HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. — Over the past three decades, the ordinarily chaotic landscape of minor professional hockey sees a significant paradigm shift every few years. We saw the consolidation of small eastern leagues into the East Coast Hockey League during the 1980s. The 1990s saw a tremendous southern expansion of the sport, growing the game in non-traditional markets throughout the Gulf South.
At the turn of the millennium, we experienced the IHL/AHL merger followed by the western expansion of the ECHL (and subsequent dropping of the ‘East Coast’ moniker). Fifteen years ago, several southern teams branched out into the new realm of Single-A level pro hockey, while teams in the midwest competed with the ECHL for AA-level supremacy.
This decade we witnessed the ECHL absorb the old Central Hockey League, creating a monopoly of AA-pro hockey in North America. Also, the American Hockey League expanded to the west coast while the ECHL crept eastward.
Today, the landscape of minor pro hockey makes its most radical paradigm shift yet.
In a joint announcement from the Southern Professional Hockey League’s headquarters in Huntersville, North Carolina, SPHL President Jim Combs and outgoing ECHL Commissioner Brian McKenna announce the consolidation of North America’s premier single-A and double-A leagues into the largest hockey league the continent has seen – the SPECHL.
“Since the ECHL/CHL merger, we have secretly partnered with the ECHL in blurring the boundaries between single-A and double-A professional hockey,” said Combs. “Each season, we have managed to successfully send an increasing number of players from the SPHL to the ECHL.”
The player migration between leagues reached an apex over the 2017-18 season, with 97 different players – over 50% of the SPHL league roster capacity – spending time in the ECHL. Over 40 of these players continue to play in the AA league, including Evansville Thunderbolts/Idaho Steelheads goaltender Tomas Sholl, who has rapidly become the most dominant netminder in pro hockey.
“We have had this consolidation in the works for a couple of years,” mentioned McKenna. “At the end of the 2016-17 season, the executives from the ECHL and SPHL met in Las Vegas. It was here where we drafted the SPECHL initiative to pave the way for possible consolidation.”
The SPECHL (pronounced “Special”) initiative is simple: Take a selection of teams from the ECHL and saturate them with players from the SPHL, then deliver even more SPHL personnel throughout the ECHL – making coaches, players, and fans familiar with the southern league’s players.
“I nearly fell out of my chair when I first heard about this,” said Combs. “I knew this was a huge opportunity for southern hockey to return to prominence, especially after how fans embraced the (NHL) Nashville Predators during last season’s playoffs.”
The SPECHL faced its first test early in the 2017-18 season when the Predators ended their affiliation with the Norfolk Admirals. With the depletion of the Admirals’ roster, the SPHL sent several of their players to Norfolk to play for Robbie Ftorek. The Admirals remained competitive in the ECHL South division. Subsequent SPECHL pilot programs in Greenville, Rapid City, and Quad City also proved successful.
During a series of secret winter meetings, the idea of merging the leagues was brought up to a vote. ECHL and SPHL owners had the option of either maintaining the status quo or consolidating the associations into a single entity.
McKenna was not surprised with the outcome of the initial vote, stating, “It made so much sense to bring the SPHL into the fold. Jimmy (Combs) did such a great job campaigning for his league to the other ECHL owners; I knew the approval would be a landslide decision and a watershed moment for pro hockey as a whole.”
The next decision by the leagues’ owners was a complete surprise to McKenna. “After Jimmy sprung for a night out at Cheetahs,” disclosed an anonymous ECHL executive, “we really got the hard sell.” The executive continued about Combs’ visionary proposal, “Once we ran the numbers and realized what a great deal it was, we almost fell out of our chairs. Good thing those helpful young ladies were restraining us in place.”
By the time a league vote was held on the final day of winter meetings, the decision was made – the ECHL, as we once knew it, was no longer going to exist. By a 22-5 margin (the AHL-bound Colorado Eagles abstained from the vote,) the ECHL elected to be consolidated with the SPHL.
A new league – the SPECHL – was born.
