As we approach the end of 2010 I am thankful for what has been a very special year for the American League. We are celebrating our 75th anniversary season and it is notable we are doing so with 30 teams in the league partnered up with 30 NHL franchises for the first time in our history.
This one-to-one NHL-AHL player development relationship has been an objective of ours for many years. This provides every NHL club with an opportunity to have its own development team in the AHL and opens 660 roster spot opportunities for players to take their games to the next level.
In today’s NHL, player development is critical to icing competitive teams and as a result our fans across the AHL are now enjoying the opportunity to see the best players in every NHL team’s system as they compete to earn a full-time NHL job.
Our newest teams in Charlotte and Oklahoma City are off to good starts both competitively and in terms of fan support. Across the league our attendance is up from last season and we have managed to grow our league and our fan base during difficult economic times.
The past few months have been notable in other respects as well. We concluded a new three-year collective bargaining agreement with our players and did so through a positive negotiating process with PHPA executive director Larry Landon and player representatives Rory Fitzpatrick, Mike Hoffman, Trevor Gillies and Peter Vandermeer. We have been fortunate over the years to have established a relationship of trust and mutual respect with our players and together we have made a lot of progress in developing the AHL as a league that all of our participants can be proud of.
We also reached a significant agreement with the NHL by arriving at a five-year NHL-AHL officiating development program. While we have had development agreements in place for many years, this new deal is noteworthy in that it introduces the two-referee system to the AHL. We’ll begin phasing in two-referee games with 25 percent of the regular season and all playoff games in 2010-2011.
Every referee in the NHL is a graduate of our league and this new agreement ensures our officials will gain a lot of two-referee system experience to better prepare them for NHL assignments. With the pace of today’s game – and particularly the ability to make stretch passes across two lines – the second referee has become increasingly important. As the pool of capable young officials grows, we will see ever-increasing numbers of AHL games using the two-man system in the years ahead.
Our national television deal with the CBC in Canada and the NHL Network in the U.S. is off to a great start. Ratings have been excellent and the appetite for Sunday afternoon hockey will only increase as we near the end of the NFL season. We are also gearing up for the national and international telecasts of our All-Star Classic in late January on TSN in Canada and regional networks across the U.S. Live game viewership online at AHL Live has been strong and traffic at theahl.com is up more than 20 percent this season. We know NHL television and digital traffic is tracking strongly upwards as well and that is a good sign for fans of the game at every level.
We are in the initial phase of fan balloting for the 2011 AHL All-Star Classic in Hershey, Pa., and we recently selected our team captains, Alex Giroux representing the Western Conference and Mark Wotton representing the Eastern Conference. Our honorary captains this year are both former Calder Cup champions who went on to successful NHL careers: Olaf Kolzig and Nick Kypreos. Our Hall of Fame induction ceremonies will take place during the All-Star Classic and this year we will induct four very deserving candidates: the late Maurice Podoloff, who was the first president of the AHL and also served as commissioner of the NBA; the late Larry Wilson, a legendary player with the Buffalo Bisons who competed for 15 years as a player and another six as an AHL coach; Harry Pidhirny, a five-time AHL all-star who played 17 years and the third-most games all-time in the AHL; and Mitch Lamoreux, who played 17 seasons in the AHL, starring with the Hershey Bears and retiring as one of the most prolific scorers of the modern era.
We are nearly sold out for both the skills competition and the All-Star Game at the 10,500-seat Giant Center in Hershey, Pa., and we are all looking forward to a special weekend as we celebrate our 75th anniversary with our showcase event.
On a personal note, in late October I was honored to be a recipient of the 2010 Lester Patrick Trophy, joining Cam Neely and legendary coaches Jack Parker and Jerry York. The awards celebration at the TD Garden in Boston was an evening my family and I will never forget and our sincere thanks go out to the NHL for the experience.
As we get closer to the New Year, we all have some terrific hockey events to look forward to, including the World Junior Championship in Buffalo, the NHL Winter Classic in Pittsburgh, the NHL and AHL all-star weekends, the Heritage Classic in Calgary and the AHL’s second-ever outdoor game between the Connecticut Whale and Providence Bruins on Feb. 19 in Hartford, Conn.
It’s a great time of year and all of us here at the AHL wish you and your families a happy holiday season and another terrific year for hockey in 2011.
Dave Andrews is the American League’s CEO and president, roles he has held since 1994. A goalie during his playing days, his administrative hockey career has included stops as the Edmonton Oilers’ director of AHL operations, senior consultant with SportCanada, and head coach and director of hockey operations for the Western League’s Victoria Cougars. You can read his other THN.com Blogs HERE.