One doesn’t have to say a lot to turn the hockey world on its ear, especially during this slow post-draft, post-development camp, pre-training camp time where a few player signings are trickling in and a lot of small stories become big ones.
Darryl Wolski, a player agent who represents several players in minor pro and European hockey, did just that late Tuesday night.
Hearing the ECHL and CHL are in talks to merge both leagues
— Darryl Wolski (@darrylwolski) August 6, 2014
Well, that would be interesting.
As noted in last night’s link roundup, take any unsourced, uncorroborated tweets with a grain — or a shaker — of salt. It has led to a few news stories and analyses that didn’t seem to have much of a grasp of “AA” minor pro hockey (or even confuses the difference between minor pro and the junior/NCAA debate) Nobody from either league has said a merger is imminent. But one can connect the dots and see where it would make some sense for the two leagues to merge.
First off: We know no facts. We don’t even know if there’s any veracity to Wolski’s tweet. The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette’s Justin Cohn has tried to track league leadership down, and has received no response. It’s unlikely anything would happen for 2014-15 — the ECHL already has announced its schedule and the CHL is set to, and teams in both leagues are signing players. So anything at this point is pure speculation.
Now, let’s backtrack a bit. Minor pro hockey has shaken out since the IHL’s demise in the early 1990s allowed all of the “AAA” affiliates to consolidate in the American Hockey League, and the old West Coast Hockey League’s demise brought those franchises into the ECHL as a new Western Conference. League mergers have been common. The CHL was created in 1992, but has in its DNA the remains of three old leagues. It absorbed teams from the old Southern Hockey League in 1996, merged with the Western Professional Hockey League in 2001, and took on the remains of the reconstituted International Hockey League in 2010 — a league that was better known as the Colonial and United Hockey League.
If it were to happen, it wouldn’t be anything unusual — just another step in the march toward consolidation.
There would be a few things to overcome. The ECHL is now a largely-affiliated league, with 20 of its 21 teams the secondary affiliate with at least one NHL team (a handful have affiliations with two). Meanwhile, most CHL teams are independent, or have tertiary affiliations. A couple — the Denver Cutthroats last year with the Avalanche, the Quad City Mallards this year with the Wild — have secondary affiliations. The salary caps and veteran rules are slightly different — the CHL has a looser definition of veteran, the ECHL has a slightly higher salary cap. But that would be a very simple adjustment, as both leagues are used to operating as a mix of independent and affiliated teams. It would essentially leave only two “Single-A” minor pro leagues left — the Southern Professional Hockey League, which operates in several southeastern markets formerly occupied by CHL franchises and has an outlier in Peoria, and the low-level Federal Hockey League.
But, if one looks ahead, things begin to make sense. The CHL is a nine-team league, largely focused in the Central and Mountain time zones — from Rapid City, SD to suburban Dallas and Kansas City to Denver and Prescott, Ariz. It does have a couple of geographic outliers — Brampton, Ontario being one — that would actually fit very well in the ECHL’s footprint. Meanwhile, the ECHL is a 21-team league that began as the East Coast Hockey League and had a base in the Southeast. Other than the AHL, is is the longest continuously-operating minor pro hockey league in North America. It gradually expanded into the Midwest, and then became bicoastal after taking on the remnants of the old WCHL. It has basically maintained a baseball-like structure where the two conferences rarely see each other until playoff time, but with the San Francisco Bulls’ demise and the Las Vegas Wranglers going dark, the west was down to seven teams. Meanwhile, there’s a pretty substantial geographic gulf in-between Loveland, Colorado — the easternmost “Western” team — and the westernmost “Eastern” teams of Evansville and Indy. The CHL fills that gulf nicely — Wichita, Missouri (Kansas City), Rapid City, Allen (Dallas), Tulsa and Quad City all fit in-between Evansville and Colorado.
Meanwhile, the CHL’s eastern outpost (Brampton) would provide a solid geographic fit for Elmira, Reading, Kalamazoo and Toledo, and the western teams of Denver and Arizona would be able to fit well into the ECHL’s Western Conference. That could be critical if the AHL — whose core is in the Northeast — expands west and moves into some of the ECHL’s western markets, which is being openly discussed. It would be vital for the western teams to be together rather than spread across multiple minor pro leagues, because of the more spread-out nature and high travel costs that are often incurred in a western market. Such a union would make scheduling and spreading teams out across conferences easier, while still guaranteeing fans will be able to see a variety of opponents.
The ECHL is in a good place, especially in its traditional eastern core. There is a stable of teams that are relatively close to each other geographically, in good markets — and Indianapolis’ addition to the ECHL adds another big-league city to the league, joining Cincinnati and Orlando. The Indy Fuel’s schedule, roster and affiliation won’t be affected much by any such change, other than possibly seeing a few new teams pass through the Coliseum once every year or two. But such a move would substantially strengthen the teams west of the Mississippi in both leagues, by giving them more close rivals and cut down on travel costs.
Take everything with a grain of salt. Or a shaker. It’s uncertain what will happen, but the Indy Fuel’s league is in a good place no matter what happens surrounding it.