Good and bad of ECHL’s takeover of CHL franchises
The Central Hockey League folded this week, with its seven teams joining the ECHL beginning this season.
It’s a journey for the CHL’s players that stretches back nearly a decade; and it’s a journey that still presents some difficult challenges to the ultimate goal of establishing a 30-team “AA’ level of pro hockey in North America.
“This line has been heard for years in locker rooms: ‘What needs to happen is the ECHL takes over the CHL and we have 30/30/30.’ In more robust economic times, this could have easily happened right off the bat because there were more than 30 teams playing AA level hockey. Now there's 28,” said Mike McKenna, a goalie for the Portland Pirates who serves on the executive board of the Professional Hockey Players Association.
“Certainly we're hopeful that the 30/30/30 model will be reached soon, but it has to be done right.”
In 2006, the Central Hockey League unionized with the PHPA, joining the AHL and ECHL as minor leagues with organized labor.
“It was a big deal because a lot of the teams were in states that were very hostile to unions and we've seen that sentiment surface in the past several seasons, especially in right-to-work states where a few players chose not to join the PHPA, yet still reap the benefits of collective bargaining,” recalled McKenna.
Jeff “Crackers” Kyrzakos, who played nine seasons with the ECHL and CHL, used to sit in meetings with players like McKenna, fighting to convince the PHPA’s membership to fund the fledging CHL union.
“It needed to be done regardless of the cost because eventually the end result would be ideal and hopefully solidify minor league hockey and create true ‘systems’ similar to baseball in that respect,” he said after the CHL teams were absorbed. “[It] wasn't easy dealing with the weird way the CHL was constructed, but the ECHL has come a long way and CHL guys will see all the benefits.”
McKenna said the end result was always trying to bring the minor league CBAs more in line, in preparation for eventual consolidation.
“Whether the CHL remained in business or not, the ultimate goal was to have the ECHL and CHL CBA's and Standard Player's Contracts as similar as possible. We felt this was in the best interest of all PHPA members and Crackers was a strong voice in this,” said McKenna.
So the CHL and ECHL players were part of the same union. But their Collective Bargaining Agreements weren’t exactly in sync, which makes the transfer of seven franchise’s worth of players to the ECHL a bit challenging.
There are drastic differences between the ECHL and CHL CBAs.
The players coming to the ECHL are getting better insurance, better dental coverage, better compensation for travel costs. They’re getting a higher salary cap.
What they aren’t getting: As many jobs for veteran players.
“The only negative in this deal - from the PHPA's perspective - is that the ECHL CBA allows for four veterans, while the expired CHL CBA allowed for five, plus one more from the previous season. So essentially six veteran players,” said McKenna. “What pains us as a union is that up to 12 veteran players might be out of a job this season in North America.”
Truth be told, the CHL players coming to the ECHL are all out of a job. Their contracts were filed with a defunct league. They’re all unrestricted free agents at the moment.
McKenna expects the majority of them to sign with their previous CHL teams. “The ECHL CBA does have a higher salary cap so there is a very real potential for negotiations,” he said. “But in the end, I'd be surprised if many guys jumped ship to a different team.”
So some veteran players might be squeezed out of jobs. The alternative, of course, was not having any jobs for any players had the CHL folded without the ECHL taking on its franchises.
Some of the Central Hockey League’s remaining seven owners wanted to play on this season, but had yet to have CBA talks with the PHPA.
“While I have heard some CHL teams saying that the season would have been business as usual for them without joining the ECHL, it would have been a minor miracle to have a season this year,” said McKenna. “And if it happened, there was a very strong likelihood of things becoming even more financially difficult down the road.”
Had the CHL collapsed, it would have meant 140 or so players without jobs this season.
Instead, they’re joining the ECHL, with the chance to build a ‘AA’ level of hockey that’s sustainable.
There are questions, as Bobby Metcalf of the Quad City Times notes:
Will we see some AHL and ECHL teams flip leagues? What, if any, teams will be joining the ECHL in the upcoming years to get the ECHL up to the 30 teams like the AHL and NHL? Will an A-level feeder league be set up, possibly utilizing the Southern Professional Hockey League? How will this affect players signing overseas and at the junior level, especially in Canada? Will we start seeing fresh NHL draft picks cutting their teeth in the ECHL, and in the Quad-Cities? It's an exciting time for minor-league hockey as we see these questions start to answer themselves.
Exciting time. But a moment that can’t be squandered.
“It has to be done right. We don't want to see any AA level teams folding, especially the teams that just entered from the CHL,” said McKenna. “There are some very strong markets coming into the ECHL and we hope they stay for a long time.”
They just need to find two more.