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A Proposed AHL and ECHL Realignment

The AHL is moving west, and other teams are likely to follow. Is there a one-time realignment solution that works in everyone's favor?

Karl Gehring

Times are changing in minor league hockey.  If you happened to miss Thursday's announcement, 5 AHL teams are moving to California.  Here's a quick recap:

  • San Jose's affiliate is moving from Worchester, MA to San Jose, CA
  • Calgary's is moving from Glens Falls, NY to Stockton, CA
  • Edmonton's is moving from Oklahoma City, OK to Bakersfield, CA
  • LA's is moving from Manchester, NH to Ontario, CA
  • Anaheim purchased the Norfolk Admirals and is moving them from Norfolk, VA to San Diego, CA
To offset the loss of AHL teams, the Stockton, Bakersfield, and Ontario ECHL clubs will relocate to Glens Falls, Norfolk, and Manchester, respectively.

With such a large shake-up to both leagues, realignment is sure to follow.  It's also likely that more western NHL teams will want to move their AHL affiliates closer to home.  Instead of changes trickling in over the next few years, what would happen if both the AHL and ECHL were drastically overhauled for the start of next season?  Is there an arrangement that would prove more beneficial to the overall North American pro-hockey landscape?

In order to hypothetically answer this question, I considered the following criteria.

1. Attendance - both leagues' revenues are primarily gate driven.  With this in mind, I looked at the 5-year average attendance for all AHL, ECHL, and now defunct CHL teams to get a sense of which would be the most profitable.  If an ECHL team drew well, I promoted it to the AHL.  On the flip side, if an AHL team drew poorly, I relegated it to the ECHL regardless of history or ownership.

2.  Inner League Divisions - I wanted to ensure that busing between games was still at least somewhat possible.  Some flights would likely have to be added, especially for northeastern teams traveling to California, but I strove to maintain 6 geographical clusters of 5 teams each that could be traveled between fairly easily on land.

3.  Cross League Affiliates - Call-up travel time is important.  After a late game the night before or in an emergency situation, the speed at which a prospect can make it to the arena often determines whether or not he'll play and how tired he'll be.  A shorter commute also makes it easier for team officials to keep tabs on their farm.  By looking at drive time and available commercial flights, I tried to keep the distance between affiliated teams under 3 hours.  There are some extreme cases - Alaska is not easy to travel to - but for the majority of partnerships, 3 hours proved to be a good guideline.

4. Known Markets - Even though Anaheim decided to test the market in San Diego, for this scenario, I'm sticking to cities that have generated pro-hockey attendance data sometime within the last 5 years.  I'll resurrect certain clubs, but I won't be putting teams in untested cities.

I also expanded the ECHL to a full 30 team, 100% affiliated, AA-minor league. Since I'm taking away many of that league's biggest draws, bringing it under the umbrella of both the AHL and NHL seemed wise for stability purposes.

