EL SEGUNDO, CA — The phrase, “Go West, young man!” has been around for many decades, and although it will take them 80 years, the American Hockey League is doing just that.
Indeed, it’s been in the works for years, and there has been an ever-increasing amount of talk about it over the past few years, but it all became reality on January 29, when the AHL announced that the affiliates of five National Hockey League teams will move to California to form a new Pacific Division of the AHL. The teams in this new division will begin play next season, marking the first time the AHL will have teams in California in what will be their 80-year history.
“Today, we are announcing that we will begin our 80th season [2015-16] with another monumental shift in the geography of our league,” David Andrews, President, Chief Executive Officer, American Hockey League, told the media at a press conference in San Jose. “Earlier this week, the American Hockey League’s Board of Governors unanimously approved the purchase of an AHL franchise by the Anaheim Ducks, and the relocation of AHL franchises owned by the Calgary Flames, the Edmonton Oilers, the Los Angeles Kings, and the San Jose Sharks, as well as the franchise being purchased by Anaheim. These approvals are paving the way for the launch, next Fall, of the Pacific Division of the American Hockey League, with teams in five California cities.”
The new division shakes out this way:
- Anaheim Ducks will purchase the Norfolk Admirals and move them from Norfolk, Virginia to San Diego.
- Calgary Flames will move their affiliate, the Adirondack Flames, from Glens Falls, New York, to Stockton.
- Edmonton Oilers will move their affiliate, Oklahoma City Barons, from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma to Bakersfield, where the ECHL’s Bakersfield Condors will move up to the AHL
- Los Angeles Kings will swap their ECHL and AHL affiliates, with the AHL’s Manchester Monarchs moving to Ontario where they will take on the name of the existing Ontario Reign. Meanwhile, the ECHL’s Ontario Reign will move to Manchester, New Hampshire and become the ECHL’s Manchester Monarchs
- San Jose Sharks will move their affiliate, the Worcester Sharks, from Worcester, Massachusetts to San Jose, where they will play at the SAP Center, sharing the same arena as the NHL’s Sharks.
“This is a significant day for hockey, and the growth of the sport in California,” said John Tortora, Chief Operating Officer, San Jose Sharks. “In 25 short years, hockey [in California] has grown from one NHL team to three very successful NHL teams. Each franchise has developed robust youth hockey programs in their markets, culminating with each team having California-trained players on their rosters and in their systems. Now, hockey adds another layer to its California growth, five NHL teams identifying five California cities throughout the state for the home of their top development clubs.”
“For the growth of hockey, it’s a tremendous thing, obviously, for California, but [also] for the United States,” said Luc Robitaille, President, Business Operations, Los Angeles Kings. “To have five teams that are going to play on the West Coast now, fans are going to be able to see players who are one phone call away from playing in the NHL.”
“When we talk about the AHL, we’re talking about an entirely different level,” added Robitaille. “People who are fortunate enough to see those games, they’re going to see a very, very high skill level, and it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Ducks Executive Vice President/General Manager Bob Murray and Vice Chair, Oilers Entertainment Group Kevin Lowe agreed.
“To use a favorite word of our recently retired Teemu Selanne, this is an unbelievable day for hockey in California, for Anaheim, the organization, and for the city of San Diego, where [their AHL affiliate] will be moving to,” said Murray. “When the Samueli’s bought the team in 2005, [former Ducks general manager] Brian Burke and I—our first week on the job—we looked at each other [and said], ‘we’ve got to move our minor league team out here,’ so this is a dream come true.”
“All of us will agree that from when Luc Robitaille played for the Kings, and Wayne Gretzky got traded there in 1988, it’s to the betterment of the NHL, and the great game of hockey, that Californians will have [a lot] more opportunities to watch world-class hockey,” said Lowe.
It’s All About Player Development
Despite all that, providing more professional hockey for California hockey fans is not the priority for these NHL teams—not even close. Rather, their focus is on improving their player development by bringing their top development teams much closer to home.
Murray provided an example of the impact the move will have on California’s NHL teams.
“On a Tuesday morning in November, now, I can do as the guys on the [East Coast] can do,” he said. “I can get out of bed, and instead of watching our team practice, I can drive down the coast, which is kind of nice, go to San Diego, and watch my minor league team practice.”
“There’s no price tag you can put on that,” he added. “That is just so valuable, to your players, and to you. This just exposes them to me, and me to them so much more. It’s a remarkable thing, and again, it’s a dream come true.”
For obvious reasons, things will be a bit different for the two Canadian NHL teams.
“It’s a great day for hockey, and it’s really going to enhance our development,” said Lowe. “As a Canadian team, we’re a little further away. We won’t have the luxury of driving down the coast to see our American league team. But the players are really going to benefit from the proximity of the teams.”
