WICHITA, Kan. – It’s hard to believe, but in just a few short hours, we will kick off the third decade of the new millennium. Remember when we were young, time seemed to drag on and on? Now as adults, time seems to move at warp speed, and that seems weird to me. But alas, here we are.
The 2010s will go down as a transformational period in the landscape across minor league hockey. While the quality of play on the ice has increased, you’ll have to look pretty far beyond the arenas where the game is played to see where the real change was made; in the board rooms and meetings between leagues and team brass.
I’ll get to the top five stories of the last decade in a bit, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t include a couple of honorable mentions in the piece:
AHL TV Revamp and how it Affects Minor League Hockey
The American Hockey League had grown tired of working with the archaic, overpriced and at times, spotty, service provided by Neulion. In September 2018, the league announced an enhanced partnership with HockeyTech to change the way fans of the AHL watched its product.
“AHLTV reflects the high standards that our fans and stakeholders have come to expect from the American Hockey League, and HockeyTech shares our vision of bringing the excitement of AHL hockey as an enhanced digital experience to fans who can’t make it to the rink,” said AHL President and Chief Executive Officer, David Andrews.
Two of the most significant developments from the expanded partnership are the new, lower, pricing points and the addition of numerous supported devices. AHL Live’s regular-season all-access package cost $349.99, while AHL TV’s is a much more accessible $79.99. A daily all-access package is $6.99, or about the price for a single game on the AHL Live feed. Team packages are $59.99 for a full season single team pass, or $39.99 for a home or away single team pass.
The old AHL Live platform only supported computer or mobile app streaming, but HockeyTech provides a product that’s accessible on desktop, laptop, tablet, and mobile devices, as well as Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Chromecast and Android TV.
Perhaps useful to fans, but especially the media, the new apparatus allows you to cut video from your feeds and share it with others watching live, eliminating the need for a third-party GIF maker.
Currently, the ECHL and SPHL continue to use Neulion, but it remains to be seen if that will be the case once the current contracts expire. As the cost of attending games continues to rise, the push to develop a cost-efficient streaming product will likely get stronger.
Eagles Flying to the AHL
Oftentimes, we praise and tell the stories of players who make it from a lower league up to the best league in minor hockey. But during the 2010s, we witnessed this very thing happen with a franchise, the Colorado Eagles.
The Eagles started the decade in the old Central Hockey League, where they were a perennial championship contender. In their final season in the “Centch,” the Eagles were forced to a game 7 of the CHL President’s Cup Finals, where they lost to the Bossier-Shreveport Mudbugs (who folded after the season).
As soon as the champagne was dried up in the Budweiser Event Center, the Eagles announced a move to the ECHL, where they became a powerhouse team in the Western Conference. The Eagles made the Kelly Cup Playoffs every season and won two titles under the direction of Aaron Schneekloth.
With Vegas Golden Knights choosing the Chicago Wolves as their AHL affiliate, the door was opened for the league to add a 31st team to the AHL for the 2018-19 season. Finally, on October 10, 2017, the Eagles announced that the 2017-18 season would be their last in the ECHL.
“This jump to the finest league in minor league sports is the culmination of what has been a tremendous amount of hard work and cooperation between these two great organizations,” said Eagles president and general manager Chris Stewart at the time of the announcement. “This move will now allow us to take an even bigger step, on a bigger stage, while bringing some of the brightest young stars into our own backyard.”
Obviously, one of the main drivers for the move is the incredible fan support the Eagles have. The organization owns the record for most consecutive sellouts for a minor league hockey franchise at 348, and while attendance has slumped some (still average over 5,000 fans per game,) the ability for fans to see high-level prospects 30 minutes north of Denver is a huge plus.
Here are some of the top stories from the last decade in minor league hockey.
5. The Rise of the SPHL & FPHL
The second decade of the century saw a significant change in the lowest tiers of minor league hockey in North America. The Southern Professional Hockey League, once known for its bench brawls, has worked hard to clean up the on-ice product, expand to markets both in and outside of the Deep South and has now become the de facto feeder league for the ECHL.
