(photo: Edmonton Oilers)

Change is in the air for minor league hockey. What started as rumblings, then rumors, has now emerged as a truth. The AHL, the top development league for the NHL, is taking their covered wagons and heading west. Truly west, to form a real Western Conference for the 2015-2016 season. Spearheading the drive into the western frontier are the California hockey powerhouses, the Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings, and the San Jose Sharks, all of whom currently have AHL Franchises east of the Mississippi; the Norfolk Admirals, Manchester Monarchs and the Worcester Sharks respectively. For obvious reasons, they want their top prospects close at hand so that when the hockey injury ninjas strike, a callup is only a short flight or bus ride away.

At a press conference held at SAP Center in San Jose, California on Thursday, the president of the AHL David Andrews was joined by five NHL teams to announce that the AHL Board of Governors has formally approved the steps necessary to form a Pacific Division beginning next season.

“Relocating five teams is a complex process, and we are very excited to have brought this initiative to a successful outcome,” said Andrews. “The Western-based NHL clubs have been in dialogue with our league for almost three years, and today’s announcement launches a new era for the American Hockey League and for professional hockey in California.”

As part of the approval, the Anaheim Ducks are in the process of purchasing the Norfolk Admirals with relocation to San Diego, CA. The Calgary Flames will move their AHL Adirondack Flames franchise from Glens Falls, NY to Stockton, CA and the Edmonton Oilers will relocate their team in Oklahoma City, OK to Bakersfield, CA. The Los Angeles Kings will send their AHL Manchester Monarchs to Ontario, CA and the San Jose Sharks will bring the AHL Worcester Sharks to San Jose.

The ECHL has had the corner on the minor league hockey market in California, with three teams firmly established, the Bakersfield Condors, Stockton Thunder and the Ontario Reign. These teams, however made it that much easier for the AHL to move to the West Coast, especially since the ECHL extended its affiliation with the CHL at the beginning of this season, bringing more teams into the fold.  All three of these teams have solid fan bases with strong attendance records, lending more support for their ability to translate to the AHL. A key piece is that all three are owned by NHL franchises.

 

You could say the AHL westward movement began back in 2008 when AEG, the ownership group of the Los Angeles Kings secured part-ownership of the Ontario Reign. It seemed to be a test of the waters for the Kings affiliate, but there is no doubt that the Reign  have proven successful in the Inland Empire, boasting some of the highest consistent attendance records in the ECHL. AEG also owns the Manchester Monarchs, so the teams will flip-flop leagues come next season, with Manchester joining the ECHL as a Kings affiliate.

Last January, the Edmonton Oilers purchased the Bakersfield Condors to create  “a deeper pool of player talent and access to the expertise of the Edmonton Oilers business operations, while also ensuring what makes the team so special – its strong roots in Bakersfield and local management will remain intact,”  stated Oilers COO Patrick LaForge in a press release following the deal. The purchase gave Edmonton an “in” into the AHL West movement and was a stepping stone to suspending operations with their affiliate OKC Barons, which will happen at the end of this season.

At the press conference held on Thursday Oilers President of Hockey Operations Kevin Lowe said, “We want to thank and congratulate the AHL, NHL and our fellow member clubs in making the Pacific Division a reality through hard work and collaboration. The Edmonton Oilers are extremely excited about this new opportunity to enhance our development system and help grow the game of hockey in California.”

“We couldn’t be more pleased in our partnership with Bakersfield over the last year and I can’t say enough good things about the fans and the city of Bakersfield.”

“This is a huge step for Bakersfield and this organization,” said Matt Riley, Bakersfield AHL Affiliate President. “We want to thank our fans, the city, our ECHL colleagues and the Oilers for taking us under their wing and enabling us to be a part of this. We’re excited to take an increased role in the growth of the game in California.”

 

Another piece to the AHL moving west came together when the Stockton Thunder owner Brad Rowbotham announced the sale of the organization at the end of last year. Here was a team with ten years of hockey that had a world class arena consistently filled on game nights. It was an attractive hockey market to secure for a push into the AHL west.After numerous discussions, including offers from another franchise, the sale of the team to the Calgary Flames came to completion over the past weekend.

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Stockton Mayor Anthony Silva, Flames General Manager Brad Treliving and Stockton Thunder President Dave Piecuch                                      photo credit: Asvitt Photography

 

The Calgary Flames held an additional press conference in Stockton, CA to formally announce the sale of the team and the move to the AHL. In attendance were Calgary Flames General Manager Brad Treliving, Stockton Thunder President Dave Piecuch, Stockton Mayor Anthony Silva, Stockton Vice Mayor Christina Fugazi, and Stockton City Councilmembers.

“We are excited for this transition and are looking forward to this new partnership,” Mayor Silva said. “We here in Stockton are establishing ourselves as a minor league sports city and the entire City Council is here in attendance to support what we see as yet another step forward in Stockton sports.”

Mayor Silva was not the only member on the podium that was excited about the new partnership with Calgary.

Flames General Manager Brad Treliving spoke to the importance of having an AHL team located on the West Coast, and his own excitement about having a franchise in Stockton.

“To use a baseball analogy, this will be our top ‘Triple-A’ affiliate,” Treliving said. “This move is significant to our development of a Stanley Cup champion in Calgary for multiple reasons. First off, Stockton Arena is a world-class facility that is the envy of not just ECHL teams, but AHL teams as well. Having our players play at a top-notch facility was paramount. Also, the fans pack the house here every night; we look forward to that same support for the new team.”

The San Jose Sharks made the last move and opted to bring their AHL Worcester Sharks to the same arena as the big club, at least for the 2015-2016 season. Having players ready to bring up to the NHL level literally a few steps away as opposed to a 6-hour plane ride is a huge bonus, particularly in practice days lost due to travel time.

“This is an exciting day for the San Jose Sharks organization and for hockey fans throughout the state of California,” said Sharks COO John Tortora. “Having our AHL club playing in close proximity to our NHL club has innumerable benefits for the development of our young players and prospects. It also provides an opportunity for the Sharks organization to grow Sharks Territory and enhance our footprint into what is an already hockey-crazy market.”

Several cities will lose their AHL teams, but will receive an ECHL franchise. The Bakersfield Condors will be relocated to Norfolk, VA when Anaheim moves its AHL affiliate to San Diego. The Stockton Thunder will head to Glens Falls, as Calgary shuffles their franchises and the Ontario Reign will swap with the Manchester Monarchs. Worcester is the odd city out but will more than likely pick up a team in the ECHL once the zamboni ice has set.

Team names and colors for the five new AHL franchises will be decided in the next couple weeks. The ECHL will hold a separate press conference on Friday to address the shifting of teams into the ECHL and the relocation of teams.

This is just the first big step for the AHL to truly be coast to coast. Other teams such as the Vancouver Canucks and Arizona Coyotes may want in on the western movement after this first test season. One thing is certain, the landscape of minor league hockey has shifted and there can be no doubt, California is on the hockey map. Move over Minnesota, California is the new “State of AHL Hockey”.

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