CHARLOTTE, N.C. – While the lawn behind Charlotte’s Bojangles Entertainment Complex is littered with moving and storage units, one thing is abundantly clear: the relationship between Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon and Charlotte Checkers owner Michael Kahn appears to have run its course.
PLANTING THE AFFILIATION TREE IN THE CAROLINAS
In 2018, Dundon was introduced as majority owner of the Hurricanes. At that time, Charlotte was Carolina’s AHL affiliate and the Florida Everblades was its ECHL affiliate. In 2019, it was announced that the Greenville Swamp Rabbits would be the new ECHL affiliate for the Hurricanes, thus having all three teams within 265 miles of each other. “Hockey in the Carolinas” was the moniker given to this new alliance of hockey powers.
In 2019, the Hurricanes made a surprising run to the NHL Eastern Conference Finals. The Checkers, who dominated the AHL regular season, took care of business by winning the Calder Cup in five games over the Chicago Wolves (CAUTION: foreshadowing in progress).
A SHIFT IN INTERESTS
As the 2019-2020 NHL and AHL seasons began, both teams were excited to build from their respective successes just months earlier. Then, the unexpected happened. In March 2020, the NHL and AHL seasons (along with all other sports leagues) ceased operations due to COVID-19. It was then rumored that the Hurricanes were nearing completion on a new AHL affiliation with the — you guessed it — aforementioned Chicago Wolves.
This came as quite a surprise, considering the current landscape of NHL and AHL affiliations has revolved around closer proximity and strong relationships between the NHL parent team and its AHL affiliate club. The AHL’s Pacific Division realignment in 2015 was seemingly designed to lower organizational costs through lessened travel and transportation expenses.
The exact opposite approach seems to be taking place between the Hurricanes and Checkers.
Home ice for the Hurricanes, PNC Arena, is a mere 163 miles from where the Checkers play at Bojangles Coliseum — about a two hour and fifteen minute drive on Interstates 85 and 40. That same two hour and fifteen minutes of drive time may now be spent in the air between Raleigh and Chicago if Carolina changes its affiliation from the Checkers to the Wolves next season.
COUNTING THE COSTS
As with any business, the main objective is to lower the bottom line and maximize profits. Sports are no different. In theory, this strategy is adopted by an organization in the hopes of presenting the best possible product for the fans and sponsors who keep the doors open and lights on in the arena.
That said (and COVID-19 airfare pricing notwithstanding), the cost of a one-way airline ticket from Chicago to Raleigh is nearly 20-30 times the cost of fuel from Charlotte to Raleigh. The Checkers have been rumored to become affiliated with the Florida Panthers for 2020-21, so similarly, a one-way flight from Miami to Charlotte can range from $250-300. As players are called-up and sent down between NHL and AHL teams several times per season, those costs can easily add up.
It is also worth noting these airfare prices require advance notice, normally a two- to three-week lead time. Airfare may increase as flights are booked at a moment’s notice. Most ECHL/AHL flights are booked in real-time due to call-ups (injuries, healthy scratches, etc).
As every decision has a trickle-down effect, these costs also come in to play between the ECHL and AHL teams who fall under their NHL affiliate. For example, if the Swamp Rabbits signed an affiliation agreement with Carolina and the Chicago Wolves for 2020-21, they would have to fly their AHL call-ups to Chicago. With the Checkers this past year, it used to be a 90-minute drive north to Charlotte on Interstate 85.
As the Florida Panthers do not currently have an ECHL affiliate, these additional costs would not apply. However, the ECHL’s Norfolk Admirals are currently without an affiliate (independent). One may deduce the two teams could come to terms on an affiliation agreement next year, but it’s all conjecture at this point in time.
Unfortunately, the spending doesn’t end at transportation costs. Every team effected will need to create logos and marketing campaigns to showcase these new affiliations. Team jerseys will also have a new look and feel, with patches and often times re-worked color schemes to align themselves with parent team’s colors.
QUESTIONS LEFT UNANSWERED
Why accrue these costs for the sake of changing affiliates? Neither the Checkers nor Hurricanes have released official statements as to why the sudden change. Conspiracy theories and speculation have run amok across social media as fans try desperately to understand the reasoning behind such a perceived “nonsense move”.
“While we are aware that the Carolina Hurricanes are nearing an affiliation agreement with the AHL’s Chicago Wolves, the Hurricanes have had little dialogue with us regarding this matter.
“In an era when NHL teams are placing great value on affiliations with closer proximity between the two clubs, we understand the confusion that such a move would cause.
“We will explore other options for our affiliation and look forward to continuing in the American Hockey League when play resumes.”
“Hockey in the Carolinas” has proven to be a fabricated slogan created to promote a loyalty to its fans that simply doesn’t seem to exist at the ownership level. For now, we wait. Wait for the puck to drop next season, and ultimately, wait for the dominoes to fall as an inevitable shake-up in the Carolinas is sorted out.