AHL’s Western Shift, the new Pacific Divison

As many hockey fans already know there will be five American Hockey League teams making California home next year to create a new Pacific Division in the AHL. The NHL’s Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks will all have their AHL affiliates moving West to California for the 2015-2016 Season, significantly reducing the travel time for their call ups and allowing them to keep a closer eye on their prospects. I’ll be taking a look at some of the benefits the move will make for each of the teams affiliates.

Calgary Flames

The Calgary Flames who will take the Adirondack Flames from Glens Falls, New York a city of 14,700 (2010 Census) with a metro region of only 128,774 (2009 Estimate) to the significantly bigger market of Stockton, California a city with 300,899 people and 710,731 in their metro according to 2014 estimates. We’ll start our overview with the market the Flames are abandoning after just one season, Glen Falls, which has a fairly long history of minor professional hockey since the doors opened on the 4,794 seat Glen Falls Civic Center in 1979, that same season the Adirondack Red Wings, the former farm team of Detroit Red Wings played their first of 20 season before suspending operation in 1999 and later becoming the San Antonio Rampage in 2002, the Florida Panthers AHL affiliate.

An United Hockey League team served the market from 2000-2006 first named the Adirondack IceHawks and later renamed the Adirondack Frostbite after being purchased by former Los Angeles Kings head coach Barry Melrose and ESPN sportscenter Anchor Steve Levy.

The AHL returned to the market in 2009 when the Philidalphia Flyers moved their farm team out of their own city to Adirondack retaining the Phantoms moniker there until 2014 when they moved to nearby Allenstown, Pennsylvania to play at the newly built 8,447 PPL Center as the Leigh Valley Phantom.

After the Flames sole AHL season in Adirondack raps up, the ECHL’s Stockton Thunder will relocate to Adirondack after the Flames finalized their purchase of the team to be their ECHL affiliate. The Thunder have played in Stockton since 2005 after moving from Atlantic City. The Thunder were currently affiliated with the New York Islanders after former partnerships with the San Jose Sharks, and Flames fans will love this one, the Edmonton Oilers on multiple occasions.

The 9,737 waterfront Stockton Arena has been home to the Thunder since part way through their first season in 2005 which they played in front of an average of 6343 fans leading the ECHL that season.  Their average attendance peaked the following season at 6780 and has dropped off ever since hovering over 4400 this season which is still among the league average. The Thunder still drew significantly more in a lower league than the just shy of 3600 the Adirondack Flames have averaged at the gate to this point of the season. I would anticipate the new Stockton AHL team may return to the earlier attendance numbers their ECHL team drew and will probably average closer to 7000 or more with a higher level product on the ice, making it a very profitable move for the Flames. This combined with the fact that Stockton is close to half the travel distance of Adirondack. Obviously connecting flights are likely with travel from smaller markets, but at 994 direct flight miles (1600km) from Stockton to Calgary compared to the 1960 direct flight miles (3155km) from Adirondack it will make it significantly easier and more cost effective when bringing minor leaguers up to the NHL. I can see the Flames happy with their main farm team in Stockton for years to come after previous stops in Adirondack, Abbotsford, Quad City (Moline), Omaha, Lowell, Saint John, Salt Lake, Moncton, Denver, Oklahoma City and Birmingham since 1980.

