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It's time to drastically overhaul minor league hockey in North America

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Several NHL teams are unhappy about the way minor league hockey works for them, and big changes are in the works. Here's how to make it work for the 62 minor league teams in the AHL, ECHL and CHL.

Christopher Pasatieri / Getty Images

For decades, the NHL's western franchises have sent their top minor league prospects far, far away to farm teams in the eastern half of the continent. It's a far-from-perfect scenario, and they haven't had much of a choice in the matter, given that hockey's "AAA" minor league, the AHL, has historically always held an eastern and midwestern footprint.

Thus, we have teams like the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings partnered up with AHL squads some 3,000 miles away in places like Worcester, Mass. and Manchester, N.H. The high cost of these long-distance relationships -- both in travel and financials, not to mention the unfair competitive advantage it gives to the NHL's eastern teams -- has forced many to propose major change.

And if that change comes at the AHL level, there's going to be a dramatic ripple effect throughout North America's minor professional hockey landscape, one that will completely alter the reality for most of the 62 teams across three leagues from coast to coast.

The AHL is going west

Rumors have been floating for months, if not years, about the potential of a new western division in the AHL. It would be a huge shift for a league that's primarily been based in the Northeast U.S. and around the Great Lakes for most of its 78-year existence.

If the AHL heads west, it's not like it'd be expanding. It's already a 30-team league, and adding five or six West Coast cities to the mix just doesn't make much sense for a league where travel costs are a chief expenditure. A 36-team minor hockey league with 30 teams on one coast and six on the other would be a little crazy.

So any addition of western AHL teams means that it'd be swapping those teams with the ECHL -- a league still commonly referred to as the "East Coast" league even after it absorbed the West Coast Hockey League in 2003, developing a national footprint and leaving a nonsensical acronym as its name.

The ECHL's western teams would join the AHL and affiliate with the NHL's western squads, while some longstanding AHL clubs on the other side of the country would be forced to step down a peg to the "AA" ECHL level.

The ECHL-CHL "merger"

News came out this week that the ECHL is looking to gobble up the struggling Central Hockey League, largely considered a slight step below the ECHL in quality of play. The 10-team league (update: now nine teams; we address this later) is primarily based, as you'd guess, in the central United States, with one odd outlier in Brampton, Ontario.

If the CHL were to merge with the ECHL, it'd create one 32-team, coast-to-coast super league. (Technically, it probably won't be a true merger. It would be much like the WCHL-ECHL "merger" in that the ECHL will just take the teams, maybe not all of them, and the CHL will cease to exist.) That league would remain one step below the 30-team AHL -- "AAA" vs. "AA" -- in the overall picture.

On the left here is the map today, and on the right is what things would look like after an ECHL-CHL merger.

minor league hockey map 2

AHL teams in red, ECHL teams in blue, CHL teams in green. Click the image to enlarge. The ECHL's Alaska Aces are in Anchorage, which is really far away from everything and off these maps.

Let's blow it up

The maps show one thing very clearly: the AHL is not a national league. That makes sense to a certain extent. Hockey is a sport born in the northeast part of the continent, and hell, if you really want to go way back with it, our continent was primarily settled there too. But just as the population of the continent has shifted west, it's time for the American Hockey League to do the same.

As we've established, the chief problem facing NHL teams out west is distance from their AHL affiliate. A few east teams have this gripe as well, but it's primarily a western issue. So we identified 11 NHL teams that have a legitimate problem and we picked a new team for them to affiliate with -- a team from the ECHL or CHL.

We took a few things into consideration here: geography between the chief affiliate and its NHL team is of course the primary concern, but we also considered that teams switching leagues must have other opponents within their league nearby.

We also need to make sure that new AHL teams can support the higher costs associated with playing in a better league. The closer you get to the top of the food chain, the pricier things are -- players included. So all teams we're moving into the AHL have strong attendance figures in their current leagues, since minor league hockey teams make most of their money off ticket sales. In most cases, the attendance numbers for all of these new teams are actually an improvement over what their current AHL affiliate is bringing through the gates each night.

