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Palm Springs lands AHL team, will be new Seattle NHL team’s top affiliate

 

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Hockey’s continued growth in the state of California was further evidenced by the announcement on Sept. 30 by American Hockey League president-CEO David Andrews that the league’s Board of Governors had awarded an expansion franchise to Palm Springs.

The new club becomes the AHL’s 32nd team and its sixth in California, joining the San Jose Barracuda, Stockton Heat, Bakersfield Condors, Ontario Reign and San Diego Gulls.

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The Palm Springs team, which will serve as the AHL affiliate for the as-yet unnamed NHL Seattle team, will play in a new downtown 10,000-seat arena to be built on the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation. The $250 million project is expected to break ground in early 2020 and open in the fall of 2021.

Both the expansion AHL and NHL teams will begin play concurrently in the 2021-22 season.

The Palm Springs franchise was officially awarded to NHL Seattle and owners Oak View Group.

“On behalf of the AHL’s Board of Governors, I am thrilled to welcome the NHL Seattle and OVG ownership teams and the city of Palm Springs as the league’s 32nd franchise,” Andrews said. “Palm Springs has all the makings of an outstanding hockey market, and will further strengthen the growing base of our sport in California.”

NHL Seattle president-CEO Tod Leiweke said placing an affiliate in the AHL was “mission critical” to the NHL team’s master plan for future player development.

Nearly 90 percent of today’s NHL players are AHL graduates.

PalmSprings_AHL_BadgeThe Seattle-Palm Springs player pipeline follows a recent trend among NHL clubs to locate their AHL affiliates close to home. The mass migration of five teams to California to create the base for the AHL’s Pacific Division came about after years of due diligence on the part of the Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks, Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames.

The Arizona Coyotes continued to trend by relocating their AHL affiliate to nearby Tucson for the 2016-17 season.

Markets such as Reno, Sacramento, Fresno, Boise, Spokane and Salt Lake City initially popped up on Internet fan message boards as possible locations for Seattle’s AHL affiliate.

The NHL Seattle ownership group narrowed its choices to Boise (home of the ECHL Idaho Steelheads) and Palm Springs in May, with the California site eventually gaining preference. NHL Seattle formally submitted an application for an AHL expansion team in June.

The new AHL team, also as yet unnamed, will have no shortage of geographic rivals.

San Diego, which serves as the Ducks’ AHL affiliate, will be among the new team’s closest geographic rivals along with Ontario (Kings) and Bakersfield (Oilers).

The AHL rivalries for the new Palm Springs team should mimic rivalries for the new Seattle NHL team.

The new arena will showcase both sports and music events. A training facility for the new AHL team is planned to occupy space adjacent to the 300,000-square-foot arena.

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The proposed complex will comprise 300,000 square feet, including a 173,000- square-foot arena, a 35,000-square-foot practice facility and 44,000 square feet for locker rooms and support facilities, according to details from an Environmental Impact Study submitted for the project.

The practice facility, which will be built next door to the arena, will double as a site for youth hockey and ice skating for the general public.

One key point is that the arena will be built mostly underground so as not to obscure surrounding mountain vistas.

“This is a unique partnership that will forever change the face of sports and entertainment in Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley,” Tribal Chairman Jeff L. Grubbe stated in the initial press release announcing the project. “We are creating a healthy community gathering place for Coachella Valley families and visitors from around the world to celebrate, play and experience diverse entertainment opportunities in a state-of-the-art arena.”

With the announcement of the new Palm Springs team, both the AHL and NHL will feature 32 member franchises. The AHL is currently fielding 31 teams with an unbalanced alignment of 15 teams in the Western Conference and 16 teams in the Eastern Conference.

Both the AHL and NHL are expected to field alignments of 16 teams for each conference beginning in October 2021.

The AHL’s Pacific Division is expected to complete its growth with the addition of the new Palm Springs team. The division currently includes seven teams while the league’s other three geographic divisions include eight teams.

The Tucson Roadrunners and Colorado Eagles join the current five California teams in the Pacific Division.

To make way for the new NHL Seattle team, the Arizona Coyotes will move from the Pacific Division to the Central Division.

Palm Springs has become an entertainment hotbed in recent years. The region is known for the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and country music’s Stagecoach Festival as well as the Palm Springs International Film Festival.

But the Palm Springs AHL team will be the region’s first professional sports team.

Leiweke said about two years of time and energy have gone into the project. He called it a “brave, daring vision” to create a privately-funded destination point and entertainment venue.

“It’s just something new that we can offer,” Grubbe announced in a video statement. “This is a very diverse community. We offer a lot of different things for a lot of different interests, and hockey will be a new one that people normally don’t get to see.”

With the Sept. 30 announcement, the Palm Springs AHL team launched deposits for season tickets through its website at www.ahlpalmsprings.com.

California dreaming

The five current California AHL clubs have wrapped up preseason play and will face off the 2019-20 regular season the weekend of Oct. 4-6.

Bakersfield will host San Diego on Oct. 4 in a rematch of last season’s Calder Cup Pacific Division Finals, won in upset fashion by San Diego, while Ontario will host San Jose, Chmelevski_Sasha-02be3e0516-1also on Oct. 4.

Stockton will visit Colorado for a two-game set Oct. 4-5. Ontario will follow San Diego into Bakersfield on Oct. 5.

San Jose swept its two preseason encounters against Colorado, winning by scores of 3-0 on Sept. 27 and 5-3 on Sept. 28. Former Anaheim Jr. Duck and Huntington Beach native Sasha Chmelevski (pictured left) picked up an assist in both games.

Chmelevski joins fellow Californian Evan Weinger on the Barracuda roster.

Weinger, 22, from El Segundo and a former Los Angeles Jr. King, signed a one-year AHL contract in May. He became just the second California-born player to appear in a game for the Barracuda when he tallied 11 goals and 22 points in 60 regular season games during his rookie pro season in 2018-19.

Chmelevski, originally tabbed by the Sharks in the sixth round (185th overall) in the 2017 NHL Draft, is considered the organization’s fastest rising young prospect after racking up 70 goals and 151 points in his last two seasons with the Ottawa 67’s in the Ontario Hockey League.

He signed a three-year entry-level contract on April 3, 2018, and promptly scored his first professional goal the next day in an AHL game. He picked up three goals and four points at the tail end of the 2017-18 season with the Barracuda before rejoining his junior team the next season.

Oakland native Roy Sommer returns as head coach of San Jose’s AHL entry. This will mark his 24nd year with the Sharks organization — 22 years at the AHL level.

Sommer, 62, enters the 2019-20 season with a regular season AHL career coaching record of 764-653-48-79-73. He could conceivably pick up his milestone 800th career coaching win later this season.

Among this year’s storylines, the Cuda will once again feature one of the AHL’s youngest lineups.

San Jose will host San Diego in its home opener on Oct. 11.

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The Gulls and Reign split their two preseason get-togethers. San Diego won the opener in comeback fashion, 5-2, on Sept. 26 in Ontario’s rechristened Toyota Center (formerly Citizens Business Bank Arena) while the Reign edged the Gulls 3-2 in front of 8,812 fans at the Honda Center on Sept. 30.

La Mirada’s Chase De Leo, who signed a one-year, two-way contact with the Ducks for the 2019-20 season, scored one goal in the loss to Ontario.

De Leo, 23, said it felt good to be back on the ice.

“For us, we went deep in the playoffs so (the offseason) was pretty short, but a lot of hard work,” De Leo said in preparation for training camp. “I came to Great Park Ice (Great Park Ice & FivePoint Arena) and took advantage of that new, beautiful facility. Trained there every single day, had training camp and now we are back at it.”

This was his second preseason game with the Gulls at the Honda Center, his hometown arena. That also felt good, he said.

“It’s fun, it’s awesome,” he said. “It’s been a dream of mine my entire life. My parents had tickets to the inaugural game at ‘The Pond’ for the Ducks, so, of course, it’s my dream. I’m going to keep working for it, keep getting better every day and pushing for a full-time spot with the Ducks.”

He was a late cut from Anaheim’s main camp this year.

“It’s good, especially for the guys in NHL camp getting into those preseason games,” De Leo explained. “It’s a different speed, a different level. Even here in the AHL it’s still a high speed, but it is a little bit crisper when you’re up top. It makes it easier for you when you come back down and play in the AHL. (You want to) try to maintain that crispness and sharpness, so it’s definitely an advantage for sure.”

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De Leo ranked second in team scoring on San Diego in 2018-19 with 20 goals and 55 points in 66 regular season games. He tacked on five goals in 16 playoff games as the Gulls made a history-making trek to the Calder Cup Western Conference Finals.

San Diego will base its fortunes on a changing of the guard in 2019-20 as new head coach Kevin Dineen takes over for Dallas Eakins, who earned promotion to the Anaheim head coaching position after leading the Gulls to a four-year record of 154-95-15-8 (.608 winning percentage) and three playoff appearances.

Eakins, who signed a three-year contract with the Ducks, becomes the 10th coach in Anaheim history. The native Floridian earned distinction as the organization’s winningest coach at the AHL level, interestingly surpassing Dineen (135-76-29 with the Portland Pirates from 2005-08) for that honor.

Former Jr. King Kailer Yamamoto racked up two goals and one assist in Bakersfield’s 8-3 preseason win over the visiting Stockton Heat on Sept. 27. A first-round (22nd overall) pick by Edmonton in the 2017 NHL Draft, Yamamoto was beset by injury during the 2018-19 season after being assigned to the Condors following an initial 17-game stint in the NHL.

Yamamoto, 21, displayed his potential and was on the way to gaining confidence as a scorer when he was sidelined after 27 games with the Condors along with 10 goals, 18 points and a +12 plus-minus rating.

Bakersfield, buoyed by a club-record 17-game winning streak at midseason, would go on notch the top record among the AHL’s Western Conference teams and win the regular season Pacific Division title.

“It was just nice to get out there with the boys again,” Yamamoto said. “It’s been a long time. Hopefully, I will get there.”

Yamamoto said the environment in Bakersfield has helped foster his development.

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“The leaders here are great,” he said. “They take everyone in. The new young guys, they bring them in like a family. It shows you just how much everybody cares about one another.”

He said having other players his age on the team has provided a great support system to lean on. “It’s awesome to have guys your age around you,” Yamamoto said. “You kind of think the same. If you’re older, it’s a little different. You have family and stuff. Going through with kids your own age is awesome, somebody you can kind of lean on.”

Los Angeles-born forward Miles Koules joined Yamamoto on the Condors’ training camp roster.

Career highlights for Koules, 25, include playing two games for the hometown Reign during the 2016-17 season and suiting up for parts of three seasons with the AHL Cleveland Monsters. He appearedin 13 games last season for HIFK in Finland’s top tier league.

Photos/Phillip Brents
Artist renderings/The Fearey Group

— Phillip Brents

(Oct. 1, 2019)