ECHL makes moves official

The ECHL officially announced Friday afternoon that the transfer of three franchises into new markets, as well as the suspension of operations of a fourth.

The league approved the transfer of the Stockton Thunder, Bakersfield Condors and Ontario Reign to Glens Falls, NY; Norfolk, VA.,; and Manchester, NH; respectively. All three teams will replace American Hockey League teams in those communities, as the AHL moved five teams to California, displacing the three ECHL teams currently in the state.

The ECHL approved the transfer of the Thunder to a group owned by the Calgary Flames. They will play in Glens Falls, NY, where the AHL’s Adirondack Flames played this year. The Ontario Reign and Manchester Monarchs will simply flip leagues, as the two franchises are both owned by the same parent company, which also owns the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings. The AHL’s Norfolk Admirals were purchased by the Anaheim Ducks and will move to San Diego. As a result, the ECHL’s Bakersfield Condors – a team affiliated with the Edmonton Oilers – will transfer to Norfolk.

“These transfers represent a major move by the ECHL and a significant transformation of the minor league hockey landscape,” ECHL commissioner Brian McKenna said in a release Friday. “While we are exiting some strong, traditional ECHL markets in California, the move is in the best, long-term interest of hockey and will allow for better alignment in the development system.”

Two other AHL teams moved west – the Edmonton Oilers’ farm club, the Oklahoma City Barons, will move to Bakersfield, displacing the Condors. The Worcester Sharks are moving to San Jose, where they will temporarily share the SAP Center with the parent San Jose Sharks. Officials at the DCU Center, where the AHL Sharks currently play, have said they will likely pursue an ECHL tenant for the building. As of now, however, both Worcester and Oklahoma City are without professional hockey teams for 2015-16.

The move into Glens Falls will be the ECHL’s first in the upstate New York city. The 4,794-seat Glens Falls Civic Center has been home to three different AHL teams – the Adirondack Red Wings (1979-99), Phantoms (2009-14) and Flames (2014-15), as well as a UHL team (Frostbite 2000-06). Manchester will mark the first expansion into New England for the ECHL. The Verizon Wireless Center seats 9,782 and has been the home of the AHL’s Monarchs since it opened in 2001. Manchester has consistently ranked among the AHL’s leaders in attendance.

Norfolk marks the return of the ECHL to a familiar city. The Hampton Roads Admirals played in the ECHL from 1989-2000 before moving to the AHL, and won three league championships. The Norfolk Admirals have been a part of the AHL since 2000 and have won a Calder Cup. They play at the Norfolk Scope, an 8,701-seat arena that opened in 1968.

(Read our commentary on how this move will make the ECHL a stronger league)

The ECHL also announced that the Las Vegas Wranglers, who went into suspension for the 2014-15 season because of the lack of a suitable arena in Las Vegas, have voluntarily withdrawn their franchise from the league.

The ECHL also capped its membership at 30 teams, mirroring the number in the NHL and AHL. Currently, the ECHL has 28 teams, having added eight for the 2014-15 season – the Indy Fuel and seven teams from the former Central Hockey League – and therefore has room to expand by two more franchises if it chooses. A 30-team league would allow each ECHL team to affiliate with one NHL and one AHL club. Currently, 29 of the 30 NHL teams – all except the New Jersey Devils – have affiliations in the ECHL.

Divisional alignments will be announced at a later date. With three teams shifting from the Pacific Division to the Eastern time zone, there will be some shuffling of teams.

The ECHL as of now for 2015-16, broken down by region, with NHL affiliations. Note, this is not an indication of a possible divisional alignment, but just a breakdown of different regions filled by the league.

Northeastern teams (6): Elmira Jackals (BUF), Reading Royals (PHI), Brampton Beast (independent), Wheeling Nailers (PIT/MTL), Adirondack (Flames?), Manchester (Monarchs?)
Southern teams (6): Orlando Solar Bears (TOR), Florida Everblades (CAR/TB), Gwinnett Gladiators (ARI), South Carolina Stingrays (WAS/BOS), Greenville Road Warriors (NYR), Norfolk (Admirals?)
Midwestern teams (8): Indy Fuel (CHI), Kalamazoo Wings (CBJ/VAN), Fort Wayne Komets (COL), Evansville IceMen (OTT), Cincinnati Cyclones (NSH/FLA), Toledo Walleye (DET), Quad City Mallards (MIN), Missouri Mavericks (independent)
Great Plains teams (4): Allen Americans (SJ), Rapid City Rush (independent), Tulsa Oilers (independent), Wichita Thunder (independent)
Mountain teams (4): Utah Grizzlies (ANA), Idaho Steelheads (DAL), Alaska Aces (STL/MIN), Colorado Eagles (CAL)