“We had a bit of an insurrection from the northeastern teams,” said an unnamed SPHL coach, “but we didn’t want those damn Yankees in our league anyway.” The Adirondack Thunder, long rumored to be SPHL-bound before any talk of a merger, led the ill-fated revolution. A bit of compromise was reached with the SPECHL and the “other” Thunder – Adirondack, along with the Brampton Beast, Maine Mariners, Manchester Monarchs, and Worcester Railers – would retain the ECHL moniker.
The five separatists would need a sixth partner, or players in the remnant league would have visa problems. Fortunately, the league would find a willing partner in Newfoundland, where St. John’s – a former AHL stalwart – volunteered to make the drop to the ECHL. The six teams in the new ECHL took a page from the league’s old playbook and made the acronym stand for something again. Next season, the ECHL will stand for the Essentially Canadian Hockey League.
The 32-team SPECHL will divide into eight four-team divisions in two conferences, similar to the National Football League. Although the league has yet announced the divisional alignment – a first for SPHL teams but familiar to the ECHL – we have a good idea as to how the SPECHL will sort itself out.
|Way Out West||Southwest||Northwest||Kanye West|
|Quad City||Kansas City||Cincinnati||Huntsville|
|Northwest||Northeast||Literally Atlanta||Hurricane Bait|
“As you can tell, the new divisional alignment will greatly reduce travel during divisional games,” said Combs, remaining steady in his chair, “Even Peoria can’t complain about this.”
“Well, except for Quad City. The other ECHL teams think of them as turncoats for quitting the league early, so we’re sticking them with the long road trips,” disclosed the new SPECHL boss.
The SPECHL will adopt the 72-game regular season as used in the former ECHL, much to the delight of the league’s SPHL contingent. One southern owner mentioned, “Once we realized we would have eight more home games, shooooot… that’s eight more sellouts for us, baby!”
Once the playoffs begin, the SPECHL will adopt a truly revolutionary method to determine its postseason champion, who will be awarded the new Brophy-Bechard Cup, named after legendary coaches from both the ECHL and SPHL.
SPECHL Commissioner Combs explains how he got the idea for the SPECHL’s new and innovative playoff system. “I was munching out at Waffle House with (RiverKings coach) Derek Landmesser, and he was telling me about this crazy playoff system that this Dave Lozo fellow thought up. Once I read it, I fell out of my chair! There I was, on a greasy Waffle House floor, thinking to myself, ‘Messer’s lost his damn mind. We’re sticking with my Challenge Round.'”
The 2019 SPECHL Challenge Round Show will be nationally broadcast after the 2018-19 regular season on ESPN 8 “The Ocho.” The top eight finishers in each conference to “draft” their first-round playoff opponent from the ninth through 16th place teams for a three-game series at the arena of the higher-seeded team.
“Now that’s what I call a home-ice advantage,” quipped Combs.
The remainder of the B-B Cup Playoffs will be played utilizing the best-of-seven series format familiar to every other professional league.
“Personally, I’m not a fan of these long series,” said Combs, himself a fan of three-game postseason sets, “but I guess we had to make some compromises with the ECHL converts.”
The first major SPECHL event will be the upcoming ECHL Dispersal Draft in late June. To distribute talent throughout the league, each of the existing ECHL teams will protect three players from their season-ending rosters. The SPHL teams will hold a five-round draft from the remaining player pool.
“We wanted to give these parasitic ECHL teams a little taste of their own medicine,” confessed an SPHL coach. “They’ve been taking from us for years, and now it’s time to collect some debts,” said the bench boss.
When the league begins play in October, fans will be delighted to know their favorite players won’t be heading to the American Hockey League to fill their roster needs. The SPECHL has decided to dissolve all affiliations that ECHL teams had with their parent AHL franchises.
“We’re done dealing with middlemen,” said an owner of an ECHL team. “From now on, we either send our guys straight to the NHL or not at all. We’ve been burned so many times by the AHL, our butts are still smoking.”
Finally, the outgoing ECHL commissioner had this reflection. “This league consolidation really seems to be a winning proposition for all of minor professional hockey. It’s unfortunate this is just Campos’ annual April Fools Day joke on everyone.”
We hope you enjoyed our little bit of fun this April Fools Day! From all of us at The Sin Bin, may you and your families have some good-natured fun this April Fools Day and a Happy Easter!