AHL Teams Heading West
by Andrew Kulyk and Peter Farrell
Huge Franchise Shift in Hockey Caps Off Week
Imagine if you will if you woke up one day to find that our minor league baseball team, the Buffalo Bisons, are no longer a AAA team, a place they’ve held for most of the past century plus, but are now back at AA.
Or worse yet, imagine that the team was gone.
No, the Bisons aren’t going anywhere, but in the world of minor league hockey, that’s exactly what happened to a number of American Hockey League cities whose main misfortune was being affiliated with a western based NHL team.
Got your scorecard ready?
The Norfolk Admirals (Anaheim) move to San Diego. The Adirondack Flames (Calgary) move to Stockton. The Oklahoma City Barons (Edmonton) move to Bakersfield. The Worcester Sharks (San Jose) move to San Jose. And the Manchester Monarchs (Los Angeles) move to Ontario, as in California. No small feat lifting five franchises, most established ones, and packing them out to California. But indeed that was what the AHL has done, and these five teams will play in a new “Pacific Division” come 2015-16. The league will also have a true continental footprint for the first time in its storied history.
There will be solace for some of the displaced cities.
The East Coast Hockey League, which has now carved its own niche as the true “AA” hockey league, all with NHL affiliates, is placing franchises in Adirondack, Norfolk and Manchester. These teams will be replacing the three franchises that are currently playing in Stockton, Ontario, and Bakersfield. The ECHL also has a pretty wide national footprint, with a team playing in Anchorage, Alaska, and its first Canadian based team housed in nearby Brampton, Ontario.
San Jose Sharks President John Tortora laid out the entire plan at San Jose’s arena, the SAP Center. “Having our top prospects playing on the same coast as our National Hockey League team will greatly enhance our ability to monitor and enhance their development. The creation of this Pacific Division of the American Hockey League has been a long time in the making and is the result of an immense amount of hard work by the AHL, the NHL and the five Pacific Division teams. We are extremely excited to have this division become a reality and we can’t wait for October 2015.”
The Sharks and their yet to be named minor league affiliate will both be sharing the SAP Center next season, giving San Jose hockey fans 79 home dates. It is expected to just be a temporary plan, as the Sharks might be eyeing Oracle Arena in Oakland, now the home of the NBA Golden State Warriors, or the new NBA arena now under construction in downtown Sacramento, as a permanent venue for their prospects.
Of all the displaced cities, the plan is hitting the hardest in Manchester, New Hampshire. The city entered the AHL as an expansion team in 2001, housing their team in the gleaming Verizon Wireless Arena downtown, where they have been at the top of the attendance standings since opening. The team hosted the AHL All Star game in 2004, and this year is leading the league in wins and points. Stanley Cup winners with the LA Kings, including Alec Martinez, Jake Muzzin, Tyler Toffoli and Dustin Brown all cut their teeth with the Monarchs. Now their city will be relegated to the ECHL.
The best consolation prize goes to the city of Glens Falls, NY, just north of Albany. The suffering hockey fans have always been in full throated support of their Adirondack teams. They built an arena for their Adirondack Red Wings in the 70s, yet after four Calder Cups and robust support, Detroit pulled the team out of there after two decades. They then began play in the now defunct United Hockey League, which went bust in 2006. Philadelphia temporarily moved their team, the Phantoms, into Glens Falls in 2009, and that lasted five years when that team relocated to Lehigh Valley. This year Calgary stepped in with the Flames, a three year deal that now gets cancelled after just one season.
What all this means for the Buffalo Sabres two minor league affiliates is very little, actually. The Rochester Americans’ status in the AHL was never in question or jeopardy, and the coming divisional realignment could bring a team like the Syracuse Crunch back into the same division. Teams in Utica. Hamilton and Toronto will continue to shape their strong rivalries.
In Elmira, the Jackals will be happy to see a team back in nearby Glens Falls. Elmira and Adirondack were locked in a huge rivalry when the two teams were housed in the UHL a decade ago.
One more high profile franchise shift is in the pipeline…the Winnipeg Jets had wanted to move their AHL team from St. Johns, Newfoundland to a closer location in Thunder Bay, Ontario, all for geographic considerations. Thunder Bay has not begun work on a new arena, however, so the Jets have now extended the contract with St. John’s through 2016. Their AHL affiliate may well end up right back in Winnipeg alongside their parent club, or perhaps in the opulent Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Stay tuned.
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