By Mary Walsh
SAN JOSE– The American Hockey League will be moving five teams into California beginning next season. This AHLien invasion was the result of extensive planning and negotiations between the NHL, the AHL, and five NHL franchises. For west coast hockey fans, and California fans in particular, it is goods news. For some AHL fans, it is a sad day.
On January 21st, Mark Purdy of the Mercury News reported that the Sharks’ AHL team will play next season at the SAP Center. Thursday, the AHL and the NHL added to this news by confirming that the Anaheim Ducks, the Edmonton Oilers, the Calgary Flames and the Los Angeles Kings will also be moving their AHL teams to California.
The Oilers’ AHL franchise will play in Bakersfield, the Flames’ AHL team will move to Stockton, and the Kings’ AHL team will be in Ontario. As for the ECHL teams currently playing in those locations, Luc Robitaille of the LA Kings said that their Ontario ECHL team will be moving to Manchester to fill the void left by the Monarchs’ departure. How may others will follow that pattern has not been announced. The Ducks’ AHL team will move to San Diego.
During a press conference held at SAP Center, officials from the above NHL teams, as well as the NHL and the AHL spoke to the media about the moves. Bill Daly, NHL Deputy Commissioner and David Andrews, AHL President and CEO joined the Flames’ Brad Treliving, the Oilers’ Kevin Lowe, the Kings’ Luc Robitaille, the Sharks’ Doug Wilson and John Tortora, and the Ducks’ Bob Murray and Michael Schulman.
AHL President and CEO David Andrews opened the press conference, giving the audience a rundown of the development relationship between the AHL and the NHL. He thanked the fans of the teams being relocated for their support. Earlier this week, the Ducks purchased their AHL franchise, putting them in the same group as the Oilers, the Kings, the Flames, and the Sharks, as AHL team owners.
Sharks COO John Tortora spoke next, mentioning that the San Jose AHL team will need a new name that should be chosen in the next few weeks. He lauded the growth of hockey in California over the past decades. He then summarized the development advantages of having AHL Sharks train and play so close to the NHL Sharks. The fans will get to see the AHL players before they reach the NHL, expanding interest in the organization. The management and coaching staff will have greater access to prospects, and players will be better prepared for the NHL environment by living and working in it. On the decision to locate the team in San Jose, Tortora emphasized the organization’s desire to make the AHL franchise beneficial to the community, in terms of added jobs and opportunities in San Jose.
Tortora also thanked Worcester for being a supportive market:
We spent ten incredible years in Worcester, it is an incredible hockey market and should have a new hockey team in the near future. This relocation is not a reflection on the Worcester market, rather it is one where we look forward to ending our last season in Worcester making it a very successful one and then building the program here in San Jose.
After the presentation, Tortora answered a few more questions about the new venture. Tickets to the AHL games will be on a par with other AHL prices, making professional hockey more accessible to a new audience.
Having the AHL team play at SAP Center may not be a long-term arrangement but there are no plans at this time to move it elsewhere. I asked if the plans to expand the Sharks Ice facility were still in the works. Shark Ice is the Sharks’ practice facility that also has rinks for public use. A major expansion looks unlikely at this point, from Tortora’s answer:
We’ve looked at expanding Sharks Ice by two sheets of ice over the last three or four years, but the timing wasn’t right for us to do that. But we’re still looking to add more ice, in the Bay Area.
That leaves the question wide open: where in the Bay Area? How much? As much ice as a pro hockey venue? Bay Area communities can wonder and hope, but nothing has been decided yet.
“This is an unbelievable day for hockey in California,” began Ducks GM Bob Murray. He spoke to the importance of the AHL to the Ducks, pointing out that there are only two players on their current roster who did not play in the AHL at some point.
Kevin Lowe, Oilers President of Hockey Operations & Vice Chair OEG spoke next. The Oilers will not have their team close enough to drive to, but it will reduce travel time to games and allow for more practice time.
Flames GM Brad Treliving spoke next, re-emphasizing the value of the AHL to NHL player development. He praised Glens Falls as a hockey market, but came back to the disadvantage of cross-country travel for call-ups and management. He thanked the fans and others in Glens Falls, acknowledging that these moves mean some fans will lose their hockey teams.
Kings’ President of Business Operations, Luc Robitaille spoke next, saying how impressive it was that these five teams could work together for this move. He thanked Manchester too, and said that Manchester will be getting another team. As mentioned above, that team will be the one currently playing in Ontario.
NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly spoke next. “It’s a great day for hockey, it’s a great day for the NHL.” He thanked Andrews for his efforts to coordinate the move, and thanked the five NHL clubs for their willingness to negotiate and get this done.”They presented a united front, and as a result we were able to get this done.”