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In a story that MayorsManor has been chasing for the better part of two years, it appears the dominos are about to start falling in a move that should drastically change the landscape of developing pro hockey players for several NHL teams.
Through multiple league sources connected to the teams involved, we’ve confirmed that five to six NHL teams are prepared to move their top minor league prospects to a new AHL division based in Western U.S. markets.
The reason for this is actually quite simple; it just isn’t practical – or at least not ideal– to have the heart of an NHL franchise operating in one time zone, while their top development team is several time zones away.
At one point, as many as eight teams were involved in the discussions, including Anaheim, Los Angeles, Calgary, Colorado, Edmonton, Phoenix, San Jose, and Vancouver.
Regular conference calls and meetings have been taking place regarding this idea for a few years now and after vetting several different proposals – including the possibility of those teams starting their own league – it is now believed the AHL is on board with the idea.
From what we’ve learned recently, the new division will begin play in October 2015, as part of the AHL’s 2015-16 season.
The Coyotes, Ducks, Kings, and Sharks, are on board. As for the other one or two teams still in the mix, it is believed one of the Western Canadian teams’ interest in the project may have cooled.
This is only speculation, but we would assume that team is the Vancouver Canucks. Their current AHL affiliate is located in Utica, N.Y. and Canucks Sports Entertainment owns the team. Although a move West would seem preferable, they just began play there this year, so perhaps there are some contractual agreements in place for the next few seasons. Edmonton purchased their ECHL affiliate in Bakersfield last year and Calgary owns their AHL affiliate, the Abbotsford Heat (who are said to be moving next season anyway). Thus, they would most likely be part of the initial group of teams in 2015-16.
Specific to the Kings, they would move their current AHL franchise from Manchester, N.H. to Ontario, replacing their ECHL affiliate currently located there (the Ontario Reign). Manchester has proven to be a valuable AHL market and the expectation is another team would move in there rather quickly.
Meanwhile the Ontario market has been outstanding and extremely receptive to hockey since the team began play in the 2008-09 season, when they had the second highest average attendance in the league. Since then, they’ve led the league four of the last five seasons. This year, with an average attendance of 8,158, they will record the highest ECHL attendance average since 1998-99. Even more incredible, this season they have the second highest average attendance in all of minor league hockey, second only to the AHL’s Hershey Bears.
Thus, the Kings have to be confident this change will pay off by not only having their top prospects closer to home, but also at the box office.
When asked for official comment for this story, Kings Vice President, Communications and Broadcasting, Mike Altieri, would only say that “We remain interested in finding an opportunity to bring our affiliates closer to Los Angeles, but at this time nothing is imminent.”
As for where the Ducks, Sharks, and other teams may play – and again, this is only speculation – Salt Lake City has had IHL and AHL teams in the past, San Diego has a long history with minor league hockey, and Portland has proven to be a phenomenal market for junior hockey. On the flip side, Sacramento isn’t very likely and San Francisco couldn’t even support an ECHL team this season.
The Sharks own their AHL affiliate, currently playing in Worcester, Mass., while the Ducks do not own either their AHL (Norfolk Admirals in Virginia) or ECHL affiliates.
For those hoping the Long Beach Arena could play a part in this, while nobody has indicated it’s off the table, you would have to believe a fourth hockey team in the Southern California market may just be too many.
When this move happens, look for the Kings to possibly sign an affiliate agreement with another ECHL team. However, given how few players they’ve actually sent to Ontario over the last five seasons that may just be handled on an as-needed basis when the situation arises.
Barring a last minute change, the AHL and the teams involved are most likely going to announce their official plans later this summer. If the AHL ultimately doesn’t end up approving the plan, indications are the group of teams are prepared to go at it alone, as they feel this is a vital move and something that needs to take place.
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