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IN DEPTH: AHL Pacific Division, from dream to reality

by Chris Wescott / Edmonton Oilers

SAN JOSE, CA – It has been a long time coming.

That was the messaging from the AHL and NHL executives who sat at the front of the press conference room at the SAP Center in San Jose on Thursday. For more than three years, the American Hockey League has worked hand-in-hand with National Hockey League clubs, debating, compromising and tinkering on a major geological shift that would rock the primary developmental league in the sport of hockey.

The AHL announced the unanimous approval by the league’s Board of Governors to create a new Pacific Division, relocating five affiliated clubs to California for the 2015-16 season and beyond.

“We’re feeling really positive about having the process come to a conclusion with an outcome that is going to become a very good outcome for both our league and for the five teams involved out here in California,” AHL President and CEO David Andrews said. “It’s been a long process.”

As per the agreement, the Anaheim Ducks will purchase and relocate the Norfolk Admirals franchise to San Diego. The Calgary Flames-owned Glens Falls, NY team will move to Stockton. Los Angeles will relocate their affiliate from Manchester, NH to Ontario. The Sharks will move their team from Worcester, MA to their own backyard in San Jose. And the Oilers round out the five teams, relocating the franchise from Oklahoma City, OK to Bakersfield, the former home of their ECHL affiliate (now moving to Norfolk for 2015-16).

“They’re all good buildings, they’re all good markets,” Andrews said of the five new AHL cities. “They’re established markets, either having been in the ECHL or some of them having been in the IHL before and having had success so we’re not concerned at all with the quality of markets or the fan base that will be there. I think the proximity to each other is really good in terms of teams coming out to play them and in terms of them playing each other and being able to bus back and forth. The most important thing is our business model in the American Hockey League is really based on our relationships with the 30 NHL teams. We need every NHL team to be really content with the relationship, with the location, with the quality of the development experience for their players. This move has been a long time coming. We’ve had western-based teams that felt it was important for a long time now.”

CALIFORNIA IN THEIR SIGHTS
Representatives of the five NHL teams who will move their affiliates to California, and AHL President and CEO David Andrews, pose for a picture. Photo provided.

The AHL has eyed California longingly for quite some time. Their move out west began in earnest when the league absorbed the International Hockey League in 2001. The six teams left in the IHL at the time merged with their long-time rival.

“Doing so expanded our footprint to include the midwestern part of the states and also as far as down through Texas and into Salt Lake City,” Andrews said.

The AHL exec said the Pacific Division is the next “monumental shift” for the league.

“We’re thrilled to bring the AHL to California and add to the incredible growth of the game on the west coast.”

Hockey’s rich tradition in California continues to evolve and grow every year. It’s something that Sharks COO John Tortora calls, “truly remarkable.”

“This is a significant day for hockey and the growth of the sport here in California,” Tortora said. “In 25 short years, hockey (in California) has grown from one NHL team to three very successful NHL teams. Each franchise has developed robust youth hockey programs in their markets, culminating with each team having California trained players on their rosters and in their systems.”

The hard work put in by the Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose organizations is what inevitably provided the foundation for an agreement to create the new division.

“This becomes a reality because of those efforts that they worked so hard on, in terms of developing California into a hockey market. It’s a great day for hockey, it’s a good day for the National Hockey League,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said.

David Andrews (centre) drops the puck at the San Jose vs. Anaheim game following the AHL announcement. Photo by Getty Images.

For the three California teams who will house their affiliates in their home state, this has been a dream for longer than the three-year negotiations. Back in 2005, Bob Murray and Brian Burke worked together in Anaheim. Murray claims that their first week on the job, the two execs discussed the possibility of moving their AHL franchise to California. Both agreed that it would be a good move for the organization in the future, allowing them easier access to their prospects.

“This is a dream come true,” said Murray, the Ducks Executive Vice President and General Manager.

Kings President of Business Operations Luc Robitaille says his organization began talks around 2008.

“I know we’ve been talking about this for over six years now,” Robitaille said. “To finally see it come, I think it’s going to be great. We all love the game of hockey, we all want to share our passion. To have the opportunity to share it with more people, we always talk about the growth of the game. We always want things to get better and bigger and this is one of those things that’s going to help the growth of the game.”

