The AHL’s New California Division?

The American Hockey League is likely announcing five teams moving west for 2015-2016 today. AHL logo via Chris Creamer's SPORTSLOGOS.NET
This afternoon the American Hockey League is likely announcing five teams moving West for the 2015-2016 season. (AHL logo via Chris Creamer’s SportsLogos)

The westward relocation plans for five teams have been one of the worst kept secrets in the American Hockey League for a long time.

It seems that cat might finally be let out of the bag this afternoon as the league has scheduled a press conference in San Jose for 12:30 P.M. Pacific Time to discuss a major announcement. Attendees to the conference include AHL President and CEO David Andrews, Deputy Commissioner of the NHL Bill Daly, and members of the brass from the Anaheim Ducks, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks.

The location of the event is actually relevant. It is the intention of the San Jose Sharks to have their AHL franchise become another tenant at the SAP Center (aka the Shark Tank), becoming the only team in the league to have said arrangement (The Toronto Maple Leafs’ AHL affiliate Toronto Marlies play at Ricoh Coliseum, nearby to Air Canada Centre).

The four teams joining the Worcester Sharks on their journey across the Oregon Trail are in no particular order, Manchester (L.A.), Norfolk (Anaheim), Adirondack (Calgary), and of course, Oklahoma City (Edmonton), which announced it was ceasing the operations of the Barons in Oklahoma back in December.

Cities rumored in the past to be taking their place, via Joshua Cooper of Yahoo’s Puck Daddy, are all located in California: Stockton, Bakersfield, Ontario, Long Beach and San Diego, to go along with confirmed San Jose. Fresno was also rumored in connection to the Sharks move west.

Kevin Oklobzija of the Democrat & Chronicle stated that AHL Board of Governors voted during the 2015 All-Star Classic on the approval of the Kings moving the Monarchs to Ontario, California; the Oilers moving the Barons to Bakersfield, California; San Jose moving the AHL Sharks to San Jose, California; Anaheim purchasing the Norfolk Admirals and moving them to San Diego, California; and Calgary moving Adirondack to Stockton, California.

The Hockey News’ Jared Clinton confirmed that Stockton will be the eventual stopping off point for Calgary, which last offseason moved its AHL affiliate nearly 3,000 miles east from then-isolated Abbotsford, British Columbia to Glen Falls, New York for what proved to be an ill-fated one year stint. Relocating to Stockton represents another nearly 3,000 mile trek in the other direction. Adirondack’s previous team, the Phantoms, had left for Lehigh Valley during the summer.

The result of all of the franchise moving is that five NHL Western Conference teams will have their AHL prospects much closer to home in California. Will they be as close as the famed Jack Skille trek from Chicago to Rockford? In the case of San Jose (same building), Anaheim (San Diego) and Los Angeles (Ontario), yes. Edmonton to Bakersfield? Not so much.

As for the rest of the AHL, in the near future Arizona and Colorado are looking into moving their affiliates, Portland and Lake Erie respectively, west according to Clinton. Back in December, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune suggested the same fates for Arizona and Colorado, and speculated that Vancouver could move Utica, which just successfully hosted the AHL All-Star Classic, back west to now vacant Abbotsford. However, that is not in the immediate horizon.

The ECHL will likely be losing a big chunk of its Pacific Division, including the Bakersfield Condors, Stockton Thunder and Ontario Reign.

What does this all mean for the Milwaukee Admirals? For now mostly nothing, as the team is secure through 2016-17 with its extended affiliation agreement with Nashville. None of Milwaukee’s Midwest Division rivals, Chicago, Rockford, Lake Erie and Grand Rapids are expected to move west, east, north or south at this point either. The close geographically Iowa Stars also seem secure in near proximity to their NHL affiliate in St. Paul, Minnesota.

As far as league realignment and the schedule for 2015-16, obviously there are huge ramifications to be determined at a later date, via Clinton:

“One of the odder developments about the new division, however, is that they may play primarily against each other. Oklobzija stated the relocated franchises might have a reduced schedule, in the range of 60 to 66 games, while other teams in the league play upwards of 70. This would effectively allow for proper travel time while not lengthening the season, but the costs may hinder travel between the long-standing east coast divisions and the new, yet to be named division.”

Beyond ’16-’17, if, and this is purely an if, the Nashville Predators or another NHL team was looking to move their AHL affiliate, Norfolk would likely be an attractive option for a new AHL home base, as well as the currently NHL/AHL-devoid Atlanta area. Norfolk averages 4,553 fans per home date, ranking 16th, while Milwaukee averages 4,401, good for 18th out of 30 teams. Distance-wise Norfolk is actually further away from Nashville than Milwaukee. The Gwinnett Gladiators (near Atlanta), average 4,543 fans per home date in the ECHL.

