One In, One Out for ECHL in 2018-19

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So, some stuff happened on Tuesday that changed the face of the ECHL. It was the welcoming of St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador to the fold, while also saying goodbye to one of the most notable minor league franchises in the past couple decades in Quad City.

I’ll address the latter first in saying that while it’s not great for the fans, but it’s better to do it this way than to actually keep struggling monetarily and missing out on players that could make the team better. Losing almost a million dollars a season, owner Jordan Melville reached a breaking point– which was partly personally, as well according to Bobby Metcalf of the Quad City Times. Now, the TaxSlayer Center is saying they’d like the area to have hockey and have looked into some options. Obviously, the proximity of Peoria would make the SPHL an interesting choice for Quad City, but only time will tell if the fans would take a lower level of hockey to their area. It’ll be a helluva thing to lose the Mallards– who had success on the UHL, CHL, and onto the ECHL levels, but hockey is a business when all is said and done. This was strictly business.

As far as the St. John’s thing goes…I don’t understand it. Sure, it’s a hockey mad area that was left with nothing with the St. John’s IceCaps left for Laval after last season. But for a team to be almost 1,300 miles from their closest rival is a strain on the pocketbooks for sure. Plus, despite the quality of hockey being better than it has ever been– maybe some people won’t be as hyped up about AA hockey coming to town in a city that has success in the AHL. The QMJHL didn’t do well after the St. John’s Maple Leafs left and only last three seasons. I’m uneasy for the lower level of hockey playing in St. John’s.

That said, a second Canadian team can only help the ECHL and maybe the fans in St. John’s rallying behind it could make it a bigger success than many people could believe– myself included. The big issues will be if owner Dean MacDonald and executive Glenn Stanford will be able to deal with all the things to do in order to bring up a team in time for this October. It may seem like a long time away, but it’ll happen sooner than expected. Unlike Portland, who had over a year to make their team a reality, St. John’s is very much under the gun.

It’ll be an interesting look for the ECHL, which is really moving towards a very Northeastern field with the addition of St. John’s and the removal of Quad City and Colorado (moving to the AHL) after this season.

REPORT: ECHL Tabs St. John’s as Latest Market

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According to David Salter, the former Director of Communications for the St. John’s IceCaps of the AHL, there’s going to be an ECHL team coming to St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador in the near future. Salter said that a source from outside the area was the one who told him that it will be happening. Salter also stated that the franchise will be affiliated with the Montreal Canadiens, while trying to use the IceCaps name.

Of course, this brings up a host of other questions. With the Canadiens going to this new St. John’s team, who would the Brampton Beast turn to in order to be an affiliate?? There are two options– one of which being the Toronto Maple Leafs– who have the Marlies feet away from their doorstep, why not have their ECHL team there rather than in Orlando?? Of course, Orlando runs a nice little ship there and the Leafs may like that a little better. The other option is the Ottawa Senators, who moved their AHL team to Belleville, which is two hours west of Brampton. Currently, the Senators are without an ECHL affiliate and it would make sense to keep the teams in Ontario if you’re going to go that route.

Another question is what to do with travel. Even with the Northeast expansion, St. John’s would be 1,200 miles away from their nearest rival in Portland, which is something I wrote about a month ago when this idea first started to get legs. According to Salter, Dean MacDonald is in fact the man who will own the team, so you can bet that he or his group will have to find a way to off-set costs for teams to travel there. It would most likey follow the Alaska Aces method of having three-game weekend sets up there and then they tour around the Northeast and what-have-you.

While nothing has been set in stone, the fact that sources outside of the local area are reporting it should give it plenty of legs to make it happen. The domino effect could be something that could become very interesting down the line, especially for teams who are already involved with ECHL franchises and the possibility for flipping affiliations.

Minor League News: Re-No and New Found Land for ECHL in St. John’s??

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There has been some news out on the ECHL in the past couple days when it comes to markets that are looking to get into the league. One of the stories is good, the other– not so much.

The bad news first in that the mirage of the Reno market for the ECHL continues. It seems that Reno has been in the mix for the ECHL for the better part of a decade. There seemed to be some traction when the Reno Puck Club came to be in 2016, but since then– there has been some personnel turnover on the city of Reno side which has stalled a team getting into the market, while the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitor’s Authority is looking to get out of managing the possible Events Center that the team could be playing in. While some in Reno think this is just a formality before a team gets there– especially with Vegas being in the NHL and a perfect link to affiliation– I wouldn’t hold the collective breath of the area.

However, one interesting story popped up about a group trying to bring the ECHL to St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labarador of all places. Since the St. John’s IceCaps are no more after Montreal moved their AHL operations to Laval, the Mile One Centre has been bare. There are two groups trying to get hockey back to the area, though– one of which is trying to get the QMJHL back into the arena, while there’s a second group looking to get the ECHL into the area. In fact, it seems that Dean MacDonald, the man heading up the ECHL St. John’s effort, thinks that he could ice a team in the ECHL for 2018-19 if all goes to his plan…which seems really quick and really quiet for all involved.

This story has had some rumors come out of it, but it’s never really taken serious considering how much of an outpost that St. John’s has been when it comes to minor league hockey. The fan base there is second to none when it comes to support, but at the same time, even with the Northeast expansion the ECHL has had– St. John’s would still be over 1,200 miles away from their closest competition, the newly-minted Maine Mariners. That’s been the problematic part with St. John’s being in the AHL and possibly the ECHL.