Hockey in California is no new discovery, but the creation of this division is expected to only further the growth of that fan base.

“Strong support for those franchise, in terms of fan attendance of the games,” Vice Chair of Oilers Entertainment Group Kevin Lowe said of what he expects from this move. “The spill off is that each of those markets have worked at growing the game within a region of those cities. Now the game can grow further in California. Bakersfield is sort of a few hours north of Los Angeles, San Diego and Ontario are a little closer to Los Angeles. Stockton is not far from San Jose and of course the Sharks will have their team in San Jose. The middle of California is going to have much more high-level hockey that people can enjoy and I’m sure it will lead to, not unlike when Wayne Gretzky went to Los Angeles in the 80’s, more kids playing the game.”

A HUGE UNDERTAKING

The purchasing of franchises is one thing. Moving five of them to new locations is another.

“We’ve been working on this for about three years and, as you could imagine, any undertaking that requires the sales and purchases of franchises and the relocation of franchises, to bring five of them out west from the east and central part of the country is a big undertaking,” Andrews said. “It took a lot of help from a lot of teams and a lot of buildings in the NHL and our own league. It’s nice to have it done and I think the closer we get to it, the more clear it is that hockey has really taken off in California. It’s growing by leaps and bounds and it’s a good thing for the American Hockey League to be here and be a part of that. Even more importantly, it satisfies the needs of the western-based NHL teams to have their players closer.”

Murray said the three California teams, plus their two northern neighbours, had “the same vision” when discussing a Pacific Division. That helped when the talks grew serious.

“They all had unique circumstances. They all shared a vision. They shared a vision on player development and they overcame their differences,” Daly said. “They each have differences for the good of player development for their franchises. At times I heard the commitment to do this, I didn’t know that they could pull it together because they all have different interests. But they were able to do it. They presented a united front and as a result we were able to get this done and I think it’s good for hockey, good for the American Hockey League and good for the National Hockey League.”

“It’s pretty amazing how they found a way to get us all together and get us in a room and make sure that we get a deal done,” Robitaille said. “This has been a true work as a team effort by everyone to get to this point.”

The clubs came together. And with the Oklahoma City Barons management team announcing they would cease operations at the end of the 2014-15 season, it created a need for the Oilers to find a new location for their AHL team. Bakersfield was the logical choice, although it was a sad day to leave behind the Oklahoma City market, according to Oilers Entertainment Group’s President and Chief Operating Officer Patrick LaForge.

Photo provided.

“It’s been a great experience for us in every way possible,” LaForge said of the Barons in OKC. “Good development, good city, good location and very good feeling and feedback from the players. The city opened their arms for them, which is great. I wish that our partners in this venture, the Funk family, would have received a great deal more support from their fans for all their hard work. I wish it would have worked out for them because had it been better and had the Funks been more positively rewarded for what they did, the Bakersfield decision for the American Hockey League would have been a lot more difficult, very difficult actually.”

LaForge says that when Daryl Katz and the Oilers purchased the Bakersfield Condors franchise just over a year ago, the intent was to acquire an ECHL team. The plan to move them to California was not in place, with player development making strides in Oklahoma City.

“We bought the Bakersfield franchise because we wanted an ECHL franchise and we wanted one in California and we wanted the best one in California. We were a little bit selfish about all that, but I think Bakersfield is the team and city of choice for us and we were able to negotiate a deal,” LaForge said. “I was very proud of Bakersfield. At the time, though the transition to the American Hockey League was discussed, it wasn’t in our plans.”

Although Bakersfield becoming an AHL team was not originally on the agenda, it’s a move that makes sense now given the Oilers need for a stable location for their next affiliate.

“As it turns out, Bakersfield is a hell of a hockey market with great fans and we have a good organization there under Matt Riley’s leadership that can sell tickets, do promotions and engage the city,” LaForge said. “In a hot market like California, in a good city with a good building, making the move to upgrade in Bakersfield was not as hard for us as it could have been. It has turned out so far to be simple and looks like it’s going to be a great idea for us.”

