After months of speculation, the AHL officially announced on Thursday that five teams are moving to California for the 2015-16 season. The teams will form the new Pacific Division.
On hand for the announcement were AHL president Dave Andrews, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly and representatives from the five clubs – the San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings, Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames – that will have affiliates in the AHL’s newest division next season.
The relocations were voted through unanimously by the AHL's Board of Governors.
“We’re thrilled to bring the AHL to California and add to the incredible growth of the game on the west coast,” said Andrews. “I want to thank our fans and all of those individuals that have supported our league in Adirondack, Norfolk, Manchester, Worcester, and Oklahoma City. This transition in the pro hockey landscape is important for our sport.”
While names for the new clubs were not given during the press conference, the new locales were made official. San Jose’s AHL team will move from Worcester to play in the Sharks’ own SAP Center, the Ducks’ affiliate will relocate to San Diego, the Kings’ farm club in Manchester will move to Ontario (Calif.), the Oilers will relocate their team to Bakersfield (Calif.), and after one year in Adirondack, Calgary’s AHL club will make their home in Stockton.
What was stressed throughout the press conference was the importance of the AHL becoming a true developmental league. To a person, each of Sharks COO John Tortora, Ducks GM Bob Murray, Oilers president of hockey operations Kevin Lowe, Flames GM Brad Treliving, and Kings president of business operations Luc Robataille mentioned the importance of having their AHL franchises in California for development purposes.
“The relocation of Worcester to the SAP Center has many plusses,” said Tortora. “The ability to have our top development team located in the same city, playing on the same ice surface, and practicing in the same rink as NHL players will help expedite the players. This will make the franchise even more competitive on the ice.”
However, what wasn’t discussed is the long-rumored change to the length of the schedule, something that will likely be impacted by the western shift. Tortora said the move from Worcester to the SAP Center allows for an additional 30 to 35 events, which would presumably mean the schedule for San Jose's AHL team would be between 60 to 70 games, less than the current 76 that AHL teams play.
Lowe added that the impact made by the move to California for a team like Edmonton, which won’t be able to so easily access and monitor its AHL team, is an increase in practice time.
“The Canadian teams are a little further away, so we won’t have the luxury of driving down the coast to see our American League team,” said Lowe. “But we know that the players are really going to benefit from the proximitiy of the (Pacific Division) teams.”
“The big thing for development in hockey is to have practice time, and when you’re flying around all the time you eliminate practice days,” continued Lowe. “We estimate somewhere between 20 to 25 extra practice days. And in a season that’s roughly 180 days, that’s a big percentage of time for the development of these young players.”
After thanking fans in the cities that have supported the AHL for so long, Andrews said he was confident that each city that is losing its AHL franchise will continue to enjoy minor pro hockey. The belief is that many of the cities losing AHL teams will have them replaced with ECHL franchises. Manchester, for example, is likely to keep the Monarchs, with the team becoming the ECHL affiliate of the Kings next season.
In addition, Andrews, as well as others on hand, pointed to how long this has been in the works, with Murray saying it was a, “dream come true,” and something he had talked about for the last 10 years. Daly praised Andrews for his hard work and vision in making the division a reality.
The creation of a Pacific Division is a big change for a league that is primarily based in the eastern United States, and a signal that more changes are coming as the NHL and AHL continue to foster a developmental relationship.