The AHL’s Planned “Western Pod” Has Far Reaching Implications

AHL-Alignment
Take a long hard look at the current AHL landscape because you might not recognize the league come the 2015-16 season. The AHL is poised for a major shakeup—allowing a group of NHL owned AHL teams to move to California, forming a “Western Pod”. With player transactions between AHL teams and NHL affiliates on the rise, West Coast teams have found it difficult managing moves between time zones. The goal is to decrease distance between NHL and AHL affiliