancouver, mind you, but from any other city in the AHL.

In a league driven by parity, where drafting and development have become the most important part of the game, the AHL's Western Conference teams are getting increasingly upset at having to exile their prospects to the other side of the continent, where they're harder to call up and harder to keep an eye on. 

In their final season, the Abbotsford Heat finished fifth in the dubiously-named Western Conference, which also consists of such "Western" cities as Hamilton, Rochester, Toronto and Charlotte. The two nearest franchises to Abbotsford are in Iowa and Oklahoma, about 3,000 kilometres (1,864 miles) away, and only the latter plays in their division.

From a league perspective, Abbotsford may as well have been Fukagawa, its sister city in Japan.

This was a nightmare for Flames prospects, where a flight to visit a divisional rival was an all-day affair, and the youngsters were away from home 80 days out of the year -- far more than any other AHL franchise. When you're trying to turn a raw prospect into an NHLer, all that lost practice time adds up. As does the fatigue. And it's difficult to help a kid establish an organized, professional life when he's living out of a suitcase all year. 

And so, for the Flames and Canucks, two teams that can't afford to fall any further behind in the Western Conference when it comes to churning out NHL-ready players, both decided that proximity to the rest of the league took precedent over proximity to them, and moved their development centres to New York. The Heat are now the Adirondack Flames of Glens Falls.

But they weren't happy to choose the lesser of two evils, and they're hardly the only clubs frustrated at what's begun to look like yet another competitive advantage for the teams of the Eastern Conference. 

Which is why, beginning in 2015-16, the NHL and the AHL will be initiating a major plan to address this issue. If all goes well, Abbotsford will be the last victim of the American Hockey League's weak presence in the West.

The AHL is working on an initiative to introduce several more teams out West as early as 2015-16, something that Mayor's Manor began reporting back in April. At that time, as many as six NHL clubs were rumoured to be part of an affiliate migration that would help to establish a proper Western Conference in the AHL. Now, it could be closer to 10 teams moving their prospects to markets closer to their own backyards.

The California teams are reportedly on board, and while the Flames and Canucks have committed to the New York markets for the time being, the Edmonton Oilers are believed to be part of the plan as well. 

The question becomes: Where will the AHL be getting these teams?

According to sources, from the ECHL.

With three NHL teams in California, having a trio of AHL teams in the state would be ideal, and wouldn't you know it, California already has three minor professional hockey teams: the ECHL's Bakersfield Condors, Stockton Thunder, and Ontario Reign.

The AHL covets those markets, along with every other Western market the ECHL's got, and it sounds like they can have them. After all, while the ECHL's Western Conference is better, with all eight of its teams actually west of the Mississippi River, it's not without problems: Eight teams from each Conference make the playoffs, which leaves five teams from the East on the outside, and zero from the West. That's ridiculous.

From the sounds of it, we should expect almost the entirety of the ECHL's Western Conference to join the AHL in 2015-16. Mixed with the proper Western markets already in the AHL and a dash of creativity, there might be enough to build a formal, 15 or 16-team conference. 

This is the proposal believed to be on the table right now, and many of the NHL's Western Conference teams are already moving pieces around to make sure this reconfiguration goes smoothly. Consider the Dallas Stars' recent announcement that they would be purchasing the AHL's Texas Stars. 

And wouldn't you know it, the Oilers, whose AHL affiliate is all the way down in Oklahoma right now, just randomly bought the aforementioned Condors, claiming to be seeking "a coordinated approach to player development running between the ECHL, AHL and NHL."

That's one explanation. Or perhaps, the frugal Daryl Katz wanted to snag the Condors while they were a cheap ECHL franchise, and will be able to make a tidy little profit by flipping the Barons to another Western Conference team looking to get onboard with the new plan -- say, whichever California team is slowest to purchase one of the remaining two.

Condor
Condor

The NHL and AHL are essentially looking to establish a proper developmental league, more closely-linked to them than before, and with as many teams as possible controlling their minor-league affiliates in this important second league.

Or perhaps two leagues. This plan alone doesn't solve the travel issue, after all. Western teams still don't want their players flying all the way East unless they have to -- which is why one of the proposals on the table is to effectively split the AHL into two leagues, like Major League Baseball's National and American Leagues, that don't meet during the season. We may be looking at the return of the IHL, who helped to create the AHL we know now when they merged into it in 2001. 

And speaking of mergers, what would happen to the ECHL, which suddenly loses as many as eight teams? How do you replace that many franchises in one fell swoop? You look to the limping Central Hockey League, where the quality of play isn't all that dissimilar.

Reports are swirling that the CHL is set to fold after 2014-15, one way or the other. The league is struggling to keep its teams afloat, and even struggling to have enough teams -- in 2013-14, they added the Brampton Beast in desperation, even though it made absolutely no sense in a bus league. Look how far they are from the rest of the midwest cluster.

Now, after the sudden dissolution of the St. Charles Chill, they've fallen to just nine teams, and are still struggling to sort out their schedule for what's likely to be their final season.

The belief is that, rather than disappear, however, they're going to fall into the waiting arms of the NHL, AHL, and ECHL. They'd likely hand a few markets over to the AHL too -- the Arizona Sundogs and the Denver Cutthroats would be nice AHL affiliates for the Coyotes and Avalanche, no? -- and have the rest hop onto the ECHL's lifeboat, replenishing that league's franchise roster, and saving many of their own.

After subsuming the CHL, and possibly even taking on a few markets the AHL no longer wants or needs, the revamped ECHL would likely come in at around 20 more geographically realistic teams, which could be split into two fair and balanced conferences.

Finally, one city to keep an eye on in all of this: Las Vegas. For years, they've been a rumoured landing spot for an NHL expansion franchise, and NHL expansion is coming too, possibly in tandem with this massive three-league shuffle, but probably not to Las Vegas.

More than likely, the Las Vegas Wranglers, who got permission from the ECHL to take a year off rather than dissolving when they couldn't sort out their building issues this spring, will return to hockey next season as an AHL franchise, giving Las Vegas, a city full of knockoffs and replicas, the next best thing to the NHL.

Suffice it to say that this plan, like any plan, could fall through before it comes to fruition, but if the four leagues involved have their way, all will look completely different at the end of next summer, and minor pro hockey in North America will never be the same again.