To Affiliate or Not to Affiliate?

By Chad Cranmer
The IHL is down to just 11 teams this season. The independent Long Beach
Ice Dogs left for the West Coast League, and the Michigan K-Wings joined the
United League when the Dallas Stars dropped the K-Wings as their top
affiliate. Houston and Manitoba are the only two teams left in the IHL
without an affiliation agreement, and some people wonder if the independent
teams can sty competitive in a league where more than three-quarters of the
teams have a parent club.

One Houston fan used to think that affiliation was a bad idea. He is not as
sure now though. “After watching KC skate rings around our guys, and seeing
the independents making up most of the bottom tier of the league this year .
. . and seeing the inability of the Aeros to assemble a competitive team
this year, I have reversed my position on affiliation.”

Not all fans are in favor of affiliation, however. “I am not in favor of an
all affiliate league as I find being a fan of an independent much more fun,”
said another fan.

So is affiliation good or bad? There are plenty of reasons for and against
full affiliation.

One reason that teams become affiliates is that it helps with salary
concerns. NHL teams pay part of the players’ salaries when they are in the
minors, with the farm team picking up what the parent club doesn’t pay.
This is considerably less expensive than paying the full salaries.

Another way an affiliation agreement helps a team is that many times an NHL
team will sign or trade for a veteran player who may not have NHL skills,
but is a good minor league player. Ottawa signed veteran wing Derek King
last offseason and assigned him to their farm club, the Grand Rapids
Griffins. King played for the Griffins last year while he was under
contract for the St. Louis Blues, and he became an integral part of the
Eastern Conference Championship team.

Affiliation also adds stability to a minor league team. An NHL team can
help a minor league team that is struggling financially or with poor
players.

Fans also benefit from an affiliation agreement. Most players assigned to
an NHL affiliate are young prospects. Because they are trying to impress
the NHL team, they play harder than a career minor leaguer without an NHL
contract might. Also, fans can see players that they watched in the minors
move up to the NHL and possibly become stars.

Not everything about being an affiliate is good however. Affiliates have
very little control of their rosters. The Griffins, for example, only have
a few players not assigned to them by the Senators. If an NHL team has a
run of injuries, their minor league team’s roster can quickly be depleted by
call ups.

Another risk that a minor league affiliate runs is that if their parent club
is struggling or rebuilding, then most of their good prospects are going to
be in the NHL and the affiliate is left with lower quality players. When
the Detroit Vipers signed an affiliation agreement with the Tampa Bay
Lightning, they went from a Turner Cup contender to the bottom of the
standings.

Losing their affiliation agreement can cripple a team. The Michigan K-Wings
lost virtually their entire team, including their players and coaching
staff, when the Dallas Stars switched their affiliation to Utah.

Despite the potential problems that affiliation brings, continued
affiliation will help the IHL and it’s member teams. Before Dallas switched
it’s affiliation to Utah, the Grizzlies were struggling and considering
dropping out of the IHL, so the league likely would have lost two teams even
if the Stars had renewed their agreement with Michigan. Grand Rapids and
Vancouver farm club Kansas City Blades are on top of their conferences, and
Houston and Chicago, who has a partial affiliate with the New York
Islanders, are at the bottom of the league standings. Houston and Manitoba
will likely continue to struggle as long as they remain independent, unless,
that is, they fold or join a lower level league.