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AHL Notebook: All-Star Classic takes on new format

by Patrick Williams /

Never afraid to try new ideas and challenge conventional hockey thinking, the American Hockey League will blend some new- and old-school concepts for its 2016 Toyota AHL All-Star Classic.

To celebrate the AHL's 80th anniversary, the Syracuse Crunch will host the event at Onondaga County War Memorial Arena. Portions of the movie "Slap Shot" were filmed in the 64-year-old building. AHL president Dave Andrews said that players will wear throwback jerseys for the two-day event that starts Jan. 31, 2016.

"[Syracuse] is a great place to celebrate the league," Andrews said.

A breakdown of the AHL's new All-Star format.

A breakdown of the AHL's new All-Star format.
(Click to enlarge)

But the event will have a decidedly modern wrinkle for what the league is calling an "All-Star Challenge." Much like the 2016 Honda NHL All-Star Game, each of the AHL's four divisions will ice a team with 11 skaters and two goaltenders. The teams will compete in a round-robin format; each of the six games will be nine minutes. A six-minute final game between the divisional teams with the two best records will settle the event's championship.

Where the major twist in the AHL format enters is teams will play 4-on-4 for the first half of each game. The second half will be 3-on-3.

"It's supposed to be a fun celebration of our game," Andrews said.

That approach mirrors the overtime set-up the AHL introduced before last season. Teams played 4-on-4 for the first four minutes of overtime before switching to 3-on-3 for the final three minutes. Only if the score remained tied would the game move to the shootout.

The changes to overtime proved popular enough that the NHL adopted 3-on-3 overtime this season, a template the AHL followed.

Andrews took over as AHL president in 1994 and immediately set about reviving an All-Star event for the league after a 35-year absence. The Providence Bruins hosted the reborn event in 1995, and it has continued without interruption ever since.

Over the years, the AHL has tweaked the format. They have gone with a traditional East vs. West. Canadian players have matched up against a team comprised of players from the United States and elsewhere. In the 1950s, an AHL team would host a team of players from around the league. In 2014, a team of AHL players defeated Färjestad BK of the Swedish Hockey League.

Andrews revealed that in future Olympic years he would be open to the AHL challenging a team from the SHL or the Kontinental Hockey League.

The event affords the AHL a chance to receive significant television coverage across Canada and the United States.

But in a far-flung league that contends with constant player turnover, Andrews said the mid-season event offers another less-noted opportunity. AHL All-Star alumni include the likes of Patrice Bergeron, Tuukka Rask and Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins, Nashville Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne, Minnesota Wild captain Zach Parise and Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban among many others.

"I think one of the things is it really has helped us to build a relationship with our very best players," Andrews said. "We get to know them a little more personally. There are still guys [who have moved on to the NHL] that I see.

"If your best players feel good about the league, then [that helps relations with all players]."

Milestone: Chicago Wolves coach John Anderson won his 400th AHL game this past Sunday, 2-1 at home against the Iowa Wild.

Anderson is the fifth coach in AHL history to reach 400 wins. At 622 wins, Roy Sommer of the San Jose Barracuda is the other active AHL coach to do so. Bun Cook holds the AHL record with 636 wins between 1940 and 1956.

Anderson, who is 400-276-50 in his AHL career, is in his 14th season with the Wolves. He started with the franchise when it was a member of the former International Hockey League and won 200 games in that league as well as two Turner Cup championships. He moved with the Wolves to the AHL in 2001 and won a Calder Cup in his first AHL season. He added a second Calder Cup in 2008.

Sommer's AHL coaching career began in the 1998-99 season, and he has spent his entire tenure guiding AHL affiliates for the San Jose Sharks through four different cities. Sommer, a California native, is back closer to home after the Sharks relocated their affiliate to SAP Center this past offseason. He has seven AHL seasons with 40 or more wins.

Still in progress: Forward Tomas Jurco provided a much-needed jolt for the Grand Rapids Griffins this past week. Sent by the Detroit Red Wings to Todd Nelson's team on a conditioning assignment, Jurco had a hat trick and an assist in a 7-4 home win against the San Diego Gulls this past Friday.

Jurco finished his week with three goals and four assists in three games, good enough to earn him the CCM/AHL Player of the Week award.

The win against San Diego was the 22-year-old's first AHL game since the 2013-14 season. Detroit's second-round pick (No. 35) in the 2011 NHL Draft, Jurco dressed for four games with Detroit after playing 63 games there last season. Jurco had eight goals and six assists in 24 playoff games as a rookie in helping Grand Rapids to the Calder Cup in 2013.

More help has arrived from Detroit with the return of forward Andreas Athanasiou to the Griffins. He has four goals and three assists in 10 AHL games.

Grand Rapids has won three consecutive games. Considered by many to be a Calder Cup contender before the season, Grand Rapids stumbled to a 2-8-0-1 start.

AHL Game of the Week: The Lehigh Valley Phantoms have struggled to a 7-9-1-0 start despite several major offseason additions, but their Keystone State neighbor, the Hershey Bears, always make for a spirited battle in one of the AHL's longest-running rivalries. The 9-5-0-3 Bears visit PPL Center on Friday and feature veteran Chris Bourque, who has 15 points (six goals, nine assists) in his first 17 games. Lehigh Valley and Hershey each have one win in the season series.

Around the AHL: The Toronto Marlies lead the AHL with 14 wins and 29 points. They have a 9-0-1-0 streak. … At 13-2-0-0, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins' .867 winning percentage tops the league. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton's franchise-record 11-game winning streak ended this past Friday in a 3-1 road loss against the Binghamton Senators. … The Milwaukee Admirals have a nine-game winning streak and have taken over the Central Division after starting the season with two wins in seven games. Admirals forward Viktor Arvidsson has at least a point in each of his 12 games this season. … Top prospect William Nylander of Toronto has a 10-game point streak and took over the AHL lead in points (10 goals and 13 assists). … Lehigh Valley's Petr Straka has taken over the AHL lead with 12 goals in 18 games, thanks to a six-game scoring streak. Straka, 23, had 14 goals in 68 games last season. … Ontario Reign goaltender Peter Budaj leads the AHL in goals-against average (1.44) and shutouts (four), is second save percentage (.941) and is tied for the league lead with nine wins with another AHL veteran, Michael Leighton of the Rockford IceHogs. … Manitoba Moose No. 1 goaltender Connor Hellebuyck was recalled by the Winnipeg Jets after Ondrej Pavelec sustained a lower-body injury this past Saturday that is expected to keep him out until at least January. Hellebuyck, an AHL all-star last season, is 2-7-1 for the Moose, but he has a 2.41 GAA and .927 save percentage. Rookie Eric Comrie, a second-round pick (No. 59) in 2013, will take over the starting job. … Seven AHL players debuted in the NHL this past week, bringing the total to 47 this season.

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