WICHITA, Kan. – It’s better late than never, but it feels good to be talking about hockey again. The 33rd and most unique ECHL hockey season will get started Friday night, with 13 teams beginning the first leg of a 10-game sprint that will take them to January 15. The season will continue after that, but whether we add five more teams to the mix remains the subject of great discussion.
There are many questions about how the ongoing – and worsening – pandemic will impact the sport, everything from economics to the on-ice product. This article will mix those questions and a look at what we could see on the ice.
1. Where Do Things Stand Now?
Here’s what we know now: 13 teams start the season Friday and will play a full 72-game schedule. Two additional teams, Fort Wayne and Toledo, have until February to determine whether they can play this season.
Eleven teams; Adirondack, Atlanta, Brampton, Cincinnati, Kalamazoo, Idaho, Maine, Newfoundland, Norfolk, Reading, and Worcester have opted-out of the 2020-21 season due to the ongoing pandemic.
All players signed by the opt-out teams are now be declared free agents.
Currently, the situation on the ground is not good. In Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio Friday, the states combined for 27,438 new Coronavirus cases and 249 COVID-related deaths; while in Idaho, they racked up 1,938 new cases and had 18 reported COVID-related deaths.
2. Will We See Reduced Attendance Across the ECHL All Season?
This is a question with an easy “short” answer, yes. Attendance figures will be judged by the situation in each state and city.
Right now, there will be limited attendance at nearly every site in the league, except for Rapid City. From our best research, here is a breakdown of the expected attendance caps in ECHL arenas for opening night:
Allen – 2,150
Florida – 5,386
Greenville – 3,925
Indy – 1,625
Jacksonville – 4,000
Kansas City – 2,169
Orlando – TBD
Rapid City – Full-house
South Carolina – 2,700
Tulsa – 4,300
Utah – 1,800
Wichita – No fans until at least January 9, 2021
Wheeling – 1,500 – but season ticket holders only allowed for first three games
Multiple vaccines are on the way over the next few weeks and months. Still, those will be designated for front-line workers, first-responders, and other high-risk people before the general public will have the ability to access them. According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the earliest hockey could see full arenas is by the start of next season (October), if everything goes to plan:
“We’re gonna be vaccinating the highest-priority people (from) the end of December through January, February, March,” Fauci said. “By the time you get to the general public, the people who’ll be going to the games, who don’t have any underlying conditions, that’s gonna be starting the end of April, May, June.
“So it probably will be well into the end of the summer before you can really feel comfortable (with full sports stadiums) – if a lot of people get vaccinated. I don’t think we’re going to be that normal in July. I think it probably would be by the end of the summer.”
Until then, social distancing, masks, and hand washing will continue to be mandated in arenas across the league. While arenas and the league are doing everything they can to mitigate the risk to the paying consumer, ultimately, it will come down to each person’s threshold for what they feel is safe.
3. What About the NHL & AHL? What Impacts Will it Have on the ECHL?
Let’s start to peel this onion back by looking at one layer: affiliations.
Currently, Greenville (9), Orlando (8), Florida (6), South Carolina (6), Allen (4), Utah (4), and Wheeling (3) are the only ECHL teams with multiple NHL & AHL contracted players on their rosters, with Allen and Greenville each fielding players from two different NHL organizations. It’s easy to assume each of the 13 teams starting Friday night would have a bushel full of contracted players on their rosters, but that’s not the case.
There are two reasons for this: First, many NHL clubs sent their prospects over to Europe to get in work because of the uncertainty of whether hockey would be played at all and when in North America. One deadline to watch comes on January 2, when players in Europe have to be back in the United States to play this season. If parent clubs pull their players back by that date, then there is a chance we could see them in the ECHL this season.
Second, with the AHL not starting for another seven weeks, many players are waiting on the NHL to see what they will do before deciding where to play. There is no doubt that once we get clarity on what’s happening with the NHL season, we’ll see the floodgates open up in the AHL, and there will be a trickle-down effect into the ECHL.
Assuming all 15 teams this season, many AHL affiliates are looking for homes for their prospects.
The onion’s second layer is a looming question: what if some AHL teams don’t play, and what about moving teams to Canada temporarily?
