When the last horn sounded on June 13th in Utica Memorial Auditorium, the Monarchs reached the pinnacle of the AHL. They had won Game Five 2-1 to take home their first Calder Cup in franchise history after a dominant regular season that had them take home the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy for top record in the regular season with a 50-17-6-3 record. Yet, earlier in the year, they knew that they wouldn’t be able to defend the Calder Cup in Manchester the next season– a feat that only happened three times prior in the AHL with the New Brunswick Hawks (1982), Buffalo Bisons (1970), and Pittsburgh Hornets (1967).
Despite not having the pomp and circumstance of an on-ice celebration and banner raising during the home-opener, it wasn’t as bittersweet a moment as everyone may think it was. The Monarchs did have a celebration with their fans when they came back from Utica a few days later.
“We were able to have the whole team stay after it was over: staff, players, everyone,” recalls Monarchs’ president Matt Welch during a phone interview with TheSinBin.net this week. “The players and coaches spoke to the fans, signed autographs, and we were able to raise the banner to the rafters as a nice send-off for that team.”
And then, just like that, the team moved from the AHL to the ECHL.
With the foothold the team had in the market, Welch believed that with the support the team had from the fans and local businesses, the Monarchs would be successful in their new league. For the Monarchs, this change was a little bit easier than for other team owners in this situation. With the Los Angeles Kings owning the Monarchs and Ontario Reign for a number of seasons, Welch says that the transition to the ECHL has been a solid one not just because of the Kings, but also those in the ECHL front office.
“Commissioner Brian McKenna and (Senior Vice President of Business Operations) Ryan Crelin were very helpful and proactive in trying to get us to those initial meetings and teaching us the procedures of the league, especially with transactions,” mentioned Welch. “With the Kings, the familiarity has helped. We have a good comfort level with the coaches and scouts from the top down. Even our coach (Richard Seeley) has plenty of experience with the Kings organization, because he was drafted by the team, as well as having experience with Manchester since he played here for five seasons.”
Yet, the change didn’t come without some hiccups from the fan base. When the fans heard about the Monarchs going from the AHL to the ECHL, it definitely raised the eyebrows of some long-time season ticket holders. Welch mentioned there were some fans who were disgruntled enough from the drop down in leagues that they didn’t renew their long-held season tickets. However, there was another faction that didn’t care what league the team was in; they understood some hockey was better than no hockey at all.
Even in the first year of the ECHL, Welch said the projections have been on point with what they had going into the season, though not without a little worry on how some people would react to it.
“While we didn’t know how fans would react, we knew we could be successful with the support we’ve gotten in the past,” says Welch. “The sales we’ve had have been the best in about five years and has made up a little for the gap in people we did lose in the move to the ECHL.”
As the ECHL is moving a little more into the Northeast, especially with a possible team going into Worcester, Massachusetts in 2017, Welch believes that those moves will help in terms of travel times and expenses, as well as helping break up some of the monotony of the schedule with the three-in-three mini-series that are currently happening with the Monarchs schedule.
The Monarchs had quite the tenure in the AHL winning 600 games in 14 seasons, while making the playoffs in every season but one. The team helped produce the likes of Derek Forbort, Martin Jones, Alec Martinez, Tanner Pearson, and Jonathan Quick for their NHL careers. With Matt White and Zac Larraza already performing well enough in Manchester to move up the pipeline, the hope is that others like Matt Leitner, Maxim Kitsyn, and Gasper Kopitar will help continue the trend of players who have sustainable NHL careers after their time in Manchester.