Edmonton Oilers

The Edmonton Oilers are moving their farm team the shortest distance of the five teams ending up in California. After a five year stint in Oklahoma City, the Barons will move 1221 miles away (1965km) and make Bakersfield, California their new home for the 2015-16 AHL Season. The move shouldn’t be a huge shock either with average attendance for the Barons highest in their first season at only 4155 at the 13,399 seat Cox Convention Center which opened back in 1972. Those totals have been in a decline ever since with a small rebound this season from last, averaging just under 3500 so far this season. The Oilers will be the only one of the five organizations  moving their farm team to a smaller center with Oklahoma City having 610,613 in the city and a metro population of 1,319,677 compared to Bakersfield at 363,630 in the city and 839,631 in the metro, all 2013 estimates. It appears that having the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder consistently selling out the 18,203 seat Chesapeake Energy Arena and dominating the local sports page along with having the Thunders NBA D-League affiliate, the Oklahoma City Blue move into the Cox Convention Center this season has left the Barons in a situation where there is too much competition for the cities entertainment dollars with already poor attendance. They shouldn’t have that same problem in Bakersfield with the city being far enough north of the major sports teams in Los Angeles and only having a NBA D-League team of their own the Bakersfield Jam which will hardly compete for crowds as they choose to play out of the Dignity Health Event Center which only seats 500 as a cost saving measure. The Jam do consistently sell out, leaving lots of room for the new Bakersfield AHL team to grow on the steady attendance numbers the ECHL Bakersfield Condors have been able to put up as the main tenant at the 8,800 seat Rabobank Arena which opened in 1998. The Condors have average anywhere from 4513 in 2003-04 to 5848 in 2006-07 and just under 4800 this season.  It would be safe to assume that with a more competitive AHL product the Oilers farm team should be able to hit numbers a lot closer to capacity at Rabobank Arena, probably closer to the 7000 mark, which would put them near the top of the league, significantly stronger attendance than their time in Oklahoma City. The travel distances for prospects to get to Edmonton from the farm team will be a little shorter with the team saving 999 miles (1608km) in flight distance with the move. The Oilers have had quite a few other minor league affiliates since 1979 including Houston, Wichita, Moncton, Nova Scotia (Halifax), Cape Breton, Kansas City, Hamilton, Iowa, and Springfield. The Bakersfield Condors will continue on in a new city, relocating the ECHL team to Norfolk after the Ducks move their AHL team from Norfolk to San Diego. The move to Bakersfield should be a definite win for the Oilers organization and a profitable one compared to Oklahoma City.

San Jose Sharks

The San Jose Sharks will be the only NHL team to share the same arena with their AHL team next season when the Worcester Sharks moves from Massachusetts to California. The Sharks will be able to keep a very close eye on their prospects while sharing their arena and training facilities with them and call ups will be nothing more than a paper transaction. If another hockey team isn’t found for Worcester there will be a lot of empty seats in the 12,239 seat DCU Center which opened back in 1982 and doesn’t have another major tenant. This should be an ideal spot for another ECHL or even another relocation of an AHL team down the road with 182,544 in the city and 923,672 in the metro area. It’s not expected the city will have a team next fall, but it’s likely the will end up with a team by the 2016-17 season. Despite having a solid sized arena the attendance was lacking for the AHL Sharks in Worcester filling only 28-38% of the seats as their annual average attendance from 2006 until now. The peak was a mere 4602 their first season, dipping to under 3400 this season.  Worcester has been home to an AHL team since the IceCats who were affiliated with the St. Louis Blues and New York Islanders first played in 2004 before moving to Peoria in 2005 and later Utica in 2013 as the Vancouver Canucks farm team. The IceCats had slightly better attendance numbers over the years with a peak average of 6800 and low point of 4391 over their time in Worcester, so there has been steady support in the market over the years all be it not what it could have been, since 6800 is still only 56% of capacity. Not having the farm team a 2645 Mile flight (4257km) away is going to be a huge change for sure. The 17,562 SAP Center is always near capacity for Sharks games, but if will be hard to say how the San Jose market will embrace the minor league team. Sharing the same rink may work, but I think it would be smart to look outside of San Jose who as of 2014 Estimates had 1,000,536 people in the city and 1,975,342 in the Metro and see if they can capitalize on strengthening the Sharks brand throughout the San Francisco-San Jose-Oakland area which has a 8,469,854 combined area population in that same 2014 estimate. It may be significantly cheaper to keep the team playing in the Sharks home area, and even though teams have failed in the past in both Oakland and San Francisco, some home dates for the AHL team at the same 11,089 seat Cow Palace  just south of San Francisco in Daly City where the Sharks played their first two season, and a few more games at the 17,200 seat Oracle Arena in Oakland could lead to a better permanent spot for their AHL club. That’s just my food for though on it as I think moving the minor league team into the northern cities can only benefit the Sharks exposure through the region. The Sharks have spent a decent amount of time in each of their former affiliate cities spending at least five years in each of Kansas City, Kentucky and Cleveland before spending nine in Worcester.  The real winner in this move will be fans in San Jose who have a harder time either getting their hands on or possible being able to afford tickets to the Sharks games, giving them the cheaper option of watching their minor league affiliate. It’s doubtful it will impact the Sharks nightly attendance.

