AHL clubs open season on promising note
The American Hockey League’s (AHL) new western pod of five California teams faced off their inaugural season the weekend of Oct. 9-10 with high expectations and excitement rippling through opening-night crowds as a new era in professional ice hockey dawned on the West Coast.
The Bakersfield Condors, Ontario Reign, San Diego Gulls and Stockton Heat all made their AHL debuts on winning notes.
The AHL is the highest tier of minor professional hockey in North America and serves as the AAA affiliate to the NHL. The league is beginning its 80th season in 2015-16.
The Grand Rapids Griffins (Detroit Red Wings) served as the opening night opposition for both the Condors (Edmonton Oilers) and Gulls (Anaheim Ducks), while the Rockford IceHogs (Chicago Blackhawks) visited California as the opening night foe for both the Barracuda (San Jose Sharks) and Heat (Calgary Flames).
* Bakersfield shaded Grand Rapids, 1-0, on a goal scored by left wing Andrew Miller with just under two minutes remaining in front of 5,149 fans at Rabobank Arena on Oct. 9. Condors goaltender Laurent Brossoit stopped all 31 shots he faced to post his 10th career shutout in a Bakersfield uniform in both the AHL and ECHL.
* San Diego defeated the Griffins, 4-2, in front of a sell-out crowd of 12,920 fans at the Valley View Casino Center on Oct. 10 as Nick Ritche scored two goals and goaltender John Gibson made 32 saves. The game marked the return of pro hockey to the city after a nine-year absence.
* The Barracuda was doubled up by the Ice Hogs in a 4-2 loss in front of 6,799 fans at SAP Center on Oct. 9 as Michael Haley and Bryan Lerg each scored goals for the hosts and goaltender Troy Grosenick made 37 saves in the loss.
* Seven different Heat players collected multiple points and goaltender Jon Gillies posted a 19-save shutout in Stockton’s 7-0 win over Rockford on Oct. 10 in front of 6,543 fans at Stockton Arena. Drew Grant scored two goals to lead the Heat.
* Defending Calder Cup champion Ontario began its season on Oct. 10 with a 5-0 win at Bakersfield in front of 5,229 fans. Kris Newbury scored two goals to lead the Reign while Vincent LoVerde finished the night with a goal and assist. Reign goaltender Peter Budaj made 21 saves to net the shutout win as the teams faced off their interstate rivalry.
Ontario’s home-opener at Citizens Business Bank Arena is scheduled for Oct. 23 against Bakersfield. The Reign won last year’s AHL championship as the Manchester Monarchs.
The Bakersfield, Ontario, San Diego and Stockton AHL clubs replaced ECHL franchises that had previously operated in those cities at the AA level.
The five California AHL teams are part of the league’s new Pacific Division and will play alongside two teams from Texas: the San Antonio Rampage (Colorado Avalanche) and Texas Stars (Dallas Stars).
Is there an early favorite among the Golden State entries? The Gulls and Reign are expected to mimic their parent NHL clubs’ heated rivalry, and the Gulls already have a 2-0 edge on their closest geographic neighbors after sweeping the teams’ two preseason exhibition games.
New Gulls head coach Dallas Eakins said his focus will be on “developing players for the parent club in a winning environment.”
“In the AHL, there’s no blueprint for how many players go up and down,” explained Eakins, who led the Toronto Marlies to the 2012 AHL Calder Cup Finals and coached at the NHL level with Edmonton.
“It depends on the need of the parent club. Looking at our possible roster, I think we’ll be able to supply players when they’re needed. I think we can be a winning team as well as developing players at the same time. We believe we’ll have a number of players in San Diego who could start for other NHL teams.”
San Diego general manager Bob Ferguson said to expect player movement throughout the season between the Gulls and the Ducks and also between the Gulls and their ECHL affiliate – the Utah Grizzlies.
“It’s going to be something positive for everyone,” Ferguson explained. “About 80 percent of the players in the NHL previously played in the AHL.”
A total of 628 AHL graduates are on NHL opening-day rosters, which is more than 84 percent of the NHL playing pool to begin the 2015 campaign.
“It’s going to be exciting for fans in that they might see a guy play for us and the next night see him play against the Kings at STAPLES Center,” Ferguson said.
With the arrival of the AHL to California, Bakersfield right wing Matthew Ford (West Hills) and San Diego center Kyle MacKinnon (Walnut) have the unique experience of playing professional hockey in their home state.
Ford, 31, led the Oklahoma City Barons in assists (34) in 2014-15 and in goals (25) in 2013-14. The nine-year AHL veteran was named Oklahoma City’s AHL Man of the Year in 2014-15 for his work in the community and won an NCAA national championship with the University of Wisconsin in 2006.
MacKinnon, 27, is entering his sixth year in the AHL. He entered the 2015-16 campaign – and inaugural season with the Gulls – having tallied 46 goals and 118 points in 260 regular-season AHL games. He had 27 points in 47 games last season for the St. John’s IceCaps.
San Jose’s roster includes one player from Arizona: 25-year-old right wing Jeremy Langlois (Tempe), who played collegiate hockey at Quinnipiac University in the ECAC.
Photo: AHL president Dave Andrews, left, and Bob Nicholson, CEO and vice chair of Oilers Entertainment Group, participate in the ceremonial puck drop to usher-in the Bakersfield Condors’ debut in the circuit on Oct. 9. The Condors defeated the visiting Grand Rapids Griffins, 1-0, to start their new AHL era on a winning note.
– Phillip Brents