This is a repost from April 29, but is being reposted and updated as we get ready for the 2014 Indy Fuel season!
With the Indy Fuel set to begin the ECHL season, let’s take a look at the league as a whole.
The ECHL started in 1988 as the East Coast Hockey League, and emerged as the top “AA” league, feeding players to the American Hockey League and the now-defunct International Hockey League. After the old West Coast Hockey League dissolved in 2003, the ECHL took on several franchises and simply changed its name to the acronym ECHL — the letters no longer stand for anything. The league’s website is ECHL.com, which includes information about the league as a whole, standings, stats and daily transactions. Live broadcasts are available via ECHL.tv on a pay-per-view basis.
The ECHL stands at the “AA” level of the minor pro hockey pyramid. It complements the AHL, the “AAA” league, where all teams must have NHL affiliations and have most of their rosters stocked by the parent club (not surprisingly, the AHL has 30 teams – the same number as the NHL). As a result, ECHL rosters are a hybrid of players assigned by the NHL & AHL affiliates and free agents trying to get noticed by an NHL team. More than 500 former ECHL players have gone on to play in the NHL in the league’s 26-year history. It’s a step above leagues such as the Central and Southern Professional Hockey Leagues, which are often billed as “AA” but are largely made up of free agents. The league itself was formed in 1988 as a merger of the short-lived Atlantic Coast and All-American Hockey Leagues. It began with five teams in eastern and southeastern markets, and quickly grew. It, along with the AHL, is one of two minor leagues recognized in the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement, and its players are represented by the Professional Hockey Players Association, a union for minor pro hockey players. Of the active minor pro leagues in the United States, the ECHL is the second-oldest, trailing only the AHL, whose history dates back to the 1930s (and had a team in Indianapolis from 1939-52).
The ECHL’s absorption of the western teams into the Western Conference has provided for an unusual split, with about 2/3 of the teams in the old Eastern Conference and the rest in the west. That was rectified this summer with realignment, but the seven teams in the west (including one – the Colorado Eagles – who were originally to compete in the Fuel’s division) rarely play any of the teams based east of the Mississippi during the regular season. Things changed a bit with the Oct. 7 announcement that the ECHL is absorbing the seven Central Hockey League teams, forcing a late realignment and turning the ECHL into a 28-team league.
The schedule is unbalanced and favor geographical matchups – for example, the Fuel will play approximately half of their 72-sgame schedule against four teams — Fort Wayne, Evansville, Kalamazoo and Cincinnati. They will not play any of the seven western teams at all during the regular season, and play most of the teams in the south twice during the year.
Because of the limited cross-conference play and the different makeup of the teams — three of the seven western teams have their heritage in the now-defunct WCHL, while the eastern teams draw their heritage from an ECHL that has built itself on NHL affiliations — each has developed its own character. It’s very similar to MLB in the days before interleague play. The Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, citing Komets players who had played in both conferences, notes that the Eastern teams are generally younger and play a more skilled, wide-open game, the Western teams generally older and more physical.
The ECHL is the second tier of the two leagues — along with the AHL — of the NHL’s development pyramid. All of the 21 existing ECHL teams (before this week’s expansion) have NHL & AHL affiliations, and several teams have two. The seven teams coming over from the CHL were largely independent, with two teams (Brampton and Quad City) having NHL affiliations. However, because both Brampton (Tampa Bay) and Quad City (Minnesota) were affiliated with NHL teams who already had agreements with ECHL teams, they (and the rest of the ex-CHL teams) are currently listed as independents.
A few franchises will be familiar to Indy fans — the Cincinnati Cyclones, Fort Wayne Komets, Kalamazoo Wings, Orlando Solar Bears and Utah Grizzlies are descendants of teams that used to compete against the Indianapolis Ice in the IHL. In addition, the Colorado Eagles are descendants of an Indianapolis Ice CHL opponent. Also, Toledo is a former IHL city from the days of the Checkers and Ice. Among the CHL teams who joined the league in October, the Wichita Thunder and Tulsa Oilers are familiar foes — Tulsa and the Ice played a legendary playoff series with a legendary fifth game in 2000.
A few other notes about the ECHL:
- Teams may carry 20 active players, and dress 18 for each game — 16 skaters and two goaltenders (they are allowed 21 players for the first month of the season). By comparison, NHL teams are generally allowed to roster 23 players and dress 20 (18 skaters/2 goaltenders), allowing for four forward lines and three defense pairings. The USHL, where the Ice play, has the same roster rules as the NHL. As a result, ECHL teams will often skate with three forward lines instead of four, meaning more ice time for players.
