ORLANDO, FL – Affiliations between teams are one of the most complicated elements of sports, and this is especially the case with minor pro hockey. Agreements are always changing, and, to be successful, they require communication and planning at all levels.
On its surface, pro hockey affiliations seem simple enough You have three levels—the double A level (ECHL), triple A level (AHL), and then the major leagues (NHL)—and within these three levels, there is much player movement and development. Players are shuttled up when they have achieved the level that the higher team wants them at, and they also can be sent down to the lower team if things don’t work out in the upper ranks (such as the player not playing to their full potential or a player needing injury rehabilitation).
What complicates matters are that ECHL teams are typically not owned by their AHL and NHL affiliates, so teams are dependent on a complex web of formal and informal agreements. Formal agreements can last one or more years, with affiliation extensions possible. Seems complex, right?
Well, to some extent it is, but the components that tie into an affiliation are quite simple. This year saw several affiliation changes; such as the New Jersey Devils gaining an affiliate with the Adirondack Thunder, the Edmonton Oilers pairing up with the Wichita Thunder, and the Buffalo Sabres working with the Cincinnati Cyclones. Most notable is the relationship established between the Vegas Golden Knights and the Quad City Mallards.
While affiliation changes are the norm in the ECHL, stable pacts have many plusses. These advantages include the long-term development of players and potential game sponsorships from that team, such as the Indy Fuel’s annual Blackhawks night.
There are four main elements to a strong affiliation: good communication between affiliated franchises, appropriate call-ups and send downs, clearly set goals for players, and a good relationship between the franchises. All of these elements have to be present for an affiliation to flourish.
Element 1: Communication between affiliated franchises
Communication is the key to success, and this is especially true when it comes to affiliated franchises. Communication between the coaches and management of affiliated teams is what drives good relationships.
Coaches and management share information about player development and when players should be called up or sent down. Multiple conversations happen several times a week, if not daily in some instances. ECHL coaches should be kept in the loop about player shifts coming down the pipe, while AHL coaches should receive player updates and candid assessments on performances of players who are down. Affiliations will fall through if there is only haphazard, spotty, or casual communication between affiliates.
Element 2: Appropriate Call-ups/Send-downs
The most important component of affiliations is player development. Affiliations exist primarily to develop players at one level, so they are ready to compete on the higher rungs. At the same time, it is imperative that call-ups and send-downs between levels are appropriate and well planned when possible.
Continuously shifting players between levels and calling up players when they are not ready is not a good way to develop players. It is impossible for a player to improve his game if he is relegated to the bench. The NHL and AHL teams should look to the ECHL for long term development. In practical terms, this means sending a group of young players to the ECHL team with the motive of keeping these players at the ECHL for an extended development period.
The ECHL team owes it to those players to give them extensive on-ice time to work on their skills and to develop their understanding of the game system. Veteran ECHL players and other seasoned ECHL players should be tapped to assist in the development process. And the players should be given regular feedback as to their improvements.
Element 3: Setting goals for players
The players themselves are also an important factor of an affiliation. While calling up players to the next level is the ultimate goal, the players should be striving for more specific stepping-stone goals throughout the season. For example, a player might want to be more consistent in getting assists, and his aim might be to boost their assist-per-game average by a set percentage. To achieve this goal, the player would need to talk with coaching staff about his play and work together with them to make the mark.
The goal setting, in a way, is connected to the communication element. Players’ goals and their progress towards them should be communicated about, and that discussion should involve the player, the player’s ECHL coaches, and the coaches at the AHL level.
Element 4: Good relationship between affiliated franchises
Tying back into the communication component, there also must be a healthy relationship between the affiliated franchises. It can help if there is a history between the franchises, such as a coach who had played for one team in the affiliated trio and who understands the system. ECHL coaches can be involved in training camps. AHL coaches or managers in charge of player development can occasionally visit the ECHL affiliate. The ECHL team should explore theme nights and specialty jerseys to emphasize the relationship.
Above all, the teams should look to the long-term and aim at maturing the relationship. It’s nice to see multi-year agreements in place, since they will add to the stability and allow for more continuity and visionary planning.
The affiliation between the Orlando Solar Bears and the Toronto Maple Leafs/Toronto Marlies has matured and is establishing itself as a model of a stable relationship that benefits all levels. The “Toronto Trio” is coming up on their fourth consecutive season of being affiliate partners, which is a notable achievement, especially considering that Orlando’s affiliation with the Minnesota Wild at the start of the 2012-13 out-of-hibernation season only lasted a year.
In this time, the trio has seen several players develop and (sometimes) eventually get called up. Most notably, in the 2014-15 season, goaltender Garret Sparks was assigned to Orlando for the entirety of the season. Sparks showed much improvement during the season, and was a huge fan favorite amongst the spectators at the Amway Center.
A year later, at the start of the 2015-16 season, Sparks made history with the Maple Leafs, recording a 3-0 shutout in his NHL debut; something which had not been done in the Leafs century-long history until then.
Another example of a player who has developed in the Solar Bears system is Kasimir Kaskisuo. Kaskisuo started out rough with the Solar Bears last year, but as the season went on, he improved greatly. He became more consistent with consecutive games, and his puck control became noticeably better. By the end of the season, he was called up to the Toronto Marlies, and played for the Marlies for the rest of the season, continuing into the postseason.
Kyle Dubas, Assistant General Manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs and General Manager of the Toronto Marlies, deserves much credit for the creation of the healthy relationship. It is clear that he has a thoughtful strategy for the Orlando Solar Bears, and he has used clear goal-setting and regular communication as the cornerstones.
On a side note, the Solar Bears announced on Tuesday that they signed yet another defenseman—Sam Jardine, from the Colorado Eagles. One thing to note is how many defensemen the Solar Bears are getting. In the past few weeks alone, they have signed four defensemen. It is quite evident that head coach Drake Berehowsky is focusing on defense as the anchor for his squad, and it might also be worth noting that two of these defensemen have come from the defending champion Colorado Eagles.
The first blueliner signed from the Eagles is none other than Sean Zimmerman who was captain of the team when it took last year’s Kelly Cup. The defense was a huge factor in Colorado’s championship last season, and Orlando is using the Eagles as a model for their team this upcoming season . . . and it is seizing some of Colorado’s key defensive personnel along the way.
Another notable defenseman joining the Solar Bears ranks is Adam Phillips whose rights were acquired from the Indy Fuel in June as a result of a future considerations deal. He brings an intimidating 6’ 6” presence to the ice, and he has some solid skills for starting defensive zone breakouts.
Rounding out the arsenal of blueliners is Mike Monfredo, a scrappy veteran who has 339 games under his belt. Monfredo will bring some seasoned hockey sense and some clear-out intensity to support the Solar Bears netminders.