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New-look AHL opens season with West Coast element

by Kinsey Janke

For the first time, the American Hockey League's opening night will include California-based franchises when the league's 80th season starts Friday.

First announced in January, the formation of the Pacific Division was a project with many moving parts, and an initiative with multiple outcomes that will benefit the long-term future of hockey in North America. It speaks volumes to the crucial role the AHL plays in professional player development, as well as to the growth and support that the game of hockey has been experiencing on the West Coast.

"The importance of the AHL's new Pacific Division to western-based clubs cannot be overstated," San Jose Sharks general manager Doug Wilson said. "The moves eliminate cross-country travel for players being recalled and re-assigned, and allows our entire hockey staff to monitor and take part in each player's growth and development."

In addition to the Sharks, who will share SAP Center in San Jose with their affiliate, the San Jose Barracuda, the Anaheim Ducks (San Diego Gulls), Calgary Flames (Stockton Heat), Edmonton Oilers (Bakersfield Condors), and Los Angeles Kings (Ontario Reign) will have their AHL affiliates in the Pacific Division, along with the affiliates for the Colorado Avalanche (San Antonio Rampage) and Dallas Stars (Texas Stars).

While fans in the state of California will be heading to rinks to meet new friends and create new memories, the city of Winnipeg will be welcoming home an old friend. Returning to the AHL after a four-year absence, the Manitoba Moose return to MTS Centre and rejoin the league's Western Conference, this time as the top affiliate of the Winnipeg Jets.

The schedule Friday features the first five of an eventual 21 games during the AHL's opening weekend, including the inaugural home openers in Bakersfield and San Jose. San Diego and Stockton open their doors for the first time in the AHL on Saturday. Ontario, the de facto defending champions after the Kings' former affiliate, the Manchester Monarchs, won the Calder Cup last season, begins its season in Bakersfield on Saturday.

The league's geographical footprint is expanding, leaving some markets but embracing new ones in California, which rapidly is producing more and more professional hockey players as the years go by.

"Now that the time is quickly approaching, everyone is excited to drop the puck in 2015-16 in Ontario and beyond," said Los Angeles Kings president of business operations and Hockey Hall of Fame member Luc Robitaille. "This is a great win for those involved in hockey. A win for our fans and a win for our hockey team. And this massive move, with five teams in the state of California, has defined what a team effort can really produce."

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