- Teams are limited to four veterans (players who have played at least 260 professional games – or essentially, players who have played more than four professional seasons). Veteran limits have been a key part of “AA” minor pro hockey to keep the developmental nature of the league at heart. Currently, the Fuel have two veterans — Mike Duco and Garrett Klotz.
- Teams are stocked in two ways: through having players assigned by the parent club, and by signing free agents. There is no draft in minor pro hockey. Often, ECHL teams receive a handful of players tied with each NHL parent (and possibly more who are under contract directly with the AHL affiliate), and fill out the rest of the roster with free-agent players. Because of NHL roster limits and the fact that there is no unaffiliated league between the ECHL and NHL, many of the top minor-league free agents are in the ECHL.
- In 2014-15, ECHL teams have a salary cap of $12,200 per week ($12,615 for the first month) and a salary floor of $9,100 per week (the cap averages out to $610/week per player). Individual players must be paid at least $415/week (rookies) or $460/week (players with >25 professional games). The salary cap is slightly higher in the first month because teams are allowed to carry an extra player.
- The ECHL shootout is five rounds, rather than the three used in the NHL and USHL (before the NHL instituted a three-round shootout in 2005, virtually every North American league that used the shootout used a five-round version. The ECHL simply has retained that existing five-round version). Teams do play 4-on-4 overtime for five minutes prior to the shootout, which has become the standard in North American hockey at virtually all levels. This (and the limitation of using 16 skaters in a game) is really the lone major change between the ECHL and NHL rulebooks concerning gameplay.
- Like the NHL (but unlike the USHL, which the Indiana Ice played in the last 10 years), the ECHL has the “trapezoid” rule where goaltenders may not play the puck below the goal line outside of a trapezoid that starts 6′ outside each goalpost.
- Also like the NHL (but unlike the USHL), a player shooting the puck over the glass from the defensive zone will result in a minor penalty, whether intentional or unintentional.
- Teams play a 72-game schedule (36 home, 36 away) that runs from mid-October through mid-April, and is followed by a 16-team playoff. The top four teams in each division were set to qualify for the postseason, but the divisional alignment and playoff format are set to change with the absorption of CHL teams. All playoff series are best-of-7, as in the NHL.
- The championship trophy is called the Kelly Cup, named for inaugural ECHL commissioner Patrick Kelly. It was renamed in 1996 – the original trophy was the Riley Cup, named after former Southern Hockey League & International Hockey League leader Jack Riley. The Alaska Aces are the defending Kelly Cup champs.
- The ECHL announced in June going to a new playoff structure this year, which will look very familiar to fans of the 1980s NHL. The top four teams in each division will make the postseason. The first two rounds of the 16-team tournament will be played entirely within the division. The two division winners within each conference will play in the Conference Finals, with the conference champs playing for the Kelly Cup. Like in the NHL, all series are best-of-7.
ECHL structure (for 2014-15, updated 3 p.m. Oct. 9)
This is going to change as the ECHL absorbed seven Central Hockey League teams this week and has yet to announce a new division and playoff structure. The new division structure and playoff format are set to be announced at 3 p.m. Oct. 9.
North Division (7): Indy Fuel (Chicago), Cincinnati Cyclones (Florida/Nashville), Fort Wayne Komets (Colorado), Evansville IceMen (Ottawa), Kalamazoo Wings (Columbus/Vancouver), Toledo Walleye (Detroit), Wheeling Nailers (Montreal/Pittsburgh)
East Division (7): Elmira Jackals (Buffalo), Florida Everblades (Carolina/Tampa Bay), Greenville Road Warriors (NY Rangers), Gwinnett Gladiators (Arizona), Orlando Solar Bears (Toronto), Reading Royals (Philadelphia), South Carolina Stingrays (Boston/Washington)
Central Division (7): Allen Americans, Brampton Beast (Tampa Bay), Missouri Mavericks, Quad City Mallards (Minnesota), Rapid City Rush, Tulsa Oilers, Wichita Thunder (all independent)
Pacific Division (7): Alaska Aces (St. Louis/Minnesota), Bakersfield Condors (Edmonton), Colorado Eagles (Calgary), Idaho Steelheads (Dallas), Ontario Reign (Los Angeles/Winnipeg), Stockton Thunder (NY Islanders), Utah Grizzlies (Anaheim)
Former Central Hockey League teams (7):
NHL teams without a direct ECHL affiliation: New Jersey, San Jose. While these teams do not have a working agreement with any current ECHL teams, they may at times make players available to ECHL teams. The Fuel currently have one player from the San Jose system – defenseman Nick Jones.