Los Angeles Kings

The Los Angeles Kings are bringing their farm team back to the greater Los Angeles Area out to the suburb of Ontario, California which is home to 167,500 as of a 2013 estimate, but more importantly on the outskirts of the 18,081,569 estimated 2011 population of the Los Angeles Metro Region. Fan support has been no problem in Ontario for the Reign over their time in the ECHL having topped the league in attendance five of their seven seasons and ending up in second the other two years. Their average of 6929 over those seasons is very impressive by ECHL standards and last seasons 8158 average should be easily attainable with an AHL team. It wouldn’t be a stretch to expect the Reign to regularly sell out the 9,736 seat Citizen Business Arena which opened in 2008. Keeping a close eye on their farm team and making call ups will be very easy for the Kings with it now being about 37 miles (60 km) away compared to the 2578 miles (4149 km) in the air to Manchester, New Hampshire. The Reign were the ECHL affiliate for both the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings and the Winnipeg Jets, they will carry on as an ECHL affiliate as the Manchester Monarchs, with the AHL’s Monarchs adopting the Reign moniker in Ontario. Over 14 AHL seasons in Manchester the Monarchs averaged 6963 fans, however, they haven’t had more than a 5900 average since 2007-08. Their highest numbers were in 2003-04 with a 9140 average, but the decline in fan support over the past few years made the move that much easier for the Kings organization to make. Manchester’s Verizon Wireless Arena built in 2001 does have a few more seats than Citizen Bank Arena with 9852, but it’s unlikely the ECHL team will fill that to capacity very often. Since 1967 the Kings have had 16 other farm teams located in 13 different cites Springfield (4 times), Denver, Seattle, Porland (Oregon), Salt Lake, Fort Worth, Binghamton, Houston, New Haven, Phoenix, Fredricton, Long Beack, and Lowell. The move to Ontario, California is a huge win for the Kings organization.

Anaheim Ducks

The Anaheim Ducks farm team will move back to the same city that hosted their first minor league affiliate, a short 96 mile (155km) drive south to San Diego, California, where the IHL’s San Diego Gulls served as the Ducks farm team from 1993-95. The ability to monitor their players and make quick call ups will be significantly easier than from their current affiliate in Norfolk, Virginia which is 2331 miles (3751km) away by air. According to the Ducks website, the new team name, logo and colors will be announced at an event they will host to celebrate the team’s arrival called San Diego’s Hockeyfest. San Diego is one of the large US markets that doesn’t currently have any professional hockey in it, but has had a long history of ice hockey teams playing in several leagues including the WHA, IHL, WCHL, ECHL, WHL and PCHL. San Diego even had a Roller Hockey team from 1993-1996 playing in the RHI. The last Professional ice hockey team to lace up in San Diego was 2006 when the Gulls team folded after being unprofitable despite average attendance of 5821 in their final season, good enough for third best in the 25 team league. The highest season attendance average of any San Diego ice hockey team is held by the IHL Gulls during the 1992-1993 season where they averaged 7728. One would hope that the new AHL team in San Diego should be able to draw closer to 8000 or more in the 12,920 seat Valley View Casino Center which has hosted the cities hockey teams since it opened in 1966. San Diego has 1,435,895 people in the city and 3,095,313 in the Metro according to 2014 estimates, so there is no lack of potential draw for the team despite having the NFL’s Chargers and MLB’s Padres, two professional sports teams to compete with in San Diego. The situation was different with no major sports teams in Norfolk which has 246,392 in the city and 1,672,319 in the metro making for a viable argument that it’s a comparable market for entertainment dollars for an AHL team. However, over 15 years in Norfolk and only 3 of which were as the Ducks farm team the Admirals average attendance was only 4519, with a low of 3855 in 2009-10 and a high of 5451 in 2012-2013. All of the Admirals games were played at the Norfolk Scope which opened in 1971 and seats 8701. The fact that the Gulls through their 15 years in the IHL, WCHL and ECHL averaged 6087 fans from 1991-2006 and never averaged lower than 4591 which is still higher than the Admirals average over their 15 years, drills home the fact that San Diego is a more viable AHL market than Norfolk. The Ducks since 1993 have also had previous affiliations with Baltimore, Cincinnati, Portland (Maine), Iowa and Syracuse. Norfolk won’t be left without a team in their market as the Bakersfield Condors will be relocating their ECHL after the Oilers set up their AHL team in the city. It will be great to see San Diego get a pro hockey team back after a 9 year hiatus, and if the support is strong enough I feel it could set the city up as a viable expansion option down the road.

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