A New AHL Western Division for 2015-16?

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In October 2011 I wrote the following in a blog Random Quirks — NHL Western Conference AHL Reorganization? –

Are we heading toward an NHL Western Conference AHL affiliate reorganization? Darren Dregger at TSN broke the story late Thursday afternoon and at issue is the geographic hardship many of the Western Conference NHL teams face with their AHL affiliates. Earlier in October, the Western Conference NHL teams from Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Jose, Colorado, Phoenix, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton met to discuss solutions with the NHL Deputy Commissioner. The problem is illustrated very clearly on the map above [see below] which lists current AHL team locations. Some of the Western Conference NHL teams are thousands of miles from their AHL affiliate as seen in Darren Dregger’s list below (mileage added by Artfulpuck):

Syracuse, NY to Anaheim — 3,745km (2327 miles) [Anaheim's current affiliate is now Norfolk, VA — 2,703 miles]
Manchester, NH to Los Angeles — 4,143km (2574 miles)
Worcester, Mass to San Jose — 4,263km (2649 miles)
Portland, Maine to Phoenix — 3,773km (2344 miles)
Cleveland to Denver — 1,974km (1227 miles)

For more on this story, read Dregger’s article and the followup article on Puck Daddy. While we will not see changes overnight, I believe we will ultimately see changes in the future. This could mean moves for some AHL teams to create a “western wing” of the AHL, or even more drastic measures as proposed by some NHL teams such as the creation of an entirely new league.

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Yesterday, Craig Morgan of Fox Sports Arizona wrote a followup to this issue 3 years later, detailing once again the notion that the Western NHL teams are still very interested in moving their AHL teams westward into a new division — a Pacific Division, which he states will likely be approved and would possibly begin play in the 2015-16 season.

“It’s been an ongoing process that’s probably been bubbling for the past year or two,” AHL vice president of communications Jason Chaimovitch said. “As a league, we’re looking into the possibility and what the process would be.”

Morgan writes: “Salt Lake City and Albuquerque are potential out-of-state possibilities for an affiliate, but the Coyotes’ probable preference would be to have the AHL affiliate play in Arizona as part of the new ownership group’s effort to build its brand. [...] Tucson might be the optimal choice because it is the second largest market in the state and would allow the Coyotes to extend their brand into the southern portion of the state. The Tucson Civic Center began an $8 million renovation in March that will be completed in December and the venue has a capacity of about 8,000, although University of Arizona coach Sean Hogan said it’s closer to 6,500 for hockey right now.”

I reside near one of the western US AHL teams and from that perspective, I love the idea of having a Western (or Pacific) division of the AHL. The issue is not so much about team travel between AHL teams, although that is a problem, the much bigger issue from the NHL perspective is the call-up time for these NHL teams when their AHL teams are located 3,000 miles away.

Morgan states: “Concerns over injuries and the ability to field a full lineup often lead western teams to carry more players on their NHL rosters than they would if the affiliate were a bus ride away. That ends up costing the teams more salary cap money that might otherwise be saved if players on two-way contracts were playing on their AHL salaries with the affiliate.”

For years East coast hockey folks have said there were no markets in the west, but the western ECHL teams have proved that wrong. There are markets for hockey in the west, for smaller minor league teams — Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, Tucson, Flagstaff are possibilities. Check out Kansas City, Portland (Oregon), Spokane (Washington) … look at Idaho and Wyoming! There are cities interested in minor league hockey in these locations. If the ECHL can do it, the AHL should have no problem with it.

And if you are worried about attendance, some of these western ECHL teams far surpass some Eastern AHL team attendance numbers. Take a look at AHL attendance figures and then compare them to some of the Western ECHL average attendance figures:

    • Ontario: 8144
    • Colorado: 5289
    • Bakersfield: 4883
    • Stockton: 4742
    • Alaska: 4619
    • Las Vegas: 4581
    • Idaho: 3997

I would welcome a true Western Conference for the AHL. It’s time.

AHL Map from Wikipedia

AHL Map from 2011 — there have been a few changes since that time: Houston team relocated to Des Moines, IA. Utica added.