The New AHL

NHL Affiliate Team(s) Current AHL Team Location 5 Yr Avg Drive Time Flight Time Proposed AHL Team Location 5 Yr Avg Drive Time Flight Time Diff
Anaheim Ducks San Diego New Team San Diego, CA - 1:29 - San Diego New Team San Diego, CA - 1:29 - 0:00
Arizona Coyotes *Portland Pirates Portland, ME 3,848 - 6:57 San Antonio Rampage San Antonio, TX 6,661 - 2:30 -4:27
Boston Bruins Providence Bruins Providence, RI 7,878 0:53 - Providence Bruins Providence, RI 7,878 0:53 - 0:00
Buffalo Sabres Rochester Americans Rochester, NY 5,425 1:13 - Rochester Americans Rochester, NY 5,425 1:13 - 0:00
Calgary Flames Stockton New Team Stockton, CA - - 4:10 Stockton Thunder Stockton, CA 5,401 - 4:10 0:00
Carolina Hurricanes Charlotte Checkers Charlotte, NC 6,370 2:39 0:55 Charlotte Checkers Charlotte, NC 6,370 2:39 0:55 0:00
Chicago Blackhawks *Rockford IceHogs Rockford, IL 4,490 1:33 - Chicago Wolves Chicago, IL 7,837 0:27 - -1:03
Colorado Avalanche Lake Erie Monsters Cleveland, OH 7,715 - 2:49 **Colorado Eagles Loveland, CO 5,289 0:48 - -2:01
Columbus Blue Jackets *Springfield Falcons Springfield, MA 3,629 - 3:04 **Fort Wayne Komets Fort Wayne, IN 7,466 2:43 - -0:21
Dallas Stars Texas Stars Cedar Park, TX 5,255 2:44 0:55 Texas Stars Cedar Park, TX 5,255 2:44 0:55 0:00
Detroit Red Wings Grand Rapids Griffins Grand Rapids, MI 7,578 2:15 0:55 Grand Rapids Griffins Grand Rapids, MI 7,578 2:15 0:55 0:00
Edmonton Oilers Bakersfield New Team Bakersfield, CA - - 5:59 Bakersfield Condors Bakersfield,CA 4,841 - 5:59 0:00
Florida Panthers San Antonio Rampage San Antonio, TX 6,661 - 4:39 **Florida Everblades Estero, FL 5,067 1:40 - -2:59
Los Angeles Kings Ontario New Team Ontario, CA - 0:42 - Ontario Reign Ontario, CA 7,181 0:42 - 0:00
Minnesota Wild Iowa Wild Des Moines, IA 7,110 3:32 1:05 Iowa Wild Des Moines, IA 7,110 3:32 1:05 0:00
Montreal Canadiens *Hamilton Bulldogs Hamilton, ON 4,711 - 2:00 St. John's IceCaps St. John's, NL 6,187 - 2:38 +0:38
Nashville Predators Milwaukee Admirals Milwaukee, WI 5,578 - 3:12 ***Houston Aeros Houston, TX 6,814 - 2:15 -0:57
New Jersey Devils *Albany Devils Albany, NY 3,382 2:23 1:09 **Gwinnett Gladiators Duluth, GA 5,088 - 2:20 +1:11
New York Islanders *Bridgeport Sound Tigers Bridgeport, CT 4,707 1:17 - **Manchester Monarchs Manchester, NH 5,609 - 1:12 +0:05
New York Rangers *Hartford Wolf Pack Hartford, CT 4,493 1:57 1:00 W-B/Scranton Penguins Wilkes-Barre, PA 5,858 2:09 - +1:09
Ottawa Senators *Binghamton Senators Binghamton, NY 3,674 3:57 4:06 Syracuse Crunch Syracuse, NY 5,564 3:00 - -0:57
Philadelphia Flyers Lehigh Valley Phantoms Allentown, PA 8,013 1:02 - Lehigh Valley Phantoms Allentown, PA 8,013 1:02 - 0:00
Pittsburgh Penguins W-B/Scranton Penguins Wilkes-Barre, PA 5,858 4:14 3:07 Lake Erie Monsters Cleveland, OH 7,715 2:05 - -1:02
San Jose Sharks San Jose New Team San Jose, CA - 0:00 - San Jose New Team San Jose, CA - 0:00 - 0:00
St. Louis Blues Chicago Wolves Chicago, IL 7,837 - 1:05 **Evansville IceMen Evansville, IN 5,148 2:31 - +1:26
Tampa Bay Lightning Syracuse Crunch Syracuse, NY 5,564 - 4:04 **Orlando Solar Bears Orlando, FL 6,380 1:23 - -2:41
Toronto Maple Leafs Toronto Marlies Toronto, ON 5,447 0:12 - Toronto Marlies Toronto, ON 5,447 0:12 - 0:00
Vancouver Canucks *Utica Comets Utica, NY 3,574 - 7:00 **Wichita Thunder Wichita, KS 5,338 - 5:30 -1:30
Washington Capitals Hershey Bears Hershey, PA 9,762 2:11 - Hershey Bears Hershey, PA 9,762 2:11 - 0:00
Winnipeg Jets St. John's IceCaps St. John's, NL 6,187 - 6:24 Milwaukee Admirals Milwaukee, WI 5,578 - 3:55 -2:29

* = Relegated to ECHL
** = Promoted from ECHL
*** = Reinstated

AHL West AHL Atlantic
San Diego New Team Hershey Bears
San Jose New Team Lehigh Valley Phantoms
Ontario Reign Providence Bruins
Stockton Thunder St. John's IceCaps
Bakersfield Condors W-B/Scranton Penguins
AHL Central AHL Northeast
Texas Stars Toronto Marlies
***Houston Aeros Rochester Americans
San Antonio Rampage Lake Erie Monsters
**Wichita Thunder **Manchester Monarchs
**Colorado Eagles Syracuse Crunch
AHL Midwest AHL South
Grand Rapids Griffins Charlotte Checkers
Iowa Wild **Orlando Solar Bears
Chicago Wolves **Evansville IceMen
**Fort Wayne Komets **Gwinnett Gladiators
Milwaukee Admirals **Florida Everblades

For the new league, I set the attendance threshold at 5,000+ per game.  There was one Cali team that didn't make the mark, but since it was just realigned, I decided to leave that division as is.

-Interactive Map-

The biggest change to the league was the promotion of 8 ECHL teams and the reinstatement of the Houston Aeros.  The Fort Wayne Komets, Orlando Solar Bears, Manchester Monarchs, Wichita Thunder, Colorado Eagles, Evansville IceMen, Gwinnett Gladiators, and Florida Everblades have all proved over the past 5 years to be strong enough markets to support AHL franchises.  Surprisingly, most of them are non-traditional, including three teams from the South (Gwinnett is based just outside of Atlanta).  The Toledo Walleye and Missouri Mavericks also draw well over the 5,000 mark, but with affiliation constraints, I felt it best to leave them as the ECHL cash cows.

On the other hand, the Portland Pirates, Rockford IceHogs, Springfield Falcons, Hamilton Bulldogs, Albany Devils, Bridgeport Sound Tigers, Hartford Wolf Pack, Binghampton Senators, and Utica Comets - all more traditional markets - drew far worse.  None of them hit the 5,000 mark, so all 9 teams were relegated.

With affiliation, I tried to leave as many NHL-AHL pairings as possible intact.  As long as they stayed within the 3 hour travel limit and a more logical affiliation didn't come up - such as coupling the Chicago Wolves with the Chicago Blackhawks - I decided that it was in everyone's interest to just leave them be.  14 pairings, including the 5 new Cali ones, fell into this category.

For the last 16 NHL teams, 9 became affiliated with the new AHL clubs.  The remaining 7 were shuffled around a bit, but in the end, only 5 teams overall experienced an increase in travel time.  Most of this increase came because call-ups were now able to drive instead of fly, but their total travel still stayed under the 2:40 mark, and no single club's rate jumped more than an hour and a half.

On the flip side, I cut the number of teams that absolutely needed to fly prospects from 12 down to 9.  I also cut the required airport layovers from 11 to 4 by affiliating based on direct flight availability.  In total, I shaved 20.5 hours of travel time away.  Even with the 4:30 increase faced by those five unlucky clubs, a 16 hour savings is nothing to scoff at.

The league itself is now more spread out, but an increase of on average 562 spectators per game should help cover the additional cost.


ECHL Team Location 5 Yr Avg AHL Affiliate Driving Time Flight Time NHL Affiliate
Allen Americans Allen, TX 4,080 San Diego New Team - 3:40 Anaheim Ducks
***Oklahoma City Barons Oklahoma City, OK 4,111 San Antonio Rampage - 2:30 Arizona Coyotes
***Worcester Sharks Worcester, MA 4,031 Providence Bruins 0:48 - Boston Bruins
*Utica Comets Utica, NY 3,574 Rochester Americans 2:04 - Buffalo Sabres
Idaho Steelheads Boise, ID 3,959 Stockton Thunder - 2:25 Calgary Flames
South Carolina Stingrays N. Charleston,SC 3,517 Charlotte Checkers 3:10 1:02 Carolina Hurricanes
***Peoria Rivermen Peoria, IL 4,850 Chicago Wolves 2:30 - Chicago Blackhawks
***New Mexico Scorpions Rio Rancho, NM 2,791 Colorado Eagles - 1:50 Colorado Avalanche
Toledo Walleye Toledo, OH 6,220 Fort Wayne Komets 1:46 - Columbus Blue Jackets
Tulsa Oilers Tulsa, OK 4,761 Texas Stars - 2:55 Dallas Stars
Kalamazoo Wings Kalamazoo, MI 3,067 Grand Rapids Griffins 0:47 - Detroit Red Wings
Rapid City Rush Rapid City, SD 4,521 Bakersfield Condors - 4:57 Edmonton Oilers
*Hartford Wolf Pack Hartford, CT 4,493 Florida Everblades - 3:10 Florida Panthers
Utah Grizzlies West Valley City, UT 4,665 Ontario Reign - 1:45 Los Angeles Kings
Quad City Mallards Moline, IL 3,389 Iowa Wild 2:32 - Minnesota Wild
*Bridgeport Sound Tigers Bridgeport, CT 4,707 St. John's IceCaps - 5:20 Montreal Canadiens
Cincinnati Cyclones Cincinnati, OH 4,260 Houston Aeros - 2:30 Nashville Predators
Greenville Road Warriors Greenville, SC 3,480 Gwinnett Gladiators 1:15 - New Jersey Devils
*Portland Pirates Portland, ME 3,848 Manchester Monarchs 1:30 - New York Islanders (Brooklyn)
*Binghamton Senators Binghamton, NY 3,674 W-B/Scranton Penguins 1:10 - New York Rangers
Adirondack Flames Glens Falls, NY 3,996 Syracuse Crunch 2:38 - Ottawa Senators
Reading Royals Reading, PA 4,168 Lehigh Valley Phantoms 0:51 - Philadelphia Flyers
*Springfield Falcons Springfield, MA 3,629 Lake Eire Monsters - 1:32 Pittsburgh Penguins
Alaska Aces Anchorage, AK 4,474 San Jose New Team - 5:52 San Jose Sharks
Indy Fuel Indianapolis,IN 3,722 Evansville IceMen 2:58 - St. Louis Blues
*Albany Devils Albany, NY 3,382 Orlando Solar Bears - 3:10 Tampa Bay Lightning
*Hamilton Bulldogs Hamilton, ON 4,711 Toronto Marlies 0:58 - Toronto Maple Leafs
Missouri Mavericks Independence, MO 5,346 Wichita Thunder 3:03 - Vancouver Canucks
Norfolk Admirals Norfolk, VA 4,923 Hershey Bears - 2:29 Washington Capitals
*Rockford IceHogs Rockford, IL 4,490 Milwaukee Admirals 1:37 - Winnipeg Jets

