Western teams want their affiliates closer
by John Furgele
The winds of change are descending upon the American Hockey League. And, the change could result in a dramatic shift on which cities remain in the American Hockey League, the top minor league of hockey. The AHL All-Star Game is set for Monday at the Utica Memorial Auditorium and there is a Board of Governors meeting slated for the weekend. It is there where the board may decide to shift some franchises from the east to the west to benefit teams like the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose, Vancouver and Calgary. The talk of a five or six team Pacific division have been going for quite some time and there are reports that say the deal just needs a final stamp of approval.
The Norfolk Admirals, Worcester Sharks and Adirondack (Glens Falls) Flames are reported heading west to Ontario CA, San Jose, CA and Stockton, CA. For the Flames, it would be a one and done as the team just relocated from Abbotsford, BC to Glens Falls for the 2014-2015 season. Glens Falls lost the Phantoms to Lehigh Valley, PA after 2013-2014, but that was always a temporary situation while a new arena was being built in the area for the Phantoms, a team that originated in Philadelphia.
Utica has not specifically been mentioned as a relocation candidate, but with the Vancouver Canucks as the parent club, there has to be some concerns to those who reside in the Mohawk Valley. The Albany Devils, owned by the New Jersey Devils, play at the Albany Times Union Center whose lease expires after this season. Talks to extend the lease have been ongoing and TU Center manager Bob Belber is confident that the Devils will continue to call Albany home in the future.
Glens Falls could be the odd team out. The Flames play in the small, antiquated but cozy Civic Center and even though the arena capacity is 4,800 and the team has been averaging over 3,400 per game, the city of Glens Falls is roughly 16,000 population and though it is close enough to Saratoga, one wonders if that size of a city concerns AHL officials? The Devils play in downtown Albany and despite a great arena, the team has never been well supported with crowds routinely under 3,000 for games. It hasn’t been discussed, but could one see the Flames leaving, and the Devils moving to Glens Falls, leaving Albany team less? The answer is no, but with the ever changing situation, who really knows?
The Flames want their top affiliate closer; there is no hiding or denying that. The move from Abbotsford to Glens Falls was puzzling because British Columbia is obviously much closer to Calgary than Warren County, NY is, but there were issues that drove the Flames to Glens Falls. Now, it appears that the Flames have found a Western home and the Civic Center will be searching again for another hockey team.
The Flames are trying to keep hockey in Glens Falls. Reports of a swap are progressing with Stockton, CA leaving the ECHL for the AHL and Glens Falls getting an ECHL franchise. The ECHL is considered a AA league (AHL is AAA, so to speak). Most ECHL teams have AHL and NHL parents. The Buffalo Sabres for example has their AHL affiliate in Rochester and their ECHL club in Elmira. An ECHL team for Glens Falls would certainly be better than no hockey team, but there has been a degree of smugness with that in the past. After the Adirondack Red Wings left town, the Adirondack Icemen and later the Frostbite played in the United Hockey League. Glens Falls fans never really warmed to those teams and eventually the city was without hockey until the Phantoms needed a temporary home. There will be those in Glens Falls that will demand and not settle for anything less than an AHL team, but if the Flames do leave, it’s best to get over the hurt quickly and embrace having the ECHL in your city.
The ECHL is better than what the UHL was. It has 28 teams from east to west with Anchorage, Alaska even having a team. The Fort Wayne Komets, which began play in the 1952-53 season, are one of the longest running United States hockey clubs behind only the Boston Bruins, New York Rangers, Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks and Hershey Bears (AHL). The Komets played in the higher International Hockey League and were also members of the UHL and the fan support has always been great—regardless of league. Their play by play announcer Bob Chase is 88 years old and still does all games in his 62nd season. The league is certainly good enough for Glens Falls and the city will hopefully celebrate and not moan keeping hockey in their city.
By Tuesday, the smoke should be clearer. The AHL wants to streamline itself and market itself better. There is also talk of reducing the schedule from 76 games to as few as 66, with 72 also being bandied about. The NHL would like to see fewer games, more development and practice and more NHL ready players. In a way, a further reduction seems right. Major League Baseball plays 162 games, but full season Double A and Triple A teams play 144. Having a 66 game schedule might leave time for teams to call up some players to get a look at them before the season ends. Of course, having fewer games might not necessarily mean that the AHL season ends earlier. The AHL badly wants to eliminate as many weekday games as possible and to play Friday-Sunday and have the season last the current 28 weeks as it does now. If the AHL had its way, they would play no weekday games until after Christmas because in the fall, crowds are sparse.
If the Flames leave the AHL for the ECHL, the name Adirondack Flames name would remain as the Flames would be the parent club for an ECHL club. In some ways, it would be sad to lose the AHL because if they lose it this time, it is never coming back, but the ECHL would be a good substitute for the city at the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains. Something is better nothing and here’s hoping residents and hockey fans in Glens Falls feel the same way.