Commentary: Minor pro shuffle good for Indy, ECHL

It’s been the worst-kept secret in hockey – the American Hockey League is set to move to California, with four East Coast-based teams and one in Oklahoma making the announcement in a press conference in San Jose this afternoon. A league whose base has been the East Coast since it began in 1936, and whose first westward expansion was to Indianapolis in 1939 (and, for many years, whose westernmost teams were in places like Pittsburgh and upstate New York) is going coast-to-coast.

The move is largely to mirror the footprint of the parent National Hockey League, a 30-team coast-to-coast league that spans the U.S. and Canada. Since the AHL became the sole “Triple-A” league after the International Hockey League’s 2002 demise, it has made sense that West Coast teams have West Coast farm clubs, and the “A” has been at 30 teams for quite some time.

And yet, for this move to happen, the ECHL’s presence on the West Coast is going to be significantly altered, as three California teams in Bakersfield, Ontario and Stockton are going to be displaced by the AHL affiliates of the Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings and Calgary Flames (the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks are also moving their teams into San Jose and San Diego, two cities currently without minor pro teams).

For the ECHL, though, this could become a net positive, especially for us in Indy.

The ECHL has been in the process of consolidating the “Double-A” level of minor league hockey for several years, absorbing the entire West Coast Hockey League in 2003, and then adding individual teams from the old Central and the second International Hockey League (the league previously known as the United and Colonial Hockey Leagues) such as Elmira, Fort Wayne, Evansville and Kalamazoo. The IHL2 and CHL (which merged with the old Western Professional Hockey League more than a decade ago) merged a few years back, and this fall, the ECHL inhaled the remaining seven CHL teams.

With the WCHL expansion, the ECHL basically was two leagues – a league in its historical base in the Southeast and Upper Midwest, and the remnants of the WCHL on the west coast, with very little in-between the Mississippi River and Rocky Mountains.

That all changed this fall when the seven CHL teams came in – five of which are in the Mississippi River states, based in Kansas, Iowa, Oklahoma, Missouri and Texas. The other two are in South Dakota and southern Ontario, close to the ECHL’s existing Rocky Mountain and Northeastern footprints.

So, as a result, the ECHL became a coast-to-coast league stretching from Alaska to Florida with no gaps in-between, and with the expansion of the Fuel, became a 28-team circuit.

This gets hockey close to a long-desired “30-30-30” arrangement that mirrors baseball – where there are 30 teams at the major-league level, and 30 each at the “Triple-A” and “Double-A” levels, with each team at each level possessing one NHL affiliate.

What comes from loss can lead to gain – the ECHL can consolidate its far-flung western division, which currently includes the three California teams, as well as Alaska, Utah, Idaho and Colorado – by combining it and cross-pollinating the schedule with the relatively-close Central Division.

The ECHL gained three markets on Friday. Manchester, Norfolk and Glens Falls were confirmed by the ECHL – as the relocated Ontario Reign, Bakersfield Condors and Stockton Thunder, respectively.  Worcester’s arena officials have also mentioned courting the ECHL as a tenant at the DCU Center.

One returns to the ECHL after an absence, with Norfolk also fitting close to the two South Carolina teams. The other three give the ECHL an increased presence in the Northeast – including two New England teams for the first time. A fifth vacated AHL market, Oklahoma City, has not been reported to be immediately joining the ECHL, but it would be a natural fit. The OKC Blazers often led the old CHL in attendance and it would be able to reunite with natural rivals Wichita and Tulsa, as well as close-by Missouri (located in suburban Kansas City) and Allen (in suburban Dallas).

Manchester, Elmira, Brampton, Reading and Adirondack (and possibly Worcester) would give the ECHL a significant presence in the northeast – including the New England region that has not yet hosted an ECHL team. Norfolk gives the league a sixth team in the Southeast.

For Indy, it means the Fuel are a part of a strengthened ECHL – a 30-30-30 arrangement means every team has one affiliate, and also would likely lead to closer ties with the NHL and AHL, with most teams fairly close to their affiliates. Expect the westernmost teams to affiliate with the close-by AHL teams, the Plains teams to do the same, and the many teams in the South and Upper Midwest to continue to affiliate with nearby teams. The Fuel have developed a great blueprint with the Chicago Blackhawks organization – using the affiliation to not just gain a few players, but also cross-pollinate by bringing Jim Cornelison, Gene Honda and Bobby Hull to Indy, and gain an immediate fanbase of Blackhawks fans. With Indy also being close to the AHL affiliate in Rockford and the NHL affiliate in Chicago, it’s also easy to shuffle players between teams.

The Worcester Telegram has already suggested such an affiliation with the nearby Boston Bruins for a proposed ECHL team in the city would make sense and help springboard that franchise, if it would come to pass. We’ve seen others – Elmira hooking up with the Buffalo Sabres, for example, and Quad City developing an affiliation with the nearby Iowa Wild of the AHL and Minnesota Wild of the NHL. There are several obvious and natural fits that would further solidify an already strong and stable ECHL.

That can only make for a stronger ECHL, with teams that have a core of close-by opponents and creating largely geographically-compact divisions, thereby allowing for fierce local rivalries to develop like the Fuel are doing with Fort Wayne, Cincinnati and Evansville – but also a coast-to-coast presence.

The real advantage for Indy fans is the potential of bringing in more opponents. This year, the Fuel will play 15 different teams in the 28-team ECHL – the other Eastern Conference teams plus one game each against Central Division teams Allen and Missouri. The 36 home games feature 14 teams, as everyone in the Eastern Conference except Greenville will come to the Indiana Farmers Coliseum. Next year, expect more teams to pass through, especially with Quad City and Missouri closeby. Reportedly, the remaining western teams will each make an eastern roadtrip every year, so we’ll see at least one of those teams pass through the Indiana Farmers Coliseum, and each team in the eastern part of the league will travel west once every three years. Indy’s central location also allows it to be a jumping off point for a Midwestern roadtrip for either the western teams or the new New England ones.

Having a 30-30-30 setup with two coast-to-coast minor pro leagues also creates scarcity – and as a result, stability – in professional hockey. Long gone are the days where there are five “AA” leagues with over 70 teams between them, often with multiple teams in the same markets, planted in every rodeo arena in the Southwest.

Instead, the NHL, AHL and ECHL are all largely in harmony with a solid base of competitive teams, strong markets, strong ownership groups and great leagues at all three levels. Indy has been fortunate to move into minor pro hockey just at the forefront of this sea change in the game, and we’re in a prime position to benefit from an even stronger ECHL.

2 Responses

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