When LA Kings president Luc Robitaille invited executives from the NHL’s western-based teams to successive meetings in Denver and Vancouver, he had an AHL goal in mind.
“We all had clubs out west, but all of our AHL affiliates were out east,” said Seattle Kraken assistant GM Rick Olczyk, who was then with the Edmonton Oilers. “It added cost and travel and it took away from the development and accessibility of our players.”
In 2014, the Calgary Flames affiliate was in Glen Falls, New York; the Edmonton Oilers’ affiliate was in Oklahoma City; the Vancouver Canucks’ affiliate was in Utica, New York; the San José Sharks’ affiliate was in Worcester, Massachusetts; the Colorado Avalanche’s affiliate was in Cleveland; the Anaheim Ducks’ affiliate was in Norfolk, Virginia; the Kings’ affiliate was in Manchester, New Hampshire; and the Coyotes’ affiliate was in Springfield, Massachusetts.
The arrangement created myriad issues. When a player got called up to the NHL club after an injury to another NHL player, he often had to fly across the continent and would either arrive exhausted for the next game, or not even make it in time for that next game, leaving teams shorthanded.
The lack of proximity also made it harder for NHL teams to coordinate organization-wide coaching and training systems, and it made it harder for scouts and GMs to keep tabs on their AHL prospects.
On Jan. 29, 2015, the AHL Board of Governors approved the Pacific Division’s formation, which began with just five teams.
The Flames were allowed to relocate the AHL franchise that they owned from Glens Falls to Stockton, California (it is now in Calgary).
The Oilers were allowed to relocate the AHL franchise that they owned from Oklahoma City to Bakersfield, California.
The Kings were allowed to relocate the AHL franchise that they owned from Manchester to Ontario, California.
The Sharks were allowed to relocate the AHL franchise that they owned from Worcester to San José.
The Ducks were allowed to purchase the Norfolk Admirals and relocate them to San Diego
One year later, the Roadrunners joined the ranks after the Coyotes and the city of Tucson renovated Tucson Arena. In 2018-19, the Colorado Eagles joined. A year ago, the Abbotsford Canucks and Henderson Silver Knights joined, and after playing out a year of shared affiliation with the Florida Panthers in Charlotte, North Carolina, the Coachella Valley Firebirds joined this season.
“Before it was approved, the Eastern teams had questions, which were legitimate questions and concerns,” Olczyk said. “‘What does this mean in terms of travel for the league? What does this mean in terms of scheduling?’
“Eventually, those things were flushed out and things evolved and improved over the years. Once we got over those hurdles and got to where we are now, I think everybody’s just ecstatic about how the AHL map has expanded. It’s only going to help the league. It’s going to have a significant impact economically and it’s going to help the popularity of the league because it’s not just a regional league anymore.”
As Coachella Valley officially opens Acrisure Arena tonight against the Tucson Roadrunners, what once was a pipe dream has become the AHL’s largest division, offering countless benefits to the Flames, Oilers, Canucks, Sharks, Avalanche, Kings, Ducks, Coyotes, Vegas Golden Knights and the Kraken. Now in its eighth season, the Pacific Division has been a rousing success.
“I’ve got to give credit to those GMs; I’m so impressed by how they handled it,” Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong said. “It was all based around making sure that the division was about development, and that’s as it should be. That’s why you have an AHL affiliate.”
Last season, the AHL’s division did not play the same amount of games as other divisions. To further reduce travel and increase development time, the Pacific Division only played 68 games. This season, however, the AHL adopted a 72-game schedule (a reduction of four games for many Eastern and Midwest based teams) for all teams. That was a revenue based decision, but there are still differences in the schedules for teams in the east vs. teams in the west.
As an example, the Hershey Bears and Providence Bruins often still play three games in three nights on weekends to maximize revenue (the Pacific Division does not). Armstrong thinks that such a grueling approach hurts development.
“I can remember when I played in the AHL and when I coached in it,” said Armstrong, who played in Hershey and Providence, and coached in Providence. “That third game in three nights was useless and sometimes it wasn’t even three full days; you’d play the Sunday game at two o’clock. There was not a prospect that got anything out of it. You’re just in survival mode.”
Rest allows players to compete at a higher level. That, in turn, allows scouts and executives to more thoroughly evaluate them.
“I think they play harder in those games because it’s not survival mode,” Armstrong said. “You’re actually getting something out of the games. You’re fresher, your skill level is higher. There’s a faster pace and I think teams are grittier and feistier because they’re not worn down as much. I even think it helps with injuries. Playing three and three on a bus with travel, the injury rates go way up.”
Aside from the benefits of rest, there is also a development component.
“I love the fact that we get Mondays a lot of time for development,” Armstrong said. “Monday is a big day for us. We have one or two skills guys down there doing speed work, doing individual, skills-based work around the individual positions. A lot of our prospects down there have to get bigger, stronger, faster, and that’s what you’re working on.
“It’s been a great set-up and I’ve seen its benefit in our prospects growing when we’re not overwhelming them with games.”
There could be more tweaks ahead, including the possibility of Pacific Division teams playing only within their division to further reduce travel. Playing a balanced schedule and facing opponents outside of the division is not important in the AHL. Again, it’s a development league. With nine opponents and 72 games, the schedule would work perfectly for the Pacific. Each team would play each of its division opponents eight times; four at home, four on the road.
“It’s still a business first and foremost but with the amount of games we’re playing, we’re not cheating the fans,” said Olczyk, who would not comment specifically on the possibility of shifting to a division-only schedule. “We’re playing plenty of games, the fans get plenty of entertainment and we get involved in the community. All those types of things are all beneficial for everybody, but remember, this still is still about the players. Develop, develop, develop. That’s the key.”
Making the AHL’s Pacific Division happen was a major ordeal. In the Roadrunners’ case, it meant major renovations to Tucson Arena. In the case of the Silver Knights and Firebirds, it meant building brand new arenas. The Firebirds had to play their first 22 games on the road before Acrisure Arena was ready to open today.
“This has been a long time coming, with a lot of tears, a lot of sweat and a lot of uncertainty,” said Olczyk, whose team was originally slated to build on a 16-acre site owned by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians before COVID-19 scrapped those plans. “It’s a credit to our coaching staff, to our trainers, to our players and their families for their understanding and support during this long wait, but I think it has been worth it.”
Top photo: Oakview Group COO Steve Collins cuts the ribbon on Acrisure Arena, home of the Coachella Valley Firebirds, in Palm Desert, Calif. on Dec. 14, 2022. To his right are the Doobie Brothers. To his left are Kraken executives Tim and Tod Leiweke. (USA TODAY Sports)