The relationship between the NHL and the AHL is truly unlike anything else in North American sports. The closest comparison would be in baseball, but with their three-tiered development system, but it’s not remotely the same. These AHL clubs have great value, as they give the prospects too old for junior hockey a chance to develop and prove themselves worthy.
Teams Need To Bring Their AHL Clubs Closer
There has been rumbling out on the West Coast from the fans of the Vancouver Canucks fans about how their AHL affiliate, the Utica Comets, is a 44-hour drive away. What could possibly be the benefit of having an NHL franchise associated with a city on the other side of the continent?
Despite this being one of the largest distances between an NHL club and their AHL affiliate, this isn’t the only case. There’s the Edmonton Oilers affiliated with the Bakersfield Condors, the Colorado Avalanche with the San Antonio Rampage, the Calgary Flames with the Stockton Heat, Tampa Bay Lightning with the Syracuse Crunch, and the Florida Panthers the Springfield Thunderbirds. So why does the NHL continue to persist with such an inherently flawed system?
Just for reference, here are the official distances between the aforementioned affiliations:
Edmonton to Bakersfield: 1,769 miles apart
Denver to San Antonio: 933 miles apart
Calgary to Stockton: 1,290 miles apart
Tampa Bay to Syracuse: 1,325 miles apart
Miami (Florida Panthers) to Springfield (Massachusetts): 1,416 miles apart
Why This Is A Problem – Both For Fans And Business
First let’s delve into the mind of the common fan, possibly a Canucks fan in this instance. The Canucks have a player who is too old to send back to junior hockey, but not quite ready for the NHL. The fans obviously want to see this player on a regular basis to know what their team invested in, both monetarily and in the form of a draft pick. But the distance between the fan, if they live in Vancouver, and their new prospect is now a 44-hour road trip. This doesn’t sound very smart now, does it?
So this same fan, who obviously cannot afford to make these trips on a plane, train, or automobile decides to go the route of watching it on TV. The problem with that now is that most major channels do not, or have never, televised the AHL on a regular basis. This leaves the fan with just one choice left, subscribe to the online service the AHL offers, meaning they have to fork out $250 just to watch a game on a computer to regularly see their teams draft choices. Once again, not something someone is going to regularly do.
From a strictly business perspective this is also a poor move. The fans going to the games for these AHL clubs that are affiliated with teams across the continent are now trying to invest themselves into players that likely don’t belong to their closest NHL clubs. So why would they want to spend money to fill the seats for a club that has nothing invested in their area but the purpose of just making money? It becomes nothing more than a night out, with expensive food and drinks.
How This Can Be Fixed
There are many organizations who have already realized the benefit of having their AHL affiliate within driving distance to them. For instance, many Columbus Blue Jackets fans watch the Cleveland Monsters, at least on a semi-regular basis. And in their circumstance they are now able to make the pilgrimage to the AHL games to see their up-and-coming players. To prove this point, the top seven teams in AHL attendance this year are within a two-hour drive of their NHL affiliate.
2016-17 AHL Attendance, as of 12/20/2016, courtesy of www.hockeydb.com:
- Hershey Bears – 8,506
- San Diego Gulls – 7,969
- Cleveland Monsters – 7,799
- Lehigh Valley Phantoms – 7,774
- Providence Bruins – 7,765
- Ontario Reign – 7,630
- Grand Rapids Griffins – 6,839
9. San Antonio – 5,950
14. Syracuse – 5,324
18. Bakersfield – 4,823
19. Springfield – 4,602
23. Stockton – 4,071
24. Utica – 3,870
The proof is in the pudding. Aside from San Antonio, the numbers show a trend in attendance that directly correlates with proximity to their NHL affiliate. Yet common sense seems to continually being thrown by the wayside in favor of something that no one really understands, other than boosting the sales of AHL Live.
The only real way that this apparently ever-present problem can be fixed is by doing exactly what the Blue Jackets, Anaheim Ducks, and other organizations alike have realized. Even the Montreal Canadiens, whose affiliate is in St. John’s, Newfoundland, will be moving their AHL team to Laval, just north of Montreal, next year. The Ottawa Senators are doing the same, moving their affiliate to Belleville, ON. This is to bring their affiliate closer to home to drive ticket sales to their AHL affiliate up. It’s only as simple as finding a suitable city to house these clubs, and surely many cities would be fighting to have a professional sports organization come to town.
Suitable Fits To End The Long-Distance Relationships
Let’s go back to the first example listed, the relationship the Canucks have with their affiliate. When looking for a suitable fit for them, look no further than Abbotsford, who have already been the home of an AHL franchise in the Abbotsford Heat, now the Stockton Heat. The Heat did relatively well, but the Flames apparently thought Stockton, California was better suited to hockey than Abbotsford. The arena is sitting there just waiting for a team, and who better to fill that void of hockey than the Canucks? It would be a match made in hockey heaven.
As for the rest of the teams listed, the Avalanche could move their affiliate from San Antonio to Colorado Springs, Aurora, or even Fort Collins, all cities of 150,000 people or more. And with the popularity of hockey surging in the state of Colorado, moving the affiliate of the Avalanche their would only go to boost an already growing market.
The same can be said for the others listed above, as the Crunch could move to St. Petersburg and be a hop, skip, and a jump away from the Lightning, much like the San Jose Sharks are with the Barracudas. The Condors could just as easily occupy the same city as the Oilers and be just as successful. The Thunderbirds could go to another city in Florida and do wonders in helping to grow a southern market, or maybe even go to another southern state.
Now it’s obvious that it’s not as easy as just getting up and moving to another city, as there is a massive amount of issues associated with relocation. However, the process would provide many benefits in the long run of securing the markets in these areas. And the fans would be greatly appreciative of a league that has their interests in mind, which would also play as a great piece of personal relations for a league that has alienated thousands of fans with semi-regular lockouts and poor choices in placing their affiliates. Will common sense ever prevail in this situation? One can only hope the NHL can see the light.