* = Relegated to ECHL
*** = Reinstated

ECHL West ECHL Atlantic
Alaska Aces *Bridgeport Sound Tigers
Idaho Steelheads *Hartford Wolf Pack
***New Mexico Scorpions *Portland Pirates
Rapid City Rush *Springfield Falcons
Utah Grizzlies ***Worcester Sharks
ECHL Central ECHL Northeast
Allen Americans Adirondack Flames
Missouri Mavericks *Albany Devils
***Oklahoma City Barons *Binghamton Senators
***Peoria Rivermen *Hamilton Bulldogs
Tulsa Oilers *Utica Comets
ECHL Midwest ECHL South
Indy Fuel Cincinnati Cyclones
Kalamazoo Wings Greenville Road Warriors
Quad City Mallards Norfolk Admirals
*Rockford IceHogs Reading Royals
Toledo Walleye South Carolina Stingrays

My first move when recreating the ECHL was to cut away the Elmira Jackets, Wheeling Nailers, and Brampton Beast since they failed to draw at least 3,000 fans.  An additional 8 clubs left to join the AHL, but 9 relegated ones took their place.  I also found three former AHL franchises (Oklahoma City Barons, Worcester Sharks, and the currently SPHL-affiliated Peoria Rivermen) that drew well enough to warrant another chance.  That created a 29 team league.

For the last team, I had a number of options, but based on my desire to create a Western ECHL Division that actually made sense, two defunct CHL markets stood out as the best choices:  Albuquerque and Denver.  Neither hit the 3,000 spectator mark I was hoping for, but New Mexico came closer with an average of 2,791.  From the sounds of it, a lack of advertising and questionable management were the biggest downfalls of the team, so I decided to take a chance by reinstating it, hoping for more stable ownership.  However, since it still posed a risk, I purposely affiliated it with the AHL/NHL pairing most likely to relocate it to Denver if it failed.  Unfortunately, this move meant that Anaheim/San Diego's affiliate became Allen, TX and their flight time beached the 3 hour mark.  Even with that inconvenience, I felt this was the most logical arrangement  for the long-term stability of the Western Division.  If at a later date Anaheim decides it wants to test a market like Portland, OR, then a switch involving the Avs could easily be made.

Once the 30 team league was formed, I began assigning affiliations based on the 3 hour guideline.  Since San Jose has zero travel between the AHL and NHL levels, it was only fair that took on the 6 hour travel to Alaska.  The number of newly-relegated New England teams created a bit of a glut, but direct flights from Hartford and Albany to the Florida markets helped alleviate the issue.  The 5:20 between Bridgeport and St. John's was the best I could manage, and Rapid City ended up as the best option for Bakersfield.  Apart from those teams and the aforementioned San Diego, all other partnerships fell within the 3 hour window quite comfortably and provide a unified, three-tier, North American professional hockey system.


First of all, I doubt anything like this ever comes to pass.  This sort of drastic realignment ignores ownership, roster construction, team success, internal politics, and a whole slew of other variables that would sink an endeavor this extensive.  However, it does illustrate that there are smaller changes that can be made to improve the leagues.

One of the absolute biggest takeaways is that there are a ton of outstanding non-traditional markets out there.  Of the 6 current AHL teams in New York, 4 of them are getting their butts thoroughly trounced attendance-wise by teams in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, Missouri, Kansas, and Colorado.  That's not even taking into account the fact that the South has its own professional hockey league that has kept the lights on for over 10 years.  Laugh at the Panthers and Coyotes all you want - Southern Expansion is working.  So is growing the game to the Pacific and everywhere in between.  It's about time the AHL caught on, and I think they'll find even more success by further embracing central and southern markets.

I also think having a fully affiliated ECHL is the way to go.  It brings everyone under the same umbrella and streamlines the call-up process, plus it opens up the possibility of advertising or revenue sharing between the leagues.  Each AHL club suddenly has the ability to cultivate their own farm team as well, which hopefully raises the overall standard of play across the continent.  The benefit might not be incredibly apparent at the NHL level, but creating a stable, exciting, wide-reaching hockey product is only going to be good for the game.

No matter what else happens, it's great that AHL hockey is about to find a home in California.  It's a small step, but it opens up a ton of doors that can, and will, make this a better sport in the long run.