Last weekend, the AHL celebrated its status as the premier NHL developmental league in a gathering in Binghamton, New York. The two-day All-Star event was held in the Broome County Veterans Memorial Arena on Sunday and Monday.
Forty-two of the league’s top players were on the ice for the skills competition and game. Once again this year, the teams were divided into those who hailed from Canada against those from Europe and the United States. AHL President Dave Andrews explained the preference for this team format over one which would pit one conference against the other, by stating that there are "no real East-West rivalries in our league. If the NHL and the IIHF sign an agreement that includes a proposal to limit the European players in the AHL, then we may have to rethink the format, but for now it is working as it is."
The "Planet USA" team won the skills competition, which included seven events: puck control, fastest skater, rapid fire, hardest shot, accuracy shooting, pass and score, and the breakaway relay. Individual honors were won by Dallas prospect Toby Petersen (fastest skater; 14.001), Sabres wing prospect Mark Mancari (hardest shot, 102.8), and sharpshooter, Gabe Gauthier (LA), who hit four targets in four shots.
Among the netminders, Nashville prospect Pekka Rinne won the best goaltender competition in the skills competition, but he was not as impressive during Monday night’s game. Also very impressive on Sunday night were Detroit’s blue-chip prospect Jimmy Howard, and the Bruins outstanding goaltender, Tuukka Rask. During Monday’s game, Rask continued to show excellent netminding skills, but it was Drew MacIntyre (who has already played two games for the Vancouver Canucks this year), who stole the show. MacIntyre played in the crucial third period for the Canadian team, and faced and stopped the most shots in the game.
As expected, Monday night’s game was a high-scoring event. After Planet USA lead 7-5 going into the final period, MacIntyre gave Canada a chance by only letting one goal get by him. Planet USA netminder Howard was not as sharp in the third period, and the Canadians came back to tie the score at eight goals apiece after regulation.
The AHL does not play an overtime period in its All-Star game, so the contest went directly to a shootout. It was only the third time in history that the AHL All-Star game went beyond regulation, and knowing that the Planet USA team had won each of the first two, the Canadian players had extra incentive to win this one. And win, they did.
With the AHL version of the shootout giving each team five chances to score, it looked to be a long night, but with MacIntyre in net, Canada only needed four shots to claim victory. Local favorite Denis Hamel and Kings prospect Teddy Purcell both put the puck past Howard, but only Edmonton’s Rob Schremp was able to score for Planet USA. Canada walked away with a 9-8 victory and Purcell was named player of the game, both for his hat trick during regulation and his shootout winner. But MacIntyre was certainly a close second for his impressive performance.
In addition to the Skills Competition and All-Star Game, the AHL also used the time in Binghamton to hold a Board of Governors meeting, induct players into its Hall of Fame, and to have AHL President and Chief Executive Dave Andrews give his State of the League address. Of top interest in the question period following the address was the possibility of an outdoor game, and Andrews responded that this idea has gotten a very positive response from the Board of Governors, and will be on the agenda within the near future.
When asked about possible expansion, Andrews noted that the league currently has 29 teams, 28 of which are affiliated with NHL teams. (The Rochester Americans is the only AHL franchise shared by two teams — the Buffalo Sabres and the Florida Panthers.) Andrews said "all the NHL teams want their own AHL club," so expansion is expected. He then named Austin, Texas, as the most likely place for the 30th team. However, Andrews said that nothing is certain at this point, and that there will be no expansion until the 2009-10 season at the earliest. He postulated that the Austin team would arise from the suspended Edmonton Oilers AHL franchise, which would then be sold to the Dallas Stars. Andrews said that he felt that Austin would form a natural rivalry with the current Houston Aeros franchise, and its proximity to Dallas would be advantageous to the NHL Stars organization. When asked how this would affect the Iowa Stars franchise, Andrews assured the media in the room that an AHL team will remain in Iowa.
In talking about the schedule, Andrews told the attendees that the AHL is looking toward a 72-game schedule model. He said, "there is a lot of interest from the NHL general managers for the league to do this. We would look to eliminate the current three games in three nights, and four games in five nights, giving the players more time to practice. This would eliminate some of the stress and fatigue for the players and allow for more instruction to help in their development." According to Andrews, the AHL has reticent to do so without some cost-sharing mechanism in place with the NHL, because of the significant financial impact on the teams. However, Andrews said that it is a top priority of the league, and that he expected something to be worked out at some point in the near future.
The league will hold its 2009 All-Star Classic in Worcester, Massachusetts. However, no dates have been determined yet. Andrews explained that for television and audience availability purposes, the dates for the 2009 event will depend upon the timing of the NHL All-Star Game. The AHL intends to continue to hold its game on the night after the NHL.