October 27, 2011
Darren Dreger of TSN broke a very interesting story on Thursday that could have huge ramifications for the American Hockey League.
According to Dreger, reps from the Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks, Phoenix Coyotes, Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames met with NHL VP Bill Daly this month to discuss a "west wing" of the AHL — or even an entire new minor league to serve Western Conference teams.
The issue at hand: Their minor league farm teams are just too far away. From Dreger:
Although the AHL has trimmed its schedule from 80 games to 76 this season to eliminate the instances where teams were burdened by playing four games in five days, the view of the NHL clubs most interested in change, or intrigued by the concept of starting a new league; is based on the belief that their players aren't being properly developed because of the American Hockey League grind, limited practice schedules, and the fact most of the farm teams are thousands of kilometres away from their NHL cities as illustrated below.
Syracuse, NY to Anaheim --- 3,745km
Machester, NH to Los Angeles --- 4,143km
Worcester, Mass to San Jose --- 4,263km
Portland, Maine to Phoenix --- 3,773km
Cleveland to Denver --- 1,974km
The primary motivation here is that competitors receive an advantage through localized minor league affiliates. The Ducks have to shuttle players between California and Upstate New York; the Dallas Stars had an affiliate in Austin, Tex. The San Jose Sharks have to wait for flights from Massachusetts; the Chicago Blackhawks call up players from Rockford, and the St. Louis Blues from Peoria. The Toronto Maple Leafs just need someone to change buses.
The benefits to the NHL clubs seeking this geographic shift are obvious; what about to the AHL?
Here are the top teams in attendance last season in the AHL last season, and in the previous season. Does Grand Rapids benefit from its Red Wings affiliation? Sure. Does Providence from its Bruins affiliation? Undoubtedly. But ultimately, it comes down to strength of the hockey market and success on the ice: The Chicago Wolves did well because they were winning, not because Windy City fans gave a toss about the Thrashers.
What are the relocation possibilities for the AHL, to placate these Western Conference teams? Perhaps the ECHL lights the way: Three franchises in California, and others in Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Idaho and Colorado. The attendance for teams like Stockton, Bakersfield and Colorado are over the league average, and topped a good number of AHL teams last season.
(Is it too late for the Sharks to swoop in and claim the ECHL's new San Francisco Bulls as their AHL affiliate?)
For the AHL and ECHL fans in the readership: What are your thoughts on this dramatic restructuring and/or market raiding by the NHL?