Making the changes

NHL team Current AHL affiliate Fans / Gm Miles
Proposed affiliate Fans / Gm Miles
Diff
Anaheim Ducks Norfolk Admirals 5,004 2,703
Bakersfield Condors 4,859 137
-2,566
Arizona Coyotes Portland Pirates 2,185 2,795
Las Vegas Wranglers 4,581 276
-2,519
Calgary Flames Adirondack Flames 4,192 2,496
Idaho Steelheads 3,997 884
-1,612
Colorado Avalanche Lake Erie Monsters 8,144 1,334
Colorado Eagles 5,289 57
-1,277
Edmonton Oilers Oklahoma City Barons 3,348 1,937
Alaska Aces 4,619 1,941
4
Florida Panthers San Antonio Rampage 7,001 1,356
Florida Everblades 5,045 116
-1,240
Los Angeles Kings Manchester Monarchs 5,608 3,014
Ontario Reign 8,158 43
-2,971
San Jose Sharks Worcester Sharks 3,958 3,094
Stockton Thunder 4,786 77
-3,017
Tampa Bay Lightning Syracuse Crunch 5,574 1,289
Orlando Solar Bears 6,355 110
-1,179
Vancouver Canucks Utica Comets 3,435 2,923
Utah Grizzlies 5,003 974
-1,949
Winnipeg Jets St. John's IceCaps 6,287 3,296
Rapid City Rush 4,497 722
-2,574

minor league hockey map 3

Every team gets a lot closer to its new affiliate, except for a 4-mile increase in distance for the Edmonton Oilers and their new affiliate, the Alaska Aces. We made this change because if we were to move every other western ECHL team into the AHL except for the Aces, their already insane travel would have been simply unworkable.

Each new AHL affiliate has shown a history of drawing fans to the rink in its old league, and every team moving up to the AHL has an arena capable of supporting AHL hockey. (The Las Vegas Wranglers are actually sitting the 2014-15 season as they search for a new arena. They are a good franchise with strong support, so for our purposes here we're going to assume they get it sorted out sooner than later.)

This is bad news for the 11 AHL clubs losing their affiliates, but some of these teams still deserve to be in the AHL. San Antonio and Lake Erie, which is based in Cleveland, are minor league teams in major league cities, and it wouldn't make sense to bump them down below the AHL.

So let's make a few adjustments.

And some tweaks ...

  • The Lake Erie Monsters stay in the AHL. They affiliate with the Columbus Blue Jackets, just 143 miles away. Columbus' old affiliate, the Springfield Falcons, move down to the lower league. CBJ's affiliate is now 551 miles closer than it was before.
  • The San Antonio Rampage stay in the AHL. They affiliate with the Nashville Predators, who move their affiliate from Milwaukee. It's quite a bit further for the Predators -- 938 miles to San Antonio, 566 to Milwaukee -- but it's still within reason.
  • But we're not going to kick out the Milwaukee Admirals either, considering they merged into the AHL from the IHL in 2001 and are another team that plays in a major league city with solid fan support. So we'll bump the Rapid City Rush back down a peg (sorry guys!) and the Winnipeg Jets will plant their affiliate flag in Milwaukee, a city just 792 miles away. Their current affiliate in St. John's, Newfoundland is an insane 3,296 miles away, so that's an improvement.
  • The Albany Devils are one of the worst-supported teams in the AHL, drawing just 3,360 fans per game in 2013-14. Frankly, they deserve to be knocked down a peg. The Manchester Monarchs will stay in the AHL in the Devils' spot and affiliate with New Jersey. Manchester supports its team and the Monarchs play in a beautiful, relatively new arena worthy of the AHL.
  • We were informed in the comments that the St. Charles Chill of the CHL actually folded this summer. To fix this, we're going to add the Peoria Rivermen -- an old ECHL and AHL franchise that's swapped owners a few times and is currently playing in the lowly Southern Professional Hockey League -- back to the ECHL.

Meet the new AHL

The new American Hockey League
AHL team NHL affiliate Distance (mi)
Alaska Aces Edmonton Oilers 1,941
Bakersfield Condors Anaheim Ducks 137
Binghamton Senators Ottawa Senators 267
Bridgeport Sound Tigers New York Islanders 67
Charlotte Checkers Carolina Hurricanes 164
Chicago Wolves St. Louis Blues 311
Colorado Eagles Colorado Avalanche 57
Florida Everblades Florida Panthers 116
Grand Rapids Griffins Detroit Red Wings 158
Hamilton Bulldogs Montreal Canadiens 379
Hartford Wolf Pack New York Rangers 124
Hershey Bears Washington Capitals 131
Idaho Steelheads Calgary Flames 884
Iowa Wild Minnesota Wild 244
Lake Erie Monsters Columbus Blue Jackets 141
Las Vegas Wranglers Arizona Coyotes 276
Lehigh Valley Phantoms Philadelphia Flyers 62
Manchester Monarchs New Jersey Devils 257
Milwaukee Admirals Winnipeg Jets 792
Ontario Reign Los Angeles Kings 43
Orlando Solar Bears Tampa Bay Lightning 110
Providence Bruins Boston Bruins 50
Rochester Americans Buffalo Sabres 87
Rockford IceHogs Chicago Blackhawks 86
San Antonio Rampage Nashville Predators 956
Stockton Thunder San Jose Sharks 77
Texas Stars Dallas Stars 183
Toronto Marlies Toronto Maple Leafs 2
Utah Grizzlies Vancouver Canucks 974
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins Pittsburgh Penguins 266

Doesn't that feel better?

