Last Friday, the official announcement was made by the AHL that the teams in California– Bakersfield, Ontario, San Diego, San Jose, and Stockton– will play 68 games in the AHL season, while the other 25 teams will play the usual 76-game campaign. Since then, there has been a lot of uproar on all aspects that this make the AHL look a little suspect in why they are bending the rules for the new kids in town and makes some wonder if they tarnishes some of the AHL’s reputation that they have built up going into their 80th season.
Granted, there are some who are close to the situation that knew the schedule for the teams would be reduced or else the move would not have happened in the first place. That said, it doesn’t mean it makes people any less bitter over the situation. One of whom is long-time Hershey Bears’ writer Tim Leone, who did say that it made the league look “rinky-dink” and said that it would be easy to shun those five teams and make allow them to go in their own league– which would be hell for the Professional Hockey Players’ Association; the main union for minor league hockey players. Yet, Leone did have a sobering thought as to why President and CEO of the AHL, David Andrews, and the Board of Governors had to do it.
“Andrews and the Board of Governors let the blood pressure drop and opted for a rational, albeit difficult, choice. It is about preserving the union,” proclaimed Leone. “If they can preserve the union by playing the old 80 games, they’ll play 80 games. If they can preserve the union by playing 76 games, they’ll play 76 games. And if they can preserve the union by 25 teams playing 76 games and five teams playing 68, they will do that.”
And Leone is right by saying that in order to make the AHL still look professional in a tough situation, the AHL had to bend rather than break. The easy decision is to make the new teams coming into the league play by their own rules, though the NHL teams that did what they did was to make life easier on them for call-ups on the West Coast. The AHL is, afterall, a developmental league and for all intents and purposes used to cater to sending players to the NHL.
However, when you look at what one of the premier ECHL teams have to deal with, you wonder why they haven’t been given a break by the league. The Alaska Aces are the furthest west of any ECHL team, with their closest rivals being the Idaho Steelheads, who are just over 2,700 miles away from the Aces from one arena to another. Yet, you have heard no uproar from the Aces to make the schedule shorter for them, nor have the ECHL teams playing made much of a fuss when it comes to going up to Anchorage multiple times a year because they are divisional rivals.
The scheduling for the Aces is pretty simple, so it would seem. When a visiting team comes to town they usually play a three game weekend series over the course of three or four days. When the Aces are on the road, they sometimes return the favor by going by the schedule or, if they are in close proximity to others, they will play multiple teams during their treks out to the Midwest. Some clubs may say that the three games in three days situation will take a lot out of players for playing that much hockey, especially after that much travelling, but it’s not as if the Aces play all their games at home or a relative close distance away. They are hamstrung with the same issues when they are on the road as the teams who come up to visit them in Sullivan Arena.
When you take into account all those things, has there ever been a time where the Aces or the ECHL thought about reducing the scheduling to give some relief in travel to the team or the other teams in the league?? I reached out to the Aces, but as of this writing, have not heard back from them. My second option was to reach out to Anchorage Daily News beat writer Doyle Woody, who has cover the Aces since the WCHL days and been on the full-time beat since 2006. Woody said that he doesn’t recall an instance that the ECHL inquired about the Aces playing fewer games and definitely not the Aces asking for a reduction in their schedule.
While the AHL is a development league, the question becomes– does less games actually help or hinder those players developing in order to make it into the NHL?? While you can practice on systems until you perfect it, the fact remains that the practice speed and game speed greatly differ and while you can perfect something against teammates; when you throw another team in there who can adapt to the situation, it muddles what a team is trying to accomplish. Not only that, but the possibility of the California teams playing each other more than a fair bit of time will also play havoc due to the lack of variety some of these players will see due to not every team coming into the area to play.
In a separate piece gauging reaction from the brass in Hershey, Leone was able to get a comment from Bears’ head coach Troy Mann, who offered up the coaching perspective of it all:
“You hope maybe once everybody gets a feel for the new teams, the new division alignments, that maybe they come to some agreement where everybody can play the same amount of games. It’s not for me to determine that,” stated Mann. “Overall, we can’t really worry about it. We’ve got to just worry about the conference itself. I know they’re trying to avoid the three (games)-in-three (days), but that makes for a lot of practice time. I think there’s a lot of practice time as it is.”
While Yingst and Mann are very hopeful that an evened out schedule across the board will be happening sooner rather than later, you have to wonder if that will happen with the NHL teams pulling the strings. It’s not as if there wasn’t enough time for the AHL to shift around the schedule to give them the eight extra games the California teams needed to be even to the rest of the league, but who knows what went on behind the scenes with the Board of Governors of the teams during the summer meetings. The power they yield will be something that goes unspoken for a while and if there isn’t any change to the schedule for 2016-17 and beyond, then it will become more apparent that the California teams are holding much more power than they probably deserve.