At the same time that’s happened, the Federal Prospects Hockey League has also cleaned up its on-ice product and is working to become a feeder league to SPHL clubs. Like it’s single-A counterpart, the FPHL has gone back into markets where higher levels of hockey previously struggled; such as Elmira, N.Y., Winston-Salem, N.C., and Columbus, Georgia. The FPHL prides itself on a cheaper business model than it’s SPHL cohorts, with significantly reduced franchise fees, six fewer games than the SPHL, and cheaper ticket prices.
It remains to be seen how the two leagues will work in the same space over the next few years, especially with the FPHL continuing its expansion into Bloomington, Illinois and likely Southhaven, Mississippi for the 2020-21 season. For fans who love to see tumult between leagues, watch this space over the next few years.
4. Fighting and Player Safety
Who knew that a hit leveed by Matt Cooke on Marc Savard in March 2010 would be the impetus for a decade-long (and still going) emphasis on player safety? “Rule 48” was born in the NHL 17 days after that hit and it sparked a movement that has glacially made its way to the ECHL level. In ECHL rinks currently, greater emphasis is placed on headshots and fighting, the two leading causes for concussions and CTE.
Just before the 2019-20 season began, the league adopted the AHL’s 10-fight-limit rule, much to the chagrin of many fans. The result has been that, as of late November, fighting is down significantly, close to 25 percent, across the ECHL. The flip side of that is an increase in roughing minors, which has seen a 15 percent increase as of late November. There are several issues at play; are players more gunshy to put a quality hit on an opposing player to avoid getting in a fight or fined by the league? Are referees handling fighting differently than in past seasons?
3. The Allen Americans Dynasty
Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings, Pittsburgh Penguins.
Grand Rapids Griffins.
All of them multi-time league champions in the last decade, but none of them did what Steve Martinson and the Allen Americans did, winning four straight league titles.
The Americans dynasty started on a sultry Saturday night in mid-May 2013 at the Allen Event Center, when Todd Robinson beat Wichita’s Torrie Jung blocker-side to win the first championship in team history over the Wichita Thunder. For the next four seasons, it seemed like a rite of passage for Allen Americans fans and players to celebrate championships. Seeing the photos of elation in the player’s eyes and fans hoisting the Ray Miron President’s Cup or the Kelly Cup just didn’t seem to get old.
With each season, regardless of the shifting sands beneath them, Martinson and the Americans seemed to bring in key pieces to supplement their core group. In many instances, the pieces brought in late in the season were enough to put the team over the top.
The Americans are the only minor pro team to win four straight league championships, and the first franchise since the 1980-83 New York Islanders of the NHL to win four-in-a-row.
Martinson has 10 professional coaching championships, the most of any coach, and is 7-0 in the last seven championship series he’s coaches in. In addition, he has not lost a playoff series later than the second round since 1999. Finally, Martinson continues to steadily close in on Scotty Bowman’s all-time wins record of 1,244. When it’s all said and done, there is little doubt that Martinson will go down as the greatest minor league hockey coach (perhaps even the best pro coach) of all-time.
After the fourth straight title by the Americans, I wrote about the rarity of Allen’s run and how fans should take time to appreciate it.
2. AHL Westward Expansion
In January 2015, the AHL announced a significant westward shift of the league, usurping the ECHL as a coast-to-coast league.
Here were the moves at the time, outlined by the AHL.
• The Anaheim Ducks will purchase the Norfolk Admirals AHL franchise and will relocate it from Norfolk, Va., to San Diego, Ca.
• The AHL franchise owned by the Calgary Flames will relocate from Glens Falls, N.Y., to Stockton, Ca.
• The AHL franchise owned by the Edmonton Oilers will relocate from Oklahoma City, Okla., to Bakersfield, Ca.
• The AHL franchise owned by the Los Angeles Kings will relocate from Manchester, N.H., to Ontario, Ca.
• The AHL franchise owned by the San Jose Sharks will relocate from Worcester, Mass., to San Jose, Ca.
“The immense growth of the game of hockey in the state of California shows that hockey fans here love the game and they support it,” said San Jose Sharks Chief Operating Officer John Tortora. “Having our top prospects playing on the same coast as our National Hockey League team will greatly enhance our ability to monitor and enhance their development. The creation of this Pacific Division of the American Hockey League has been a long time in the making and is the result of an immense amount of hard work by the AHL, the NHL, and the five Pacific Division teams.”
