AHL going ‘all-in’ on strong California markets
Could it be another turning point in the ongoing growth of hockey in California?
If the reaction from the January announcement that the American Hockey League (AHL) has approved the formation of a five-team Pacific Division that would include affiliates of all three California NHL teams is any measure, then it’s a resounding yes.
The AHL’s announcement, made in concert with NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly and executives from the Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks, as well as the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers, was met with enthusiasm.
The Ducks announced their intent to purchase the Norfolk Admirals and move them to San Diego. The Kings’ Manchester, N.H., franchise will move to Ontario, location of their ECHL affiliate. The Sharks will relocate their Worcester, Mass., franchise to San Jose.
The Oilers will move their Oklahoma City franchise to Bakersfield, and the Flames’ Glen Falls, N.Y., franchise will land in Stockton – like Bakersfield and Ontario home to well-supported ECHL teams.
“Relocating five teams is a complex process, and we’re very excited to have brought this initiative to a successful outcome,” said Dave Andrews, the AHL’s president and chief executive officer. “The Western-based NHL clubs have been in dialogue with our league for almost three years, and the announcement launches a new era for the American Hockey League and for professional hockey in California.”
All five markets have youth hockey presences, and the addition to the NHL’s top developmental league in four markets that haven’t had that level of competition (or in San Diego’s case, for nearly 20 years) can only help.
For now, the Sharks’ executive team will have the easiest scouting trips. Their AHL team will play its games in the same building as the NHL team (SAP Center), and they’ll practice at the same facility (Sharks Ice-San Jose).
“This is an exciting day for the San Jose Sharks organization and for hockey fans throughout the state of California,” Sharks chief operating officer John Tortora said. “Having our AHL club playing in close proximity to our NHL club has innumerable benefits for the development for our young players and prospects.”
Sharks Ice vice president Jon Gustafson confirmed the organization will build an additional locker room at Sharks Ice for the AHL team. For years, it’s been speculated the heavily used Sharks Ice facility would expand.
Perhaps the presence of a second pro team would expedite that?
Gustafson said nothing is imminent, but the organization is discussing its options.
An already-thriving fan base will get an added boost, he said.
“The AHL is an amazing product; 88 percent of the current NHL has played in the league,” he said. “It’s more centered on family entertainment with a lower price point, so we are really excited about that.”
The Kings will retain the Ontario ECHL team’s nickname Reign for their AHL team in a move that’s nearly as convenient. Ontario’s Citizen’s Business Bank arena is 44 miles east of Staples Center and annually draws some of the ECHL’s largest crowds.
Current Manchester president Darren Abbott will assume the same duties in Ontario. No other changes have been announced or are expected because the Kings have largely integrated their NHL and AHL hockey ops departments.
For example, Kings assistant general manager Rob Blake also serves as the Monarchs’ general manager.
“From the business end, we believe both organizations – the Ontario Reign and the L.A. Kings – will work very well together to create a great, fan-friendly experience that fans, both new to the club and those who have proudly supported the club over the years, will enjoy immensely,” said Luc Robitaille, the Kings’ president of business operations.
“On the hockey side, it’ll be tremendous to see the talent on the ice as they make strides in their professional career.”
The Reign’s offices and locker room are located in the arena, which is expected to continue. The ECHL team practices there and at Center Ice Arena.
In San Diego, the region has not had pro hockey since 2006, when the ECHL version of the Gulls folded. The AHL team will take on the Gulls name once again.
Jason Coker, the league director for San Diego District Hockey, which operates ice and inline hockey teams in junior high and high school leagues (39 total), hopes the AHL team’s presence sparks a bounce-back for the sport.
“It’ll put the spotlight on hockey, move it more to the forefront in San Diego,” Coker said. “It’ll bring more attention to the sport and help it get back to the level where it used to be. It’ll get some momentum behind the sport to get more kids playing hockey.”
Anaheim’s AHL operation also will have a familiar leadership core. Ducks chief executive officer Michael Schulman will hold the same role with the San Diego club, while Bob Murray, Anaheim’s executive vice president and general manager, will be San Diego’s president of hockey operations.
Bob Ferguson, the assistant general manager of the Ducks’ AHL affiliate in Norfolk, Va., will be the general manager in San Diego.
“This is an unbelievable day for hockey,” Murray said. “Years ago I can remember when (Ducks owners Henry and Susan Samueli) bought the team. Only a week into it, (then-general manager Brian (Burke) and I said we have to get our AHL team out here. This is a dream come true.”
Calgary’s move into the state was facilitated by the sale of the Stockton Thunder by owner Brad Rowbotham to the Flames’ ownership group. The Stockton Record reported the deal includes a guarantee that hockey will be played in Stockton the next five years.
Edmonton purchased the Bakersfield Condors, whom the Oilers had had an affiliation with since 2013, from Jonathan Fleisig in January of 2014.
– Chris Bayee