Aligning the two new leagues

Now we're left with two totally different leagues, and they need to be aligned into divisions. So let's do that.

We'll start in the AHL. We'll align the 30 teams in two 15-team conferences. Inside those conferences will be one eight-team division and one seven-team division.

Eastern Conference Western Conference
Marshall Bower Shore Butterfield
Hershey Rochester Alaska San Antonio
Manchester Toronto Stockton Texas
Lehigh Valley Hamilton Ontario Iowa
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Charlotte Bakersfield Rockford
Providence Orlando Utah Chicago
Bridgeport Florida Idaho Milwaukee
Hartford Lake Erie Colorado Grand Rapids
Binghamton
Las Vegas

The divisions are named after AHL legends:

  • Willie Marshall, the AHL's all-time leading scorer
  • Johnny Bower, who has more wins than any goalie in AHL history
  • Eddie Shore, a Hockey Hall of Famer and longtime AHL owner
  • Jack Butterfield, the league's president from 1966 to 1994.

The structure basically matches the NHL's four divisions, and just like in the NHL, it leaves room for two more teams to be added on. After all, if the NHL expands, the AHL likely will also.

Here's what the new AHL looks like on a map:

new ahl map

On to the ECHL -- which we realize might not and probably shouldn't keep the ECHL name -- where 32 teams makes things much easier. Four divisions of eight teams each. Nice and clean.

Eastern Conference Western Conference
Riley Valicevic Coffey Miron
St. John's IceCaps Elmira Jackals Toledo Walleye Missouri Mavericks
Portland Pirates Brampton Beast Kalamazoo Wings Rapid City Rush
Worcester Sharks Reading Royals Fort Wayne Komets Denver Cutthroats
Springfield Falcons Wheeling Nailers Indy Fuel Wichita Thunder
Adirondack Flames Norfolk Admirals Cincinnati Cyclones Oklahoma City Barons
Albany Devils South Carolina Stingrays Evansville Icemen Tulsa Oilers
Utica Comets Greenville Road Warriors St. Charles Chill Peoria Rivermen Allen Americans
Syracuse Crunch Gwinnett Gladiators Quad City Mallards Arizona Sundogs

Again, the division names are based on league or hockey legends:

  • Jack Riley, a longtime minor league executive for whom the ECHL's first championship trophy was named
  • Chris Valicevic, an ECHL Hall of Famer, fifth all-time in league scoring, named a league All-Star a record seven times, and named the league's best defenseman four times during his nine-year career
  • Bill Coffey, credited with starting the ECHL, plus two other minor leagues in the American Southeast
  • Ray Miron, the co-founder of the Central Hockey League and the current namesake of its championship trophy. We'll keep some of that CHL history.

new echl

Potential problems and solutions

Thirteen AHL clubs are currently owned by their NHL affiliate, which could obviously lead to some issues. The Manchester Monarchs are owned by the Los Angeles Kings, for example, and under this arrangement it'd be weird for them to own what we have set up as the New Jersey Devils affiliate.

But with the leagues working together in good faith, these problems could be solved: the Kings would technically move the Manchester franchise to Ontario, Calif. -- maybe they become the Ontario Monarchs? -- and the Albany franchise in the AHL would then move into Manchester, who are perhaps renamed the Manchester Devils.

There are several situations like this, but if the leagues and franchises work together with the understanding that the end result is better for the NHL clubs and better for minor hockey as a whole, they could sort it through and make it work.

The new setup could also lead to the folding of some minor league teams. Maybe we learn that fans in Springfield, Mass. or Glens Falls, N.Y. refuse to support AA-level hockey. When faced with the problem of hockey or no hockey, I think many fans would take the hockey option, but you never know.

These sorts of problems may creep up here and there, and there may be big changes each summer in the early years of this new arrangement. But long term, it's hard to argue that this setup isn't ideal for hockey -- both NHL and minor pro -- in North America.

***

A coast-to-coast AHL undoubtedly helps both itself and the NHL, and it's going to happen sooner or later. This scenario we've laid out above works for everybody, including an ECHL that as the lower league will be forced to have to adapt to whatever changes the NHL and AHL agree are best.

There are obviously plenty of issues with any sort of drastic realignment like this, and all 60+ fan bases in minor league hockey will probably have some quibble or concern or complaint with what we've outlined above. The owners of the 60+ teams -- some of them NHL owners as well -- will probably have even more complaints. The point of this story is merely to start discussion and outline what an ideal, or attempt at ideal, setup could look like.

If you're angry with what we did with your favorite team here, or you think you see another change that would work better than what we've outlined, let us know below in the comments.