The American League began the decade as a league confined to the eastern one-third of Canada and the United States. Ten years later, the AHL is a 29-team circuit stretching from Virginia to British Columbia.
Much has changed on and off the ice for the AHL during the 2000’s. Here are the league's top 10 developments this decade.
10. ALBANY BUS ACCIDENT – AHL clubs log countless hours on highways across Canada and the United States each season. The River Rats' serious bus accident in February 2009 in Massachusetts still has two players, Casey Borer and Joe Jensen, sidelined.
9. DOMINANT GOALIES – Goalies dominated the AHL for much of the first half of the decade. Jason LaBarbera and Steve Valiquette put together a phenomenal season for the Hartford Wolf Pack. Valiquette (1.77) and LaBarbera (1.84) finished first and second in the league in goals-against average. In 2008, Albany's Michael Leighton stopped 98 of 101 shots he faced in a five-overtime playoff game.
8. ST. JOHN'S DEPARTS – The AHL teetered on the brink of collapse in the Maritimes for more than a decade. But by 2005, the Baby Leafs remained the lone Atlantic holdout. The club's new-found isolation from the rest of the AHL and Toronto management's desire to have Leafs prospects closer to home soon cost St. John's its AHL club.
7. ABBOTTSFORD ARRIVES – Prior to the Calgary Flames bringing their AHL affiliate out west this summer, the furthest westward the AHL had ever expanded was to Edmonton, where the Oilers housed their affiliate, the Road Runners, during the lockout season. Abbotsford overcame long odds to gain entry into the AHL and might be a first step toward an increased West Coast presence.
6. AHL COMES TO TORONTO – The AHL had long staked out a presence in Southern Ontario, with depots in Hamilton, Newmarket and St. Catharines. But it wasn't until 2003 that the league finally had a presence in the center of the hockey universe. The 2003-04 Toronto Roadrunners were a one-season-and-done experiment. The Marlies followed in 2005 and remain.
5. STRONG MARKETS WEAKENED – Hartford, Philadelphia and Rochester once ranked among the AHL's strongest homes. By decade's close, the Phantoms were sent off to tiny Glens Falls, N.Y. and Hartford's attendance has slipped to the AHL's bottom-third. Rochester, meanwhile, endured off-ice struggles that eventually destroyed what was nearly a 30-year relationship with the Buffalo Sabres.
4. CHOCOLATETOWN RENAISSANCE – The Bears partnered with Washington in 2005. Since then, Hershey teams have been to three of the past four Calder Cup finals and taken two titles. The Bears also lead the AHL in attendance.
3. GIROUX HITS 75 – Giroux hit 60 goals during the regular season and then tacked on 15 more playoff goals during the Bears' 2009 run to the Calder Cup, setting an all-time AHL record for most goals (regular season and playoffs) in a season.
2. 2004-05 LOCKOUT SEASON – The likes of Jay Bouwmeester, Mike Cammalleri, Jason Spezza, Eric Staal and Cam Ward combined with a very strong core of veterans to produce some of the best hockey ever to grace AHL ice.
1. 2001 IHL ABSORPTION – When archrival IHL folded in 2001, the AHL picked up several valuable pieces, adding the Winnipeg, Chicago, Grand Rapids, Houston and Milwaukee markets that still rank among the league's strongest centers. The move also allowed the AHL to begin developing a presence in the American Midwest and officially establish itself as the NHL's top developmental league.
THIS AND THAT
Manchester's Mark Morris will coach the PlanetUSA entry at this month's AHL All-Star Classic. Mark French of Hershey will pilot the Canadian side…
In a rare happenstance, two goaltenders competing not long ago at opposite ends of the spectrum – one in the NHL and the other in the seven-team International League – went head-to-head in the AHL. Binghamton's Mike Brodeur and Rochester’s Ryan Mior faced off this past Sunday when they matched up in Senators-Amerks tilt. Eight days earlier, Brodeur assembled his first NHL win while Mior was putting together a 30-save evening for the Dayton Gems…
The AHL's Christmas weekend attendance increased 32 percent from the league average before the break.
From THN.com American League correspondent Patrick Williams, Around The AHL keeps tabs on the world's second best circuit, details all the news and notes and profiling prospects destined for the next level. It appears every weekend only on TheHockeyNews.com.