By Brendan McCarthy
The president of the American Hockey League says it’s far from a fait accompli, but says discussions that would lead to a westward relocation of five or more of the league’s franchises have become more in-depth.
However, Dave Andrews says that possibility, “doesn’t necessarily work at cross-purposes” to efforts at retaining the AHL in St. John’s.
“There is a process underway in which we’ve been asked by five of the western-based NHL teams to work with them to eventually create a Western Division, a Pacific Division in our league,” said Andrews, in St. John’s for the AHL Calder Cup final between the IceCaps and Texas Stars.
“I think a plan is maybe overstating it. We have been talking about this, I would say, over the last two years. For the last six months, it’s been a little more in-depth in terms of the discussions, but we’re certainly not there yet.”
Andrews isn’t saying which NHL teams are involved. However, it can be reasoned that the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks and Phoenix Coyotes are four of the five. All have AHL affiliates on the east coast, in Manchester, N.H. (Kings), Worcester, Mass. (Sharks), Portland, Me. (Coyotes) and Norfolk, Va. (Ducks).
While the Kings and Sharks own their AHL teams, the Coyotes and Admirals only have affiliation agreements, meaning they would have to purchase franchises to move west.
“There are lot of transactions that will have to take place. It’s not a simple process,” said Andrews, “although some of the elements in this have gone a fair way down the road.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to happen. But I’d be less than candid if I didn’t say we are having discussions about this.”
A West Division could be in place by the 2015-16 season, which would be co-incidental to the Winnipeg Jets’ relocation of their AHL franchise from St. John’s to Thunder Bay, Ont., or somewhere else closer to Winnipeg. The league and operators of the St. John’s IceCaps are working to find a replacement franchise and new NHL affiliate, preferably one that come as a package deal, but having five other eastern-cities suddenly without AHL franchises would seem to create added competition for the IceCaps.
“I don’t know if it’s working entirely at cross-purposes,” said Andrews. “This desire to move teams to the west coast is kind of similar to Winnipeg wanting to move its team in that they want to get closer in terms of time zones, because they believe it’s important in terms of player movement and player development.
“On the west coast, they believe it’s important in developing the game there as well.
“But with St. John’s, while that thinking means you probably need to have an eastern-based NHL partner, we believe there are other factors that should make it uniquely attractive.”
One of those factors, says Andrews, are the financial incentives the IceCaps — with their continually sold-out games — could offer potential NHL partners. And he says, despite issues with distance and travel — real and perceived — St. John’s remains a good place to develop players.
“What we have is one of the strongest, if not the strongest franchise, in the league in terms of leadership and management with Danny (Williams) and Glenn (Stanford), and with its fan support, most importantly,” he said.
“Mile One is a great building. It’s a city where teams like to come and play. AHL teams are not asking, ‘Why are we in St. John’s?’
“But we need to find that NHL partner who believes this is the best place for its player development. We’re convinced there should be one out there. We’re not there yet, frankly, not close to anything yet, but we’re certainly working at it.
“One thing we know is that there’s always change in this league. And there is always opportunity. You can look at it today and at who might or might not be available, but those things can quickly change.”