The American Hockey League is headed west.
It's been rumored for months, if not years, and finally on Thursday the league made it official, announcing that five teams will be moving from old strongholds on the East Coast to new outposts in the west. The changes give the AHL a true national footprint for the first time in its 79-year history, and more importantly, they bring farm teams closer to their NHL affiliates in the west. But a lot of long-time hockey cities in the east are losing teams, too.
- The Worcester Sharks are moving from Massachusetts to San Jose, joining their NHL club in playing home games at SAP Center. The team will be renamed.
- The Adirondack Flames are moving from Glens Falls, N.Y. to Stockton, Calif. Stockton is currently home to an ECHL club, the Stockton Thunder.
- The Manchester Monarchs, AHL affiliate of the Los Angeles Kings, are moving to Ontario, Calif. Ontario is currently home to the ECHL's Ontario Reign.
- The Edmonton Oilers will remove their AHL affiliate from Oklahoma City. They'll replace the ECHL's Bakersfield Condors in Bakersfield, Calif.
- The Anaheim Ducks' affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals, will move to San Diego. Their new nickname will be announced in February, but it's possible they pay homage to the old San Diego Gulls of the WCHL and IHL. Norfolk is expected to land an ECHL franchise.
The changes will have dramatic effects on the ECHL as well. Some long-time ECHL markets -- many former West Coast Hockey League markets that were absorbed into the ECHL in a 2003 merger -- will now host 'AAA' level minor league hockey for the first time. But with the 'AA" level ECHL being displaced in those markets, they'll likely slide in to some of those old eastern markets that are losing teams.
The ECHL's Stockton Thunder, for example, are expected to move to Glens Falls, replacing the Adirondack Flames, a move that will be announced Friday. The Kings are expected to keep a team in Manchester, N.H, but they'll be L.A.'s ECHL affiliate instead of their AHL affiliate. Expect many more announcements like that in the coming weeks and months.
There's a lot of dust to settle. The AHL's western move is a truly seismic shift in the geography of minor pro hockey in North America, and it will probably be years before things completely fall into place.