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The Rise and Fall of AHL's Atlantic Division in Canada

The Sin Bin’s Zack Power rewinds time to break down the rise and demise of the American Hockey League’s Atlantic Division, based in Canada for a few years during the 1990s.

The Rise and Fall of AHL's Atlantic Division in Canada

ST. JOHN’S, NL – When I asked my grandfather (an authentic St. John’s Maple Leafs fan) about the Atlantic Division in the AHL, he told me about a time of true rock-em’, sock-em’ hockey. It was physical. It was tough. It was entertaining. It was arguably some of the best hockey the AHL had.
For this tale, I rewound the tapes to 1991-92. The top song on the charts is “Good Vibrations” by Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, and the top story in the AHL is the new Atlantic Division. With the introduction of the St. John’s Maple Leafs, it opened the door to the AHL dividing their division format from just the Northern and Southern to include the Atlantic, as well.
The newly created Atlantic Division was comprised of the St. John’s Maple Leafs, Halifax Citadels, Cape Breton Oilers, Moncton Hawks, and Fredericton Canadiens. With the teams centered around Atlantic Canada, it started a new wave in the AHL. 
Being so close, travel became quick and cheap for most and created newfound rivalries. The prompt Canadian kindness turned into contentious and heavy hockey. As time marched on, playing teams repetitively became a stage for a war on ice. 

The 1992 season was highlighted by an improbable comeback from the Cape Breton Oilers, who went on a hot streak towards the end of the season, giving them their first and only Calder Cup Championship. It marked the first of two championships from Eastern Canada, with the second coming from Saint John in the early 2000s.
But the league was struggling; it wasn’t the same league it was today. There was a separation line between the NHL and AHL, and the American Hockey League wasn’t the developmental partner it is today. It was in dire straits financially, but with new AHL president David Andrews (Former Cape Breton Oilers GM), the league started a turnaround.
To start the 1993-94 season, Halifax moved to Cornwall and two years later, Halifax would move to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL).
But, the Atlantic Division gained the Saint John Flames and the Prince Edward Island Senators, turning the total to six teams. The thought was that more teams in the division would make the rivalries less intense, but that was very wrong. In the 1993-94 season, the Atlantic division produced more penalty minutes and fights than any other division in the league.

After the season, the Winnipeg Jets were out to cut costs and eliminated their Moncton franchise, moving to a dual affiliation with Hartford in Springfield. Just one year later, Moncton would join AHL rival Halifax Citadels (Mooseheads) in the QMJHL as the Moncton Alpines.
The shifting was a sign of more turbulent times to come. 

Breaking Away from the Atlantic

Two seasons later, the Atlantic Division saw its first team to play outside of the Canadian East Coast. This came after the American Hockey League said goodbye to Prince Edward Island (PEI) and Cape Breton.
PEI was consistently at the bottom of the league in attendance and struggled in Charlottetown. According to eurohockey.com, the team couldn’t stay financially viable in the city of Charlottetown, based on population.
As for the Cape Breton Oilers, they moved to Hamilton (and were called the Bulldogs), where it stayed as the affiliate of the Oilers for seven seasons. Hamilton played in the Atlantic Division to start the ’96-97 season, while Cape Breton joined the QMJHL just one season later.

Collecting Air Miles

For comparison, in 1995-96 the St. John’s Maple Leafs (furthest East team) had the longest travel within their division at over 1,056 mi (1,700 km); for the 1996-97 season, the Maple Leafs traveled more than 1,304 mi (3,100 km) to play in their division. 
By the 1997-98 season, Hamilton rose to the Empire Division, a division comprised of teams entirely in New York State. The move sent the Portland Pirates into the Atlantic group. This was the first time the Atlantic saw a team from across the Canadian border, with the addition of Portland.
In almost every way, it created a new challenge for every team. Teams began to see higher travel costs in an ever-changing league. It became a more of a financial strain on clubs and tough rock-em’, sock-em’ hockey grew watery every season. The Atlantic Canadian feuds became few and far between and introducing more teams into the division that are farther way created all-around longer travel times, putting a strain on teams. In the case of the remaining rivals, they had to learn to adapt to a skill-based league, while dealing with longer than ever travel times.
By 1999, Fredericton jumped ship, leaving only St. John’s (Newfoundland) and Saint John (New Brunswick) left in the Atlantic Division.

The Final Two

Fast-forward the tape to the 2003 season; the division was comprised of the Manitoba Moose, Hamilton Bulldogs, Saint John Flames (NB), and St. John’s Maple Leafs (NL). This marked the last season of a division consisting of teams in the Canadian Maritimes as the Calgary Flames dropped their AHL franchise. The move left only St. John’s in the Atlantic Divison.
Saint John joined the QMJHL a few seasons later.

“Some nights I cry…I’ve lost something I love. But life has to go on, and there’s nothing I can do.” 

Nick Georgoudis, President of the Saint John Flames to the Globe and Mail (2003)

After moving out of the Atlantic and into the Northern, the Maple Leafs moved to Toronto to start the 2005-06 season, marking the end of an era.

Burnt Remains

The AHL was entirely out of Atlantic Canada in the mid-2000s, burning through countless teams along the way. The concept was simple, cheap travel in small-to-medium-sized markets with an opportunity to score big on hockey rivals, and it worked….for a short period of time.
With a competitive junior league growing, it gave struggling AHL teams an opportunity to jump ship, while keeping hockey. Some fans missed it; some hated it. In the case of my grandfather, hockey in Newfoundland was never the same.

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