Las Vegas is on track to become the latest home for the NHL's top development league after the Vegas Golden Knights purchased the San Antonio franchise Thursday. Pending approval by the AHL Board of Governors, the Golden Knights intend to move the San Antonio franchise to the Las Vegas market next season to be their new AHL affiliate.
San Antonio has been affiliated with the St. Louis Blues since the start of the 2018-19 season. Vegas has been using Chicago as its AHL affiliate since the 2017-18 season. It has yet to be determined what the Blues or AHL Chicago will do as far as affiliation for the 2020-21 season.
With the potential relocation of San Antonio, the Golden Knights continue a westward shift that has reshaped the AHL map the past five years.
Five NHL teams moved their AHL affiliates to California before the 2015-16 season. The Edmonton Oilers (Bakersfield), the Los Angeles Kings (Ontario), the Anaheim Ducks (San Diego), the San Jose Sharks (San Jose) and the Calgary Flames (Stockton) each relocated its affiliate to make it more geographically convenient, in a way in which many Eastern-based NHL teams have done for many years.
The closer an AHL affiliate is to its NHL partner, the easier it is for members of the NHL team's management and development staffs to visit and advise top prospects, call up and demote players and expand regional marketing initiatives.
The Golden Knights also plan to have their AHL affiliate skate at a new practice facility under construction in nearby Henderson, Nevada.
"It [has] been a goal of the Vegas Golden Knights to have our AHL team located in our market since our team's inception," Golden Knights president of hockey operations George McPhee said. "Last season, more than 87 percent of all NHL players were graduates of the AHL. Local fans will be able to track Golden Knights prospects as they progress through our system, advance to the AHL, and look to reach their potential as NHL players.
"This move will effectively centralize our hockey operations and streamline our processes in terms of player development, scouting, transfers, and staffing."
Western Conference teams have sought those advantages since the West Coast migration in 2015.
The Arizona Coyotes secured an in-state AHL affiliation for the first time with the addition of Tucson in 2016-17. Last season, the Colorado Avalanche placed their in-state affiliate in Loveland, Colorado.
A sixth California team will join the AHL for the 2021-22 season when Palm Springs debuts as the affiliate of the NHL Seattle expansion team, which also will start play that season. Palm Springs will play in a new $250 million, 10,000-seat arena.
Some of the established California teams already are strengthening roots. The Sharks have announced plans to build a new 4,200-seat AHL arena for its affiliate that will be attached to the organization's practice facility.
Ontario, located an hour east of Los Angeles, is third in AHL attendance at 8,016 per game and hosted the AHL All-Star Classic in January. San Diego, the AHL attendance leader each of the past two seasons, is fourth this season (7,485). The rivals also are battling for Pacific Division playoff positioning; Ontario holds a one-point lead for fourth place.
San Diego goalie Anthony Stolarz got another taste of that rivalry when Ontario fans good-naturedly booed him at the AHL All-Star Classic. The New Jersey native also quickly has adopted the Southern California lifestyle.
"There's so much to do," he said. "You can go to the beach, you've got the San Diego Zoo, you can go golfing in the middle of January, February, kind of get your mind away from the game. It's just nice to be able to come out of the rink and you're in shorts and sandals. To top it all off we have great fans, so they support us well and just makes it fun to come to the rink."
AHL president and chief executive officer Dave Andrews will retire June 30th after 26 seasons leading the league and helping to facilitate the migration to the west, one of the defining pieces of his legacy.
"This was an initiative driven by the West Coast-based teams," Andrews said. "If you look at the success of these teams, and the amount of energy and investment that the NHL clubs have put into them, that's a credit to them. We were confident they were going to do that. We knew that we needed to come to the West Coast. We just needed to find the right deal.
"And it took us some time to make that happen. The initial move, the negotiation of it, was really heavy lifting, but the success afterward isn't us. It's [the teams], it's the commitment financially that the teams have made to make this work."
The AHL's growth reflects the surge of interest in the sport that has spread throughout the United States. Andrews credits that interest to the work his league has done with the NHL.
"I think we're really proud of that," Andrews said during the AHL All-Star Classic. "We work very closely with USA Hockey, and the growth of the game is important to us. The involvement of our teams in the growth of the game and their communities is important to us, particularly out [on the West Coast], where you're breaking new ground.
"Obviously the NHL plays a bigger part, and they make a big investment through their teams in growing the game. If you look at the fact that we have 27 markets in the U.S., we've made an impact. Our players do a lot at the community level to get out and work with kids. I think we're very proud of that, and we're working with the NHL hand-in-hand [on initiatives]. So our relationship with the NHL and some of this programming is going to grow as time goes on."