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Calgary will shift its AHL operations to Stockton, Calif., next season. Currently, its minor-league affiliate is the Adirondack Flames, of whom Devin Setoguchi, centre, is a member. (Kevin Van Paassen For The Globe and Mail)
Calgary will shift its AHL operations to Stockton, Calif., next season. Currently, its minor-league affiliate is the Adirondack Flames, of whom Devin Setoguchi, centre, is a member. (Kevin Van Paassen For The Globe and Mail)

Duhatschek: Player-development key in AHL shift to California Add to ...

Soon after Dave Andrews became president of the American Hockey League in 1994, he received a call from Tony Tavares, then president of the Anaheim Ducks. Tavares had a revolutionary concept that he wanted to pitch to Andrews – expand the AHL to California, on the grounds that NHL teams based in the Canadian and U.S. West needed their farm teams closer at hand.

For the better part of two decades, the idea percolated – mostly on the back burner until a year ago when it became what Andrews termed “the most important file on my desk.”

In January, after a 21-year gestation period, the plan finally came to fruition. Starting next year, five NHL teams – the Calgary Flames, the Edmonton Oilers, the San Jose Sharks, the Los Angeles Kings and the Anaheim Ducks – will shift their primary minor-league affiliates to California. Calgary will go into Stockton, Edmonton into Bakersfield, Anaheim into San Diego, Los Angeles into Ontario, while San Jose’s affiliate will play out of the same facility as the parent club.

Apart from 2001, when the AHL absorbed what was left of its primary competition, the International Hockey League, this was arguably the most significant reorganization of North American professional hockey since the 1979 WHA-NHL merger.

It was a complex, seismic shift – “a major step in a new direction for our league,” Andrews said. “But I’m really pleased we’ve arrived at this outcome. Our board is now fully onside with the concept.”

So, too, are the teams that pushed long and hard to make it happen.

“This concept has been out there forever,” Calgary Flames’ general manager Brad Treliving explained. “People talked about putting a league in Toronto. They said, ‘Let’s get a bunch of teams close together and build a base of teams in one geographical area.’

“For a long time, the Western-based teams have been saying, ‘Listen, God bless the Eastern teams because they have a really good set-up, but we don’t. So how can we make it happen?’ It’s been a long process, but I don’t think you can minimize the significance it’s going to have for the teams.”

The most revolutionary part of the new set-up (the schedule still requires AHL board of governors’ approval) is that the teams in the California division play a slightly shorter schedule than the rest of the league, further emphasizing development.

“Ninety per cent of the kids that go to the American League, what’s the one thing they need?” Treliving asked. “It’s physical development. So what we’ve always done is said, ‘You need to get stronger, but we’re going to send you down there to play 1,000 games and then we’re going to bitch at you at the end of the year because you didn’t get any stronger.’ And you’ll say, ‘Well with all the busing and flying, there wasn’t time.’ The expectation is we’ll play fewer games, so that means less travel. We’re able to rest and recover more; and those games where we’re maybe playing four in a five or three in three, now that’s a recovery day or a training day.”

In 1996, Treliving co-founded the Western Professional Hockey League and had an instrumental role in its 2001 merger with the Central Hockey League, so he has great admiration for the work Andrews did to put the complex deal together.

“Sometimes you need to move heaven and earth just to manage the one relocation,” Treliving said. “Here, you were talking about five. You’re going into a whole new market. You’ve got conflicting interests – everybody’s got different priorities, even amongst the group. Keeping everything moving forward was a balancing act, and a long process, but he did a wonderful job.”

Once upon a time, the AHL was a league in which players went to finish their careers; where goon shows were part of the attraction; and where player development was the last thing on the minds of the operators.

Under Andrews’s leadership, the mandate changed. Now, they are now wholly immersed in the idea of being a feeder league to the NHL. If the NHL wants to experiment with a rule change, the AHL is there to act as a guinea pig. The shootout came to the AHL first and this year, they are experimenting with three-on-three overtime, a concept the NHL may adopt depending upon an evaluation of its success as the AHL level.

“As the NHL moved into a cap system, the level of investment made by NHL teams in their AHL affiliates has grown exponentially,” Andrews said. “The commitment to player development has grown in a way we couldn’t have foreseen.

“When I first started in the American League, working for the Oilers, we had one coach and no other personnel other than our trainers. Now, most of our teams have at least three full-time coaches; often four counting a video coach. They have a strength-and-conditioning coach; a goalie coach; they have nutritionists. That is the degree to which NHL teams are investing in their young players.”

Anaheim Ducks’ general manager Bob Murray first saw a game in San Diego more than 20 years ago, when he broke in as a pro scout with the Chicago Blackhawks.

“I can remember going into San Diego in ’92 when I was a pro scout for Chicago and there was 10,000 people in there,” Murray said. “That place was rocking. And I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I didn’t know there was hockey down here.’ San Diego’s just natural for us. They’ve had some success and they’ve had some failures down there. But they’re excited. The city’s excited. It was a natural for us.”

