AHL pushing development above all else
For the first time in the American Hockey League’s (AHL) 80 seasons, five teams faced off their campaigns in California as part of the league’s new Pacific Division.
A month into the 2015-16 season, the move westward appears to have been a good idea. The proximity of AHL teams to their parent NHL clubs has allowed for quick exchange of players on call-ups, and fans at AHL games in the five new California markets have embraced the league enthusiastically.
The Ontario Reign, the AAA affiliate of the Los Angeles Kings, plays its games just 40 miles from STAPLES Center – the Kings’ home ice – while the San Diego Gulls are located about an hour and half in drive time from their NHL parent club, the Anaheim Ducks.
The San Jose Sharks have an even better arrangement with their AHL affiliate: the San Jose Barracuda plays in the same building (SAP Center) as its parent team.
The Bakersfield Condors, owned and operated by the Edmonton Oilers, are located on the same side of the Mississippi River as their parent NHL club, as is the Stockton Heat, the AHL affiliate of the Calgary Flames.
The San Diego franchise was located in Norfolk, Va., last season. The Kings had even farther to go to call-up players. What is now the Ontario franchise was located in Manchester, N.H.
Stockton played as the Adirondack Flames last season in Glens Falls, N.Y., while Bakersfield competed in 2014-15 as the Oklahoma City Barons. The Sharks relocated their AHL affiliate from Worcester, Mass.
The seven-team Pacific Division also includes two clubs in Texas: the San Antonio Rampage, the AAA affiliate of the Colorado Avalanche, and the Texas Stars, the AHL affiliate of the Dallas Stars.
The two Texas squads have it a bit easier. Last season, a team in North Carolina was included in the division in which they played.
The AHL’s expansion westward has also brought benefits to California teams previously served by AA-level teams in the ECHL. Those markets include Bakersfield, Ontario, Stockton and San Diego.
Now fans in those cities are watching the top draft picks of their affiliated NHL teams do battle nightly, as well as players who recently played in the NHL. It’s a step up from what ECHL fans had been accustomed to seeing.
In fact, more than 80 percent of the players on NHL opening-night rosters are AHL alumni.
“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,” said San Diego general manager Bob Ferguson.
The biggest difference in making the switch from more eastern time zones to the West Coast?
“You can go to the beach after practice,” noted San Diego left wing Max Friberg, a native of Sweden.
The 2015-16 season faced off in October, and there were some surprisingly large crowds to greet the hype.
The San Diego Gulls marked the return of pro hockey to the city after a nine-year absence by defeating the Grand Rapids Griffins, 4-2, in front of a sellout crowd of 12,920 at Valley View Casino Center on Oct. 10.
The defending Calder Cup champion Ontario Reign faced off its season with back-to-back home crowds of 9,491 and 8,285 at Citizens Business Bank Arena on Oct. 23-24 against Bakersfield and San Jose, respectively.
The Barracuda attracted 6,977 to its Oct. 9 home-opener against the Rockford Ice Hogs, while the Heat drew 6,543 on its opening night against the same Rockford team the following night.
The Condors edged Grand Rapids, 1-0, in front of 5,169 fans at Rabobank Arena on Oct. 9.
It appears San Diego and Ontario will battle for top spot in the AHL home attendance derby. The Gulls had averaged 8,469 fans to their first four home dates, while the Reign had averaged 7,718 fans in the same number of dates. Both teams trailed the Hershey Bears (8,930 average) for top honors in the 30-team league.
The AHL attendance average was 5,056 in 128 games to start the season.
Bakersfield head coach Gerry Fleming said the development of players is a top priority of all of the California-based teams.
Thus, in a departure from the rest of the league, the five California AHL teams will play only 68 regular-season games as opposed to 76 for the rest of the league, including the two Texas teams in the Pacific Division.
The thinking by NHL execs is to allow for more rest time between games and opportunities for quality practices.
The AHL will determine its playoff qualifiers on points percentage (points earned divided by available points) rather than standings points.
Ontario won its first five games to start the 2015-16 campaign, while San Diego’s 6-1 start included three shootout victories.
– Phillip Brents
PHOTO: Jon Gillies, the 2015 NCAA Frozen Four Most Outstanding Player for Division I champion Providence College, mans the pipes for the Stockton Heat in an early-season American Hockey League game. The Heat is among five California teams participating in the AHL’s new Pacific Division. The 2015-16 season faced off in October and extends through April, followed by the Calder Cup Playoffs.