So Roundtable . . . What do think of the AHL’s Westward Expansion? Can it last and be successful? Are more teams on the move in the near future, and if so, which teams will be packing their bags for greener pastures?

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9 thoughts on “The AHL’s New California Division?”

  1. It seems the NHL clubs are pushing for the westward expansion. If that’s the case, the NHL clubs who own their AHL franchises should be willing to foot the bill of travel for their clubs. It really should only hurt the independently owned AHL clubs like Milwaukee if the league were to force more travel.

    Regarding Nashville wanting to move their AHL club closer, that probably wouldn’t happen just for the fact that they don’t own their AHL club. While they can end the affiliation with Milwaukee if they so choose, they would then have to buy a franchise. Unless Turer is open to selling, are there any other franchises up for sale?

  2. I can actually see the possibility of the Predators organization being willing to purchase an AHL franchise in a few years. Hockey is really growing in TN. They just opened the Ford Ice Center there, the Preds are having a great season and attendance is good. Who know what AHL franchise will be up for sale in a few years, or, if offered the right amount of money, could be for sale? Surley if the Preds did buy a franchise, it would be much closer to TN than Milwaukee (maybe they would offer Mr. Turer and the other owners an offer that can’t be refused).

    What would be really sad is if we ended up without any hockey team in Milwaukee, AHL because it got bought out and moved and NHL because I really don’t think Milwaukee has a chance for that.

    Overall, it looks like the ECHL is going to take it on the chin from the AHL West Division being created. As for the West Division, I’m surprised the Calgary Flames haven’t been openly pushing for this as they had an affiliate in Abbotsoford and moved them to the other side of the continent. That made no sense. The Vancouver Canucks kind of the same. They had an affiliate in Chicago and moved them farther away to Utica, NY.

  3. Fan in the falls hit it on the head! I think as for right now let’s enjoy the Ads while we have em! I’ve said it before that we are damn lucky to have an AHL team if it’s moved or sold down the line none of us can change that. I feel that’s a real possibility and i don’t think the bucks want us in the arena they’ve mentioned it in the past that they aren’t thrilled to share an arena with a hockey team. Soak up what we have while we have it.

  4. I am not sure why the Bucks would not wan to share a new arena. They already get dibs on when they will get the arena. Have fun filling all those dates if the Ads were not to be playing.

  5. Thanks for all of your comments. Honestly, I don’t think the AHL would be too keen on Milwaukee or any other Midwest Division (with the exception of Lake Erie) team move unless there is something in the works that I don’t know about. The league has a nice regional cluster of teams with Lake Erie, Grand Rapids, Chicago, Rockford, Iowa and Milwaukee. To me, Peoria remains a good market as well that is available in this area, along with some currently unexplored cities in Ohio. I just came back from the All-Star Game in Columbus and couldn’t help but be impressed by the support of the Blue Jackets in the community, especially considering that franchise’s pretty much awful track record with the exception of last year.

    When I brought up Norfolk and Atlanta, I should have also mentioned other soon-to-be AHL-less cities. I don’t think the league will be running back to Oklahoma City anytime soon, which ranks fifth from the bottom in league attendence (then again fans there have known for certain that their team was leaving for sometime). Worcester, a one-time great hockey city, averages only 3,355 fans per home date, fourth worst in the league. Manchester is the biggest loser in this deal. It’s a great hockey city with a beautiful facility. The Monarchs have strong support with 5,571 fans in the building per night, ranking 12th overall. Adirondack (Glen Falls, NY), has been the site of a few AHL teams over the years, including the Red Wings and Phantoms. They are the “Green Bay Packers” of the AHL, being located in a city with less than 15,000 people. In their only season in upstate New York, the Flames have averaged 3,586 fans, sixth fewest in the AHL. With the westward relocations St. John’s becomes even more isolated in New Foundland. The NHL’s Winnipeg was already exploring other options for its AHL franchise, such as Thunder Bay, Ontario. But just imagine a Calder Cup final between St. John’s and San Diego. That would be a 74-hour journey by car!

    Travel is the big thing still to iron out. I really don’t like the scenario where the teams in the same league play less games than other teams, but stranger things have happened. I’m not sure a travel subsidy would work either. Considering that this has been a three-year process, I’m guessing there is some sort of plan in the works.

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