In the years since that move, the ECHL moved into former AHL markets in four of the six cities that were left by the AHL. This past May, the Manchester Monarchs shuttered after four-plus seasons in the ECHL, citing declining attendance. Oklahoma City, meanwhile, still does not have a professional hockey franchise and no prospects for pro hockey are on the horizon. The only current NHL Western Conference team with its AHL development partner left east of the Mississippi River are the Vancouver Canucks (Utica Comets).
The new NHL Seattle franchise announced earlier in 2019 that they will also have an AHL team in Southern California, with the new Palm Springs franchise coming online at the start of the 2021-22 season. The move will give the AHL six franchise in the state of California and seven overall in the desert Southwest.
What will be interesting to watch over the next 10 years is how the level of play will be between those clubs, where the Colorado Eagles fit into the equation, and whether or not the ECHL moves west to have it’s feeder teams closer to the AHL clubs.
1. Two Double-A Hockey Consolidations (but don’t call them mergers)
The biggest story, without a doubt, in the last ten years, has to be the consolidations from three leagues; International Hockey League, Central Hockey League, and ECHL into one double-A hockey league.
None of what happened on October 7, 2014, between the CHL and ECHL, would have happened if it weren’t for the first consolidation, between the fledgling IHL (affectionately known as IHL 2.0) and the CHL. That consolidation, due in large part to a poor business model by the IHL, saw the Fort Wayne Komets, Evansville Icemen, Dayton Gems, Bloomington Prairie Thunder, and Quad City Mallards join the CHL, while Flint and Port Huron broke off and became junior hockey markets.
Over time, the Dayton Gems and Bloomington Prairie Thunder shuttered, while the Fort Wayne Komets and Evansville IceMen left the CHL to join the ECHL. When the final dust settled, the Quad City Mallards (barely) were the only former IHL team left in the old Central Hockey League.
Shortly after their purchase of the Wichita Thunder, Steven Brother Sports Management also purchased the Tulsa Oilers and Allen Americans in 2012 and 2013 respectively, in an effort to keep the league afloat.
The demise of the CHL happened with relative quickness during the 2013-14 season. In a move that did not pay off, the league expanded into St. Charles, Missouri with the hope of starting a cross-state rivalry with the Kansas City Mavericks. The Chill had a purported attendance of 2,500 per game and the Mavs took all but one game of that season series.
At the start of the season, the league took over ownership of the Quad City Mallards because the ownership group at the time could not pay the insurance costs required to ice a team. The Mallards would be under league control for the entire season and made it to the second round of the President’s Cup Playoffs.
Everything hit a high gear that summer when the Arizona Sundogs, Denver Cutthroats, and St. Charles all closed their doors, leaving the league with just seven teams. The league’s Governors and brass met in Arizona in late July, where they sought a way to keep the league together. The delay meant no schedule announcement, no promotional schedules and the increasing likelihood that either the league and its teams would cease operations, or a move to the ECHL was coming.
Three weeks before the consolidation, officials from both the ECHL and CHL met in St. Louis to discuss the framework for the agreement. Once accepted, each of the CHL teams would be considered “expansion” teams, would have to re-sign their rosters to ECHL contracts, and abide by all ECHL roster rules.
“If we could have, we would have gotten this done sooner,” Thunder General Manager Joel Lomurno said. “The time frame, the paperwork, and getting everyone together for a formal meeting, this is when it happened. Better late than never.”
The move helped the ECHL assert itself at the top of the double-A hockey mountain and unclogged the player development pipeline. At the start of the 2019-20 season, all but one team (Norfolk Admirals) had a player development affiliation with AHL and NHL franchises. In recent years, the ECHL has worked to limit the number of formal player development partners teams can have, but some teams still double-dip in the player affiliation pool.
As we look back on the last ten years of minor league hockey, it is astonishing the changes we’ve seen. One can only hope that the next ten years bring with it an additional growth of the game in the youth and professional circuits, that the game becomes easier for players to play and fans to watch, and we continue to work toward having a culture in the sport that fosters innovation, acceptance, and success for those who are willing to put in the work.