On Thursday, the AHL made official the announcement of the brand new Pacific Division. The California-based division, which will begin play next season, is more than a move for improved player development – it’s a sign that the league is changing forever.
Make no mistake, the new division makes sense for both NHL and AHL franchises. The ability to move players freely between the two teams and the opportunity to watch over player development benefits the NHL clubs greatly. For the AHL, it’s also a cost-cutting measure that lumps five teams in close proximity to each other to save swaths of money – and time – that would otherwise be spent on travel.
But the implication of the Californian relocation is that this will begin a shift that will see teams move from long-established AHL markets and into areas where proximity will likely rule over everything. While not necessarily a bad thing for the growth of the game in the United States, it does stand to strip some hockey-loving markets of their minor pro teams and, in that, turn the AHL into more of a subsidiary of the NHL than its own, true league.
Though it hasn’t happened yet, you can expect in the next few years for more Western Conference NHL teams to move their AHL affiliation nearer to their respective big clubs. Before the formation of the Pacific Division, the westernmost team in the AHL was the San Antonio Rampage. There remains four Western Conference teams, if you include the Winnipeg Jets, which are roughly as far west as San Antonio with their AHL clubs nowhere even close.
Speaking of the Jets, last season rumors surfaced that the St. John’s IceCaps, Winnipeg’s affiliate and the easternmost AHL team, would no longer have the AHL as soon as Winnipeg could find a locale closer to the Manitoba capital to house the farm club. The Jets addressed the rumors, stating that they were indeed looking to relocate their team out of St. John’s. Thunder Bay is the most likely location, as True North Sports and Entertainment has made no secret of their interest in moving to Northwestern Ontario.
That leaves the Arizona Coyotes, Colorado Avalanche, and Vancouver Canucks as three more teams that could be moving as soon as they figure out where to set up shop.
The Portland Pirates, the Coyotes AHL affiliate, are the fourth most tenured AHL team in the league. Landing in Portland, Maine, in 1992, the Pirates won a Calder Cup in 1993-94, have twice been division champions, and have been a fixture of the community for more than two decades. With the new Pacific Division, does Arizona move their affiliate west?
And for Colorado’s farm club in Lake Erie and Vancouver’s in Utica, which entered the league in 2013, it would make sense if they also put down roots closer to the Pacific Division. Abbotsford, B.C., which has played host to the Heat from 2009-14, is always an option for Vancouver, while Houston could be a viable AHL market.
All this is to say that the AHL won’t stop with five teams on the West Coast. Logistics wise, it would make more sense to have anywhere from eight to 10 teams in the region for the sake of competition. And that’s all right. It’s the league’s choice, along with the choice of the NHL clubs, where to put these teams. It will all be in the name of development, a word that was said by AHL president Dave Andrews and team representatives on more than a dozen occasions during yesterday’s press conference.
It was stressed throughout that the AHL is a development league, not one that harvests and trades on the unique characters that may not even make it to the NHL but play in the AHL anyway. Not names like Darren Haydar or Jason Krog or a late-career Mike Keane, but instead the future stars of the NHL. While development is good for the NHL and could result in a better on-ice product for their farm clubs, it’s those relationships that make the AHL so special.
AHL hockey forever changed on Thursday, and moving west is a small but not insignificant part of it. No longer is the AHL about the minor pro game in rabid hockey towns, and no longer will it be about building unique relationships between cult heroes and fans. Instead, it will be about creating a development system for the NHL where the big league clubs can groom their players. And that, not the move to California, might be the biggest change the AHL undergoes.