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AHL Coming to California

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(Originally published at Inside Hockey)

The American Hockey League has heard the call: “go west, young league, go west.” Beginning next season, the AHL will move five teams into California. This AHLien invasion will put an end to the Worcester Shuttle, a nickname for flying Sharks players back and forth cross-country for mid-season call-ups. The Sharks were not the only team struggling under a system that had the vast majority of AHL teams located on the east coast. For west coast hockey fans, and California fans in particular, it is good news. For some AHL fans, it is a sad day.

Thursday, the AHL and the NHL held a press conference at SAP Center to announce that the San Jose Sharks, the Anaheim Ducks, the Edmonton Oilers, the Calgary Flames and the Los Angeles Kings will be moving their AHL teams to the Golden State. Present were Bill Daly, David Andrews, Brad Treliving, Kevin Lowe, Luc Robitaille, Doug Wilson, John Tortora, Bob Murray, and Michael Schulman.

The list of teams that will move includes the Adirondack Flames, who were just moved to Glens Falls, NY last season, after the Adirondack Phantoms became the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. The Worcester Sharks, Manchester Monarchs, Norfolk Admirals, and Oklahoma City Barons fill out the balance of the teams that will form a new Pacific Division of the AHL. The Barons and the Monarchs currently sit at the top of their respective conference standings. The AHL is sending some good teams west.

The Oilers’ AHL franchise will play in Bakersfield, the Flames’ AHL team will move to Stockton, and the Kings’ AHL team will be in Ontario. As for the ECHL teams currently playing in those locations, Luc Robitaille of the LA Kings said that their Ontario ECHL team will be moving to Manchester to fill the void left by the Monarchs’ departure. San Jose’s team will play at the SAP Center, while Anaheim’s team will move to San Diego.

AHL President and CEO David Andrews spoke first, giving the audience a rundown of the development relationship between the AHL and the NHL. The AHL has long been the primary development league for the NHL, with 90% of current NHL players having played in the AHL. Many NHL coaches and all officials spent time in the AHL.

Andrews announced that earlier this week, the Ducks’ purchase of their AHL franchise had been approved, putting them in the same group as the Oilers, the Kings, the Flames, and the Sharks, as AHL team owners. Approval for the relocation of the five teams followed the sale. Andrews then addressed the fans of the teams being relocated:

I want to thank our fans and all of those individuals who supported the AHL in Adirondack, in Norfolk, in Manchester, Worcester and Oklahoma City. This transition in the pro hockey landscape is important for our sport. We’re confident though that in the near future fans in those cities that we are departing will continue to enjoy a high level of minor professional hockey. We’re very thankful for their longstanding support of our league.

Sharks COO John Tortora spoke next. He lauded the growth of hockey in California over the past decades. He then summarized the development advantages of having AHL Sharks train and play so close to the NHL Sharks: fans will get to see the AHL players before they reach the NHL, expanding interest in the organization. The management and coaching staff will have greater access to prospects, and players will be better prepared for the NHL environment by living and working in it. On the decision to locate the team in San Jose, Tortora emphasized the organization’s desire to make the AHL franchise beneficial to the community, in terms of added jobs and opportunities in San Jose.

Tortora also thanked Worcester for being a supportive market:

We spent ten incredible years in Worcester, it is an incredible hockey market adn should have a new hockey team in the near future. This relocation is not a reflection on the Worcester market, rather it is one where we look forward to ending our last season in Worcester making it a very successful one and then building the program here in San Jose.

After the presentation, Tortora answered a few more questions about the new venture. Tickets to the AHL games will be on a par with other AHL prices, making professional hockey more accessible to a new audience.

Having the AHL team play at SAP Center may not be a long-term arrangement but there are no plans at this time to move it elsewhere. I asked if plans to expand the practice and skating facility at Sharks Ice were in the works. I wondered if there was a chance that this could become a new home for the AHL team. That looks unlikely at this point, from Tortora’s answer:

We’ve looked at expanding Sharks Ice by two sheets of ice over the last three or four years, but the timing wasn’t right for us to do that. But we’re still looking to add more ice, in the Bay Area.

If the Sharks are planning to build a home for their AHL team, they are keeping mum about it. Those of us who would like to have an AHL team come to our town can still hope.

“This is an unbelievable day for hockey in California,” began Ducks GM Bob Murray. He explained that he had been wanting to get this move done since 2005. The Ducks will have their AHL team in San Diego, an easy commute from Anaheim for players, management and coaches. As for the importance of the AHL to the Ducks, he pointed out that there are only two players on their current roster who did not play in the AHL at some point. Murray described what a boon the move will be for himself and the other California team GMs:

I can get up out of bed, and instead of go to watch our team practice, I can drive down the coast, which is kind of nice, and go to San Diego and watch my minor league team practice. There’s no price tag you can put on that. That is just so valuable, to your players and to you. It exposes you to them and them to you.

Adding to the narrative about hockey growing in California, Murray pointed to the southern California high-school league that they started five years ago. They started with two teams and today have 41.

Kevin Lowe, Oilers President of Hockey Operations & Vice Chair OEG spoke next. He also applauded the growth of hockey in California, and the AHL move. “We won’t have the luxury of driving down the coast to see our American League team but we know that the players are going to really benefit from the proximity of the teams.” In Oklahoma, their nearest opponent was a six-hour bus ride away. The new location will give the team 20-25 extra practice days, due to decreased travel time.

Calgary Flames General Manager Brad Treliving spoke next, re-emphasizing the value of the AHL to NHL players development. He praised Glens Falls as a wonderful hockey market, but came back to the disadvantage of cross-country travel for call-ups and management: “those cross-country flights, dealing with a different time zone, when you play a game on Friday night and you need a guy on Saturday, there’s challenges involved with it, there’s a lot of challenges.”

He also thanked the fans and others in Glens Falls:

I want to echo everybody’s thought that, as exciting as this is from a hockey standpoint, from a development standpoint, we do understand and recognize that there’s markets today that are losing a team. And that’s a difficult thing, when people invest both financially and emotionally, it’s a hard thing. So I do want to thank those people, the fans in Glens Falls that have supported our team over the course of this year and we’re hopeful that we can have a strong finish.

Kings’ President of Business Operations, Luc Robitaille spoke next, saying how impressive it was that these five teams could work together for this move. He particularly praised Bill Daly, Gary Bettman and David Andrews: “They found a way to get us all together and get us in a room and make sure we got a deal done.” He thanked Manchester too, and said that Manchester will be getting another team. As mentioned above, that team will be the one currently playing in Ontario.

NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly spoke last. “It is a great day for hockey in California. There’s no doubt, I was thinking about it this morning, this doesn’t happen ten years ago, fifteen years ago. It’s really the efforts of our franchises in California, growing hockey.” He credited Andrews for his efforts to coordinate the move, and thanked the five NHL clubs for their willingness to negotiate.”They presented a united front, and as a result we were able to get this done.”

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