MARKETING MACHINE

As LaForge alluded to, the Oilers bought themselves one of the better ECHL franchises when they secured the Condors in January of 2014. From a front office, marketing and game presentation standpoint, Bakersfield has posted success across the board.

The franchise boasts 23 league awards in 16 years, including their time in the WCHL. Their President, Matthew Riley, has won ECHL Executive of the Year twice, becoming only one of two to do so. Riley was also named the WCHL Executive of the Year in 1999-2000.

Photo provided by Bakersfield.

In 2010-11, the Condors received the ECHL Award of Excellence, the highest overall league honour for an organization. Their marketing, media relations and ticket departments have all hauled in various awards and accolades. And their work in the community is well documented. They average over 4,500 fans per game each season (4,859 last season).

The cherry on top is their laundry list of unique ideas. Seinfeld Night, including puffy shirt jerseys? Check. Hobbit themed jerseys? Why not? In 2011, they offered Justin Bieber a contract. They also held Charlie Sheen Night and have a headstone giveaway night thrown in there as well. You name it, they’ve done it or at least thought about it.

That is expected to go almost completely unchanged as they move up a league.

“We hope it doesn’t change,” Lowe said. “Matt Riley, who has been with the Condors and runs the business operations, has been there for 17 years. He’s a bright guy and really understands and respects the game of hockey. We’re going to encourage Matt to keep doing what he’s doing. Our fans who happen to be in California, Oilers fans, who want to see the American Hockey League team, go to Bakersfield. You never know what you’re going to see.”

“I think the market has come to enjoy a certain level of entertainment in the community by the Bakersfield Condors organization, and in the building on game night,” LaForge said. “My expectation is they’re going to get it with a continuous flow of brilliant ideas brought to them by our friends at the Condors. I think the hockey is different, it’s a much more serious brand of hockey. I don’t want to be demeaning of the ECHL, but the AHL has really got a lot of players on their rosters, including our team, who are a very few small steps away from greatness in the NHL. They’re very serious about what’s next for them and so they might be a little bit less likely to engage in some of the antics that ECHL players have in the past. But I think the fans are the fans and they come for the fun and so on so forth. I expect that fan experience to continue.”

Photo provided by Bakersfield Condors.

Since purchasing Bakersfield, the Oilers have encouraged the free flowing ideas.

“The Oilers have given us the autonomy to do things and the Oilers purchased us because of some of the things we do,” Bakersfield’s President Riley said.

“It’s been great. The Oilers have allowed us to kind of still have our autonomy, but still offer the resources and support that they can offer. It’s really been fantastic and nothing but bigger and better to come.”

Riley and Bakersfield expect to continue pumping out headline-making entertainment for quite some time.

“We want to be able to continue to do what we’ve done in the past and now just do it at a higher level, just one step away (from the NHL),” Riley said. “I’ll just say now we’re going to have more fun.”

LaForge says Riley will work together with Oilers Assistant General Manager Bill Scott moving forward.

“Bill Scott works with Craig MacTavish and others to fill the roster and stay in touch with the hockey development side and our AHL franchise. Matt is going to continue the business and continue to report to me in that regard,” LaForge said. “I do believe that we can have a development team that’s as successful as the one in Oklahoma. (The Barons are) first in their division and some days they are first overall. They’re a great organization. They’ve produced not only players but also NHL coaches. We hope the same for Bakersfield and we expect it. At the same time, we hope the business model and marketplace comes out in support of the team too.”

DEVELOPMENT GAINS?

The Oilers really started to build a foundation for development in Oklahoma City. What they’ve seen from that are players getting called up and contributing. They see young prospects like Oscar Klefbom make strides in their game. They’ve seen development among coaches, with both Todd Nelson and Rocky Thompson making the jump from the Barons to the big club. The Barons have never missed the playoffs, making the Western Conference Final twice.

“Certainly in recent years, the Oilers in particular understand the importance of having quality coaching at the American Hockey League level, of investing in all of the elements that go around supporting and developing and educating players,” Andrews said.

Now with the affiliation being transferred to Bakersfield, the Oilers hope and expect that to not only continue but to grow.