Murray stopped and chuckled.

“The hard part is, the Kings look really good, coming out of this, because AEG [L.A.’s parent company] owns the buildings in San Diego, in Ontario and in Stockton. AEG’s coming out smelling like a rose in this.”

While it’s true the Kings may benefit most from the business side of the equation, that was not the driving force behind their interest, according to Rob Blake, the Kings’ assistant GM who is in charge of their minor-league affiliate in Manchester.

“The biggest thing is a presence,” Blake said. “There’ll be more of a presence at the games and the practices than we have now. We try to do a good job of it, but I do think having management at the majority of games – having these kids, knowing that they’re being watched and understand the development process, that’ll be one of the big pluses of this.”

Calgary’s new AHL home is Stockton, Calif., which was where their ECHL affiliate was based. Essentially, the Flames just swapped out their AHL and ECHL teams, buying the team in Stockton, so they now own and operate both, just at different tiers in the minors.

Minor-league operations generally involve a negative cash flow, but the Flames see the relocation scenario as possibly a business opportunity as well.

“Knowing the footprint of this league is in California, our first question was, ‘What market fits for us down there?’” Treliving said. “We looked at what was reasonably available. The building in Stockton is phenomenal. They have a market and a team there that’s been very supportive of hockey. At some points, they’ve drawn 8,000 per night. So you’re not coming into a market, where you have to introduce the game.

“If you look at the success of the Ducks, Kings and Sharks, the game has a footprint in California now. We think there’s an opportunity, and with what Stockton’s done at the ECHL level, it does make business sense.”

It also enhances and protects the AHL’s current structure, which consists of 30 minor-league teams, each one attached to an NHL parent club.

“Our business model is really based on our player supply being as good as it is – getting the next 20 top guys in the NHL organizations into our league gives us our quality of product,” Andrews said.

“Any time you have a group of teams less than enamoured with their situation in our league, it’s not healthy. So the most important, long-term outcome for us is continuing to strengthen our relationship with NHL teams with our Western-based teams being really happy with the relationship.

“Beyond that, I do think we’re going to be successful in California. While it will drive up some of our costs, it should also make us more attractive to national sponsors and should give us a lift that way.”

When he took over as AHL president more than two decades ago, Andrews said his hiring was largely based on a strategic plan he presented to the search committee “designed to take us to a different place as a league.

“We provided a place where all the top picks of NHL teams could go to get enough ice time and compete against their peers, but still with enough veteran leadership to help them develop as pros.

“The unintended consequence, which was a good one, was the quality of play really got a lot better. We didn’t have very many players at the end of their careers just looking to play it out. We had a significant number of players who were all chasing the dream.

“Now as we look at the NHL, almost 90 per cent of their players have played in our league and most of the coaches – about three quarters – have coached in our league. To be a head coach in the NHL, even if he starts as an assistant, it’s virtually unheard of that he doesn’t work in the American League for at least a year to get into the head-coaching line. All of the officials have gone through our league; and most of the broadcasters.

“So we had a mission that we believed would help us grow the league and get it back on its feet again. That perception of what the AHL was back in the 1980s was sort of accurate. But I think we’ve built something that’s more attractive for the NHL – and it’s also made our own business healthier.”

Oilers coach Todd Nelson was promoted from their farm team in Oklahoma City earlier in the season and has lots of AHL experience. Unlike Calgary, which has to get players in from Glen’s Falls, N.Y., or L.A., which is in Manchester, N.H., the Oilers were far closer to their AHL affiliate.

“I’m a firm believer that the balance in the American Hockey League right now is really good,” Nelson said. “It’s basically a weekend league. Obviously, at this time of year, you start to get a few more mid-week games, but you get all of your skill development up until New Year’s and then it’s a question of maintenance. If you drop games, there’s more time for practising, but a big part of development is learning how to play the game, so I’m a bit on the fence with that.

“I think players learn as much, if not more, by playing games. You can work on skill development all you want, but if you don’t have to face adversity or have the competitiveness – that’s what you get out of games, in my opinion.

“But having the teams closer to the parent clubs, it’s going to help, because any time you call a player up, you want him to perform well – to give him a fighting chance. If they’re fatigued from travel, that’s not good for the individual or the team.”

The AHL unveiled the California division in San Jose back in January and Andrews recalls flying in right after their all-star game, when Massachusetts was buried in snow.

“I can tell you, landing in San Jose and walking from the hotel over to the SAP Center, after leaving a winter storm behind here, I said to Jason [Chaimovitch] our VP of communications, ‘What’s taken us so long?’ It was 72 [F] degrees and beautiful in California and about three feet of snow falling on Massachusetts.

“It wasn’t always a bowl of cherries getting here – but it’s ended well.”

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