Before the Nashville Predators would play against the Anaheim Ducks in their first ever Western Conference Finals appearance there was some news in the organizational ladder. The Norfolk Admirals were announced as the Predators brand new ECHL affiliate beginning with the 2017-18 season. The Predators would continue on towards their first ever Stanley Cup Finals appearance. An ECHL alumni named Frédérick Gaudreau could be seen scoring goals along the way for the Predators after time spent working through the entire developmental process as an undrafted talent. This all seemed to be a promising fit. Until it clearly wasn’t.
Last week the Nashville Predators terminated their ECHL affiliation agreement with the Norfolk Admirals. The agreement which was announced back on 4 May, 2017 lasted less than two full months into the 2017-18 season before being utterly dissolved. What happened? Why did it happen? And what happens next?
The Norfolk Admirals history is a proud one in minor professional hockey. Even prior to getting the “Norfolk” badge the Hampton Roads Admirals were an ECHL outfit that won the Riley Cup in back-to-back seasons, 1991 and 1992, and then claimed the Kelly Cup in 1998. When they did get “Norfolk” in front of the “Admirals” they became a member of the American Hockey League (AHL) in 2000. Their shining moment in their tenure within the AHL would come during the 2011-12 season when they would go on to sweep the Toronto Marlies and win the 2012 Calder Cup. That was a team comprised of players such as: Cory Conacher, Radko Gudas, Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat, and Richard Pánik. It is amazing how long ago that already feels.
Since the successful run to the Calder Cup it feels as though Norfolk has fluctuated through of both affiliation, league, and ownership changes. The last few years -in particular- have seen an incredible lack of stability for Norfolk. To best understand what happened between Nashville & Norfolk is to really understand the timeline of events leading up to the affiliation agreement being terminated.
- January 8, 2015 – Anaheim sets sights on selling Norfolk and moving AHL operations to San Diego
- January 29, 2015 – AHL’s board of governors approves the creation of the Pacific Division
- January 30, 2015 – Edmonton announce an agreement to make Norfolk their ECHL affiliate
- April 18, 2015 – Norfolk play their last game as members of the AHL
- September 29, 2016 – Norfolk is purchased by Mango Media Group from the Edmonton Entertainment Group
- May 4, 2017 – Norfolk is announced as the new ECHL affiliate of the Nashville Predators
- August 30, 2017 – Norfolk enters a federal lawsuit against the Norfolk Tide
- November 16, 2017 – Norfolk announce that President Michael Santos was relieved of his duties
- November 27, 2017 — Nashville & Milwaukee move all contracted player property out of Norfolk
- November 28, 2017 – Nashville & Norfolk officially terminate their ECHL affiliation agreement
When everything came crashing down it did so rapidly. There may have been a glimmer of hope back in May 2017 that Nashville and Milwaukee would stabilize the way things were trending since being sold twice on exit from the AHL. Yet, there was no calming the instability behind the scenes and the moment Michael Santos was relieved of his duties as acting President of the Norfolk Admirals appeared to put this situation on an accelerator.
“It certainly did,” stated Nashville Predators Assistant General Manager Paul Fenton. “That’s the way that it is. It’s a hockey decision. We’re going to leave it internal. It’s just a hockey decision that we don’t have an affiliate anymore with [Norfolk].”
Prior to the plug officially being pulled on Norfolk it seemed that order to abandon ship was already on. Transactions were such that Nashville or Milwaukee based player property was shifted out of Norfolk immediately and directly back into Milwaukee or towards the Atlanta Gladiators of the ECHL.
Trevor Mingoia was recalled to Milwaukee (AHL) where he remains today. Rick Pinkston was assigned to Atlanta (ECHL) from Milwaukee (AHL). Matt O’Connor, who had been out since early-November due to injury in the AHL, found himself getting back into game shape on assignment to Atlanta (ECHL) from Milwaukee (AHL) by way of Nashville (NHL) who have him signed to a two-way contract. O’Connor remains with Atlanta and has since made one appearance on 12/2/17 where he played at the Infinite Energy Arena stopping 23/27 shots on goal in a losing effort in his first start in nearly a month’s time.
Following the sudden termination of the Nashville affiliation agreement with Norfolk in the ECHL the question to ask is a simple one following all of the rapid fire shuffling that followed. Why the Atlanta Gladiators?
“I just have a relationship with Chuck Weber from having been here before,” cited Fenton. “Having known him for awhile he does a good job. His team is very competitive. He had room to put some players so we think that’s a real good fit for the guys that we have as extras.”
It is important to note the obvious: the Atlanta Gladiators are not affiliated with Nashville or Milwaukee but are the current ECHL affiliate to the Boston and Providence Bruins. This shift in player development for Nashville and Milwaukee isn’t anything with a contract attached to it or necessarily even future groundwork for an affiliation agreement down the road. It is something that is mutually beneficial for all parties right now.
“Right now, certainly we’ll be looking for an affiliate again,” stated Fenton. “But right now we don’t have anything.”
At this point in time: Nashville and Milwaukee have no ECHL affiliate. Norfolk is acting as an independent hockey organization within the ECHL. And Atlanta is seeing additions to their roster in the ECHL -for however long it might be- by way of Nashville and Milwaukee.
What happens next for Norfolk is a question that might be best answered just sitting back and watching what happens. That goes for both their ongoing federal lawsuit as well as what happens to that team as an independent hockey team in the ECHL. Does someone step in after seeing what happened through this circumstance and still slap an ECHL affiliation tag on Norfolk? Everyone’s experience and business decisions are their own so there shouldn’t be an outright negative to thinking that won’t be the case. Considering recent history though, and the piling on that is taking place these last few months, it just feels difficult to read Norfolk’s future rather that the future ECHL affiliation agreement down the road for Nashville.
For Nashville and their next ECHL team of choice? It probably isn’t something that gets settled soon on Nashville’s part. The season is already rather active and a short-term solution in Atlanta works for now. It took Nashville until May to tab Norfolk as their new ECHL affiliate last season. That came long after Milwaukee was swept out of the Calder Cup Playoffs and with a trip to the Stanley Cup looming.
Could a new ECHL affiliation agreement be accomplished sooner than the last one now that there is a glaring hole in the three-tier organizational system waiting to be fixed? Sure, but I wouldn’t hold my breath on that either. Business dealings such as this take a significant amount of time to get two sides to the table and stamp out an agreement. We’re hardly into the third month of the 2017-18 season. The focus is on right now and how to best maximize now. It’s only later on this process when “next season” really should be a point of focus for Nashville and their next ECHL affiliate.
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