On the day of the league’s first preseason game, the ECHL had a growth spurt Tuesday, as it announced the league will absorb the seven remaining Central Hockey League teams.
The seven teams being absorbed into the ECHL are the Allen Americans, Brampton Beast, Missouri Mavericks (Kansas City-area), Quad City Mallards, Rapid City Rush, Tulsa Oilers and Wichita Thunder .
The ECHL is now a 28-team league that spans five North American time zones.
This is not a merger, but an expansion by the ECHL — much as what happened when the ECHL absorbed the West Coast Hockey League. In both cases, the league folded into the existing ECHL and its teams were considered ECHL expansion teams.
The announcement came hours before the first ECHL preseason game between the league’s other new team — the Indy Fuel — and Alaska Aces, which commences at 11:15 p.m. EDT tonight in Anchorage. The game will be broadcast on WXNT-1430 in Indianapolis and online at cbssports143o.com
The CHL was a circuit created in 1992 by Horn Chen, Ray Miron and others to provide a centrally-owned minor league that would serve the central United States. It had its league office in Indianapolis in its formative years. In 2001, the CHL merged with the Western Professional Hockey League. The CHL – once with a high of 18 teams after the WPHL merger – had lost three franchises over the summer and was down to seven teams.
With the absorption of the CHL, the ECHL now stands as the sole “AA” minor pro circuit in North America, having absorbed the remnants of what were once four other leagues — the West Coast, Central, United/International and Western Professional hockey leagues.
“The ECHL is very pleased to welcome these new Members to the League,” ECHL Commissioner Brian McKenna said in a league statement. “These additions strengthen our base in the center of the country and give the ECHL, for the first time, a true national presence. It expands our ability to act as a development league and more closely aligns our number of teams with both the American Hockey League and the National Hockey League.”
Most of the CHL’s teams are in the central United States — in-between the westernmost ECHL team east of the Mississippi (the Evansville IceMen) and the easternmost “Western” ECHL team, the Colorado Eagles. The league has teams in Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Texas. The addition of the Brampton Beast gives the ECHL its first Canadian franchise.
A handful of existing ECHL teams have a CHL pedigree — the Colorado Eagles, Evansville IceMen and Fort Wayne Komets all are former CHL franchises who currently play in the ECHL. Indianapolis was also a CHL market from 1999-2004, and won the league’s championship, the Miron Cup, in 2000.
There will be a number of challenges as training camps open. First, the divisional and playoff structure will have to be changed to accommodate the seven new entries. It would make sense for the seven CHL teams to play a self-contained schedule within their own division, and have some other realignment to create four seven-team divisions (which would be very geographically-feasible). Some adjustments will have to be made to the schedule — notably, the CHL teams will have to all add six games to their previously-announced 66-game schedules. There might also be some minor changes to existing team schedules to allow some crossover play between the existing and new ECHL teams.
The CHL teams will have to build their rosters with slightly different roster rules — CHL teams allow six veterans with more than 300 games of professional experience, while ECHL teams allow only four players with more than 26o games of professional experience, meaning the new ECHL teams will likely have to release a handful of veteran players to get under the limit.
One more challenge will be in affiliations. All 21 ECHL teams have NHL and AHL affiliates that provide players for their roster — and several teams have two NHL affiliates. Only two of the CHL’s seven teams have an NHL affiliate, and those agreements were alongside those of existing ECHL teams. The Tampa Bay Lightning had a CHL affiliation agreement with the Brampton Beast — and also share an ECHL affiliation with the Florida Everblades. The Minnesota Wild had a CHL affiliation with the Quad City Mallards and share an ECHL affiliation with the Alaska Aces. Both Florida and Alaska are dual-affiliated teams — Florida also with the Carolina Hurricanes, Alaska with the St. Louis Blues. The remaining five CHL teams are independents who build their roster entirely of free agents.
Some of the teams will be familiar — the Tulsa Oilers and Wichita Thunder are opponents from the Indianapolis Ice’s days in the CHL. The Allen Americans are the CHL’s reigning champions, while the Missouri Mavericks, led by Fuel coach Scott Hillman, won the regular-season title a year ago.
Divisional alignments for 2014-15 and a new schedule will be announced later. At this late hour, it would make sense to move the seven CHL teams into the Western Conference as their own division, move Colorado back into the Pacific Division, and take the existing 14 eastern ECHL teams and place them in two Eastern Conference divisions. That would lead to very little changes with the schedule, and would also lessen playoff travel while keeping strong geographical rivalries.