First, the idea of moving Bakersfield (Edmonton), Stockton (Calgary), and Utica (Vancouver) to Canada quickly died on the number cruncher’s desk. As for if all 31 AHL teams will play, AHL president Scott Howson is a realist:
“I can’t say 31 teams will play,” Howson said, “but I am encouraged that there is a strong desire for virtually every one of our teams to play — and to play without any meaningful capacity, too. If you’d have asked me four months ago if we’d be playing without fans I’d have said, ‘That would be really difficult.’ Now, I see there is a pathway to do that.
“It’s going to take a lot of cooperation and some help from our NHL partners, but I see a strong desire from all of our teams to try to find a way to play.”
Much like the opt-in/out-out situation in the ECHL, the AHL’s path to playing will also be dictated by the situation on the ground. Watch this space as things continue to evolve.
The bottom line is the upcoming season could be the best season in ECHL history for the on-ice product.
4. What Storylines Should Fans Follow This Season?
Here are three storylines to watch in the league this season, no matter who plays:
- The framework: For those who remember the CHL/ECHL consolidation in October 2014, that season featured a rotisserie wheel of the same opponents. This season will be similar to that, along with ladeling in a baseball-like schedule, with three-game series being the model. The goal with this is to keep travel at a minimum.
- It will also be interesting to see the 2021 Kelly Cup Playoffs framework, but that won’t be decided until early 2021. The last possible date a game can be played in the playoffs is July 3. With the ECHL regular-season ending on June 6, the range of possibilities for how the playoffs can be done is somewhat limited. For reference, the SPHL’s playoffs are best-of-three’s and three rounds. Those playoffs are generally done within a month.
- New Bench Bosses: The 2020-21 season will begin with four new coaches behind the bench: Andrew Lord (Greenville), Tad O’Had (Kansas City), Ryan Blair (South Carolina), and Mark French (Wheeling). All of these coaches have winning pedigrees; Lord won nine championships across the pond in Great Britain; French won a Calder Cup with Hershey; O’Had has been to a Kelly Cup Final as an assistant coach with Florida, and Blair helped steer the league’s leading defense with South Carolina a season ago. Except for South Carolina, the teams inherited by the new coaches were rebuilding projects. In a season full of change, fanbases shouldn’t use the “Jump to Conclusions” mat to determine a head coach’s value to the franchise.
- Who Wins the Arms Race? I pose this as a question because we won’t know the answer right away. As mentioned above, there’s the chance (nay, likelihood) additional ECHL teams will opt-out, along with the floodgates opening once the NHL & AHL work out their issues. Coaches will constantly be retooling their rosters all year, along with getting their teams in the best possible position for a playoff run. It will be fun to watch as fans, but the coaches and their support staff will need an extra bottle of liquor since they will be the real heroes this season.
5. This Will Be a Season Unlike Any Other…
In years past, once the action on the ice has started, that has been where the focus has gone.
But this year, that’s all different.
Not only will we be looking at what’s going on within the 200 x 85 rink, but we’ll also have to deal with COVID, plus the ongoing and lingering impact it will have on the business of minor league hockey. We will miss our friends in Adirondack, Atlanta, Brampton, Cincinnati, Kalamazoo, Idaho, Maine, Newfoundland, Norfolk, Reading, and Worcester and look forward to having all those teams and their fanbases back soon. It has been gut-wrenching to see so many good people move into a period of uncertainty in their lives thanks to a virus that could have been handled infinitely better.
For fans, if MLB, MLS, college football, and the NFL are any indications, there will be games postponed and/or canceled. But rest assured the league, teams, arenas, and Professional Hockey Players Association are doing everything they can to mitigate the spread of this hideous virus and give us a break from the horror we’re enduring.
Hope is on the horizon, sacrifice is still needed, and there is unforeseen pain yet to endure. One day, soon, we will all be able to gather again, free of attendance restrictions, and focus on the sport that has bonded us together.
Until then, let’s focus on what we’ve got; 13 teams set to start play in four-plus days, an eight-month dash to the Kelly Cup, a short offseason, followed by more hockey in October 2021.
Like we have for the last five years, we’ll be here to tell the story of the 2020-21 ECHL season and all its complexities.
For the latest news on the Wichita Thunder and ECHL, follow Matthew Harding and Matthew Will on Twitter @SinBinThunder.