An expanded American Hockey League has entered a new era. There now are 27 teams, up from 20 following absorption of six clubs from the dissolved International Hockey League and addition of a new franchise, and the AHL’s status as the No. 1 developmental league for NHL-bound players has been accentuated by the demise of the IHL.
League president David Andrews is beaming as he awaits the opening Oct. 4 of the AHL’s 66th season. The AHL will have a Canadian Division comprised of the returning St. John’s Maple Leafs, Saint John Flames and Hamilton Bulldogs, as well as two clubs adopted from the IHL – the Manitoba Moose and the Quebec Citadelles.
The change in leagues will be a financial boon to the Moose, who now will travel in Canada instead of making extended trips into the United States as they did in their IHL days. Projected savings for the Moose are at least $250,000.
“It’s great for us,” says public relations director Matt Frost. “Before, we only had one direct flight, into Chicago. Now we can pretty much fly directly to most of our cities, plus we’ll be paying Canadian dollars now on many of our road trips. It will make a huge difference on our bottom line.”
Things are looking up on the ice as well. General manager Randy Carlyle used to piece together a lineup with free-agent signings and players assigned by a grab bag of NHL teams. He was an independent operator. Now he’s getting 15 of Vancouver’s top prospects in an arrangement to be the main Canucks farm club.
“We’re excited about it,” Carlyle says of the partnership. “A Triple A level of hockey, similar to baseball’s Triple A level, has been created. “Over half of our games will be within the Canadian Division, and it’s a good marketing tool for us. We can tell fans the Baby Habs are coming, or the Baby Leafs. There used to be an NHL team in Winnipeg and hopefully we can stoke some rivalries from the past.”
The Road to the Show Starts Here, say billboards around Winnipeg playing up the new link to the NHL. “Our season ticket revenue is up,” says Frost. “There’s been a lot of positive feedback from fans.” The Moose logo on the front of jerseys stays, and a Canucks logo is being added to a shoulder.
The AHL’s emphasis is on youth. A team can dress 17 skaters and two goaltenders for league games. No more than six players can have more than 260 games of pro experience. Each club can exempt from the regulation one player who has played at least 450 games in the AHL.
The Quebec entry is affiliated with the Montreal Canadiens, St. John’s is the farm club of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Hamilton will take top Edmonton Oilers prospects, and Saint John is affiliated with the Calgary Flames.
‘From the club’s standpoint and the city’s standpoint, it’s a terrific move,” Saint John general manager Stew MacDonald says of creation of the enlarged Canadian Division. “This allows us to carry the Saint John name into a much bigger territory.”
The Flames’ travel costs won’t change much but “the benefit is from our fans’ standpoint,” he said. “There’s every reason to be optimistic. We’ve had some great rivalries in the past (in Atlantic Canada) and to put Manitoba into the mix is a great addition. It’s a positive thing for hockey in Canada.”
Glenn Stanford, director of operations for the St. John’s Maple Leafs, says his team’s travel costs will remain high because, geographically, every road game is a long trek. Now there will be fewer trips south and a few more west.
“We overcame a big hurdle three and four years ago with the failure of other East Coast AHL teams,” he said. “Now, with a fresh commitment from Toronto and with a Canadian Division with Winnipeg and Quebec, there will be some great rivalries develop. “We’re looking forward to playing the Moose in our home opener.”
Some U.S.-based NHL teams had IHL affiliations. Now they are partners with AHL teams. “We always felt we were the premier (minor-pro) league,” says Stanford. “Now our league is stronger, there’s no question about that. “This league is a very, very good hockey league.”
Johan Hedberg played for the Moose last winter, and he went on to help the Pittsburgh Penguins get to the NHL conference finals last spring. Adds Frost: “It took a Johan Hedberg to go to Pittsburgh for people to say, ‘Hey, these guys really are good.”
Other AHL teams are based in Albany, N.Y., Bridgeport, Conn., Chicago, Cincinnati, Grand Rapids, Mich., Hartford, Conn., Hershey, Pa., Houston, Lowell, Mass., Manchester, N.H., Milwaukee, Norfolk, Va., Philadelphia, Portland, Me., Providence, R.I., Rochester, N.Y., Springfield, Mass., Syracuse, N.Y., Salt Lake City, Utah, Wilkes Barre-Scranton, Pa., and Worcester, Mass.
The demise of the IHL means fewer job opportunities for veteran pros. “It’s cut down the number of jobs at this level,” says Carlyle. “That’s impacted on people already. “We’re bringing back only three players from last year’s team. That’s quite a turnover.”