“From a development standpoint, we had a good experience in Oklahoma City,” Lowe said. “Great city, great people. Not as many went to the game as we would have liked, but in terms of the location of Bakersfield it has the potential to be a great hockey market, a great American Hockey League market. It already has had great success in the ECHL. The geography of it and where it’s located, relative to the other franchises, is a big plus for us.”

Placing five franchises within a bus ride of one another is a win for the NHL clubs involved. In Oklahoma City, the nearest team was in Cedar Park, TX. That was a five hour and 45 minute bus ride down I-35 south. The rest of the clubs were longer bus rides or even flights away.

Photo by Getty Images.

Cutting back on travel is what Lowe feels will “enhance” the Oilers development.

“The Canadian teams are a little further away,” Lowe said. “We won’t have the luxury of driving down the coast to see our American League team but we know that the players are really going to benefit from the proximity of the teams. Presently, we’re in Oklahoma City and it’s a wonderful city and we really enjoyed being there but our closest opponent was a six-hour bus ride away and the rest of the teams were pretty much a flight away so this is really going to enhance development for our players. The big thing in development in hockey, and I guess it’s the same in other sports, is to have practice time. When you’re flying around all the time across the country, you eliminate practice days. We anticipate possibly somewhere between 20-25 extra practice days, and in a season that’s roughly 180 days that’s a big percentage of time for the development of these young players.”

The Oilers aren’t the only team happy with the new geography.

“Our general managers negotiated a little bit of a lesser game schedule, so there will be more practice time like Kevin Lowe alluded to,” Robitaille said. “We think there will be 20-25 more practices per year. When you’re in a development league, and it is about development, you want to make sure your coaches and your management are able to teach your young men the way the big team wants them to play.”

Photo provided by Bakersfield Condors.

Andrews sees the new division as a step forward in player development.

“I think the teams involved, particularly those based in California in San Jose, Anaheim and LA, I think for them they see a lot of synergy in terms of being able to grow the game,” Andrews said. “To have their top players, to have the American Hockey League close by their NHL clubs. In this cap system we have now in the National Hockey League, player movement back and forth between the affiliate and the NHL team is important. I think having the ability of all those teams’ management staffs and coaching staffs to get out and see the AHL players more often is important as well. I find that teams are investing more and more in their American Hockey League team because that is the route to success in the National Hockey League. That is the only way to get to success in the National Hockey League now. And with the kind of investment they’re making, having their players closer I think has become very important to them to be able to monitor what’s happening in a better way.”

The Oilers look to mirror their development model from OKC, with perhaps some fine tuning.

“I think the same recipe with a little extra spice,” Lowe said. “There’s no question we firmly believe drafting and developing will be our lifeblood and we really feel things have gone well in Oklahoma City in terms of the development part of it. We’re working on the drafting part. Simply the geography, at this point, we anticipate the players will have perhaps as many as 25 additional practice days that they didn’t have in Oklahoma City. That in itself is a huge bonus for the hockey club.”

Photo by Steven Christy | Oklahoma City Barons

A closer proximity to the other teams in their division will also spark competition, and maybe re-ignite the Battle of Alberta rivalry in the AHL. It also helps the Oilers match up and go head to head against some good development programs.

“The fact that Calgary’s farm team (is close by), who we haven’t played a lot in recent years, our team will be playing them now,” Lowe said. “That’s going to benefit (the players) and you’re going to have a high-level rivalry with the three California teams who have been successful in the NHL. Usually, that means that they’ve had good success in terms of their player deployment and player development. We have our hands full but we’ll be ready for the challenge. Ultimately, it will benefit in terms of the improvement in our players.”

As for new hires or staff decisions involved in the advancement of player development, the Oilers are still in the planning process according to Lowe.

“We’re just sorting all that out,” he said.

It’s been years in talks, negotiations and discussions. Things have had to fall into place, but now the AHL Pacific Division has become a reality. According to all those who spoke at the announcement, it’s an exciting development for the sport of hockey.

LaForge said, “It really is a big event, it really is a big decision. And for California, which is in the mode for developing one heck of a lot of hockey players in amateur and recreational leagues, I think putting five franchises together in one place, for the American Hockey League, is fantastic.

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