“Presently, we’re in Oklahoma City,” added Lowe. “It’s a wonderful city, and we really enjoyed being there. But our closest opponent was a six-hour bus ride away, and the rest of the teams were, pretty much, a flight away, so this is really going to enhance development for our players.”
Flames general manager Brad Treliving echoed Lowe’s sentiments.
“It’s really remarkable, when we talk about the growth of the sport within this state,” he said. “When you look at [it] from the pure product standpoint, from the general manager’s standpoint, we can’t really highlight as well as we should how important this is from a development standpoint.”
“The biggest thing for us is how can we get a better development model, and I can tell you from having a team on the East Coast—we’re currently in Glens Falls, which is a wonderful community,” he added. “It’s been an excellent market for us. But those cross-country flights, dealing with a different time zone when you play a game on a Friday night, and you need a guy on Saturday, there’s challenges involved with it. There’s a lot of challenges, and I think, for a number of years now, the [Western] teams—the real priority for this is, is there a better way for the teams in the West to develop players?”
To be sure, reduced travel will be huge boon to the development efforts of the Flames and Oilers.
“The big thing in development in hockey is to have practice time,” Lowe noted. “[But] when you’re flying around all the time, across the country, you eliminate practice days. We anticipate, possibly, somewhere between 20 and 25 extra practice days, and in a season that’s approximately 180 days, that’s a big percentage of time for the development of these young players.”
Murray pointed to the San Diego market as an example of how primed some California cities are for an AHL franchise.
“There’s been people asking me, ‘who’s going to play on your team down there?’ My answer is quite simple,” he said. “On our Anaheim Ducks roster, right now, there’s only two players who did not play in the American Hockey League. That’s remarkable.”
“As for San Diego, five years ago, we started a high school league,” he added. “We had two teams. Today, we have 41. Two years ago, one team from our area won the national championship. Hockey is growing in California. Even in bantam and midget [leagues], we’ve had winners coming out of California in the last few years.”
“Hockey is growing in California, and on the West Coast. This is just going to take that one step farther, and ahead.”
Move Will Be Tough On Current Fans
Although the five NHL teams are opening a new frontier, of sorts, in California, they know that they are leaving the fans of their existing AHL franchises behind.
“We’re thrilled to bring the AHL to California, and add to the incredible growth of the game on the West Coast,” said Andrews. “I want to thank, though, our fans, and all of those individuals who have supported the American Hockey League in Adirondack, in Norfolk, in Manchester, in Worcester, and in Oklahoma City.”
“This transition in the pro hockey landscape is important for our sport,” added Andrews. “We’re confident, though, that in the near future, our fans in those cities we are departing, will continue to enjoy a high level of minor professional hockey. We’re very thankful for their long-standing support of our league.”
Treliving acknowledged the fans of the Flames’ existing AHL affiliate.
“As exciting as this, is from a hockey standpoint and a development standpoint, we do understand and recognize that there’s markets today that are losing a team,” said Treliving. “That’s a difficult thing, when people invest, both financially and emotionally, it’s a hard thing, so I do want to thank the fans in Glens Falls who have supported our team over the course of the year, and we hope we can have a strong finish.”
The Kings are in a slightly different position, swapping their AHL and ECHL franchises, who will exchange cities and arenas.
“On behalf of the LA Kings, we want to say thank you to the people in Manchester,” said Robitaille. “You’re not losing a team. You’ll get another team.”
“We’re excited that we’re going to Ontario,” added Robitaille. “It will be a great thing for hockey.”
Back at their practice facility in El Segundo, California, left wing Dwight King, who played for both of the Kings’ minor league affiliates, was pleased to hear the news.
“I think it’s great,” he said. “As far as Ontario goes, they have a nice facility. [It’s well-]equipped. The fan base there is great, [and if the building isn’t] full, it’s near full every night. That’s what players want to play in front of.”
“For the players, it’s a lot easier for travel and locations, so that’s nice,” he added. “It’s a little different. [For most players], playing hockey in California is pretty rare. If [someone gets] the opportunity, I don’t think they’re going to be disappointed, no matter what city they’re in.”
Head coach Darryl Sutter noted that talk about such a change started back when he was general manager of the Calgary Flames (April 11, 2003 to December 28, 2010; he was hired as the Flames head coach on December 29, 2002, and served in both positions from April 11, 2003 to July 12, 2006).
“It’s been talked about for a long time,” he said. “When I was in Calgary and Brian Burke was [the general manager] in Vancouver, we were trying to get more teams to be involved, but at that time, we couldn’t get any of these teams in California to be involved. Now, we’ve got all three of the California teams. Hopefully, it works, and it should.”
“Glad that they’re finally putting it in place, formally,” he added. “It’ll be interesting to see how they announce the schedule, format, and all that, because it’s going to have to balance, somehow. There’s going to have to be a playoff set-up that works for the rest of the American league.”
“The next part is—five [teams] is an odd number. You’d like to have an even number of teams.”
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