In all honesty, the QMJHL makes sense since there is a Maritime Division and there would be much closer rivals. Not only that, but the QMJHL could bring a little better profit with the shorter distance to travel, less player payment, and probably better turnout for hockey. The ECHL seems like something that would be lost on Canadian fans. There’s only one team currently in Brampton and only two in the history of the league– lest we forget the Victoria Salmon Kings.

Yet, the fact that focus is on the ECHL shows that there’s a really good business model that owners want to get into. Sure, the lack of other leagues help– but there hasn’t been much of anything to say that the ECHL doesn’t have the best model to go by. That’s one of the reasons why the Utah Grizzlies haven’t jumped ship back to the AHL and that’s due to how the ECHL works out for them dollars and sense-wise.

While we patiently wait for Reno and eyebrow-cock St. John’s, the fact that more people want to get into the minor league hockey business is a good problem to have for the league looking to keep growing from their 27 teams right now.

Time to Right the Schedule, AHL

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With the announcement of the Colorado Eagles moving to the AHL, as well as the San Antonio Rampage announcing a multi-year affiliation deal with the St. Louis Blues, and barring any unforeseen circumstances with other teams around the league; the AHL team roster has been set for 2018-19 already– which is nice, but brings up some other questions, at least in my mind.

Of course, with Colorado being in there– the divisional alignment is going to be pretty straight forward. The seven teams west of Texas– Stockton, Bakersfield, San Jose, San Diego, Ontario, Tucson, and now Colorado– will mostly likely make up the Pacific Division. This will move the Texas Stars and Rampage to the Central Division, thus pushing Cleveland to the North Division. Simple enough. It also leaves some room for when/if Seattle gets a team and wants to put their affiliate in the Pacific Northwest with them.

The bigger question now is what to do with the schedule. With all seven teams on the equal footing, does the AHL finally pull the trigger on making those Pacific Division team play a full 76-game season or so they think that 68 will be smarter for all the teams, despite having their own division. In either situation, the idea of using percentage points as a deciding factor gets thrown out the window and really shouldn’t be the default playoff that always comes up on TheAHL.com.

My thought on this is that this is the perfect time to sell the 76-game schedule to the Pacific teams. Look, they had a nice run of playing eight less games, though it really hasn’t make much a different in the playoffs for them, but it’s time for the AHL to put their foot down and say, “If you want to play in our league now– it’s time to play by our rules and play the full 76-game slate.”

It’s an easy sell now. There’s seven teams in their division, they won’t have to make “big trips” to Texas to play and could find a way to still keep to themselves, but at the same time– actually be a part of the league in playing an actual full schedule for once. Hell, it’s almost paramount of the AHL to make this happen rather than keep letting them get away with the 68-game slate. If they keep doing that– who’s really in charge?? Why have these teams in the league, even with their full division within a reasonable travel destination, if they don’t play the same amount of games that the other 24 teams do.

As you know, this isn’t my first ranting piece about the AHL schedule, but I hope it will be my last. You can’t have a league that’s touting itself as the step-below The Show, if you have two different set of rules in terms of scheduling for the league. This is the time now to really show that the league is in charge and that eight more games against others in the league are going to be okay and the players will be able to get through the travel. If they want to make the show, they’ll have to deal with some travel here and there anyway– so why not get them used to it and have them earn their stripes (and their reward miles) rather then steal eight games away from there throughout the season.

Yeah, No– Just Call Them The Wild Blueberries

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The Portland ECHL team, who won’t take the ice until 2018, revealed the five finalists for their Name-the-Team gimmick and the one that has been a runaway favorite is the Wild Blueberries.

No, you heard me right– the Wild Blueberries.

The other four did have connections to the Maine area– the Mariners, Watchmen, Puffins, and Lumberjacks– but they don’t have the pop that Wild Blueberries had when it comes to the Name-the-Team thing.

But this is what is needed for minor league hockey as it follows the minor league baseball scheme of teams changing their name to something extremely odd to garner attention, thus giving the team some new life and, in this case, attention for a team who won’t take the ice until October 2018. Hell, would you rather enjoy the New Orleans Zephyrs at the ball yard or the New Orleans Baby Cakes?? In Jacksonville– would you rather soak in the Suns or binge on the Jumbo Shrimps??

Is it goofy?? Yes.

Will traditionalist be pissed?? When are they not??

But the point is that this is what is needed for a team who is in a market who lost their AHL team a few years back and have dropped to the ECHL. You need to garner the attention in any way possible, especially in the social media age where it could go viral and really give national appeal to the team. It’s not like it’s a thing that’s not connected to the Maine area, so it also makes local sense, as well.

Just look at the Greenville Swamp Rabbits. It was a rabbit as their logo, but people when crazy for it. The brand change connected the team to the city via the old rail line in the city, national media who never really paid attention to the ECHL was taking notice because of the huge change in the name, and it went over well– so why not take the chance and do something original.

For me, it wouldn’t be my first choice– I’d rather the traditional Mariners or even the Lumberjacks; though Puffins are a dark horse in all of this. Yet– if they were called the Wild Blueberries– I’d be fine with it. The name allows for great punny headlines (“Portland gets juiced by Worcester”; “Blueberries ripen to .500 record”) and is something that would give that civic pride to people that is really needed in the minor league game over something that has been used before. Sure, each of these names have that connection– but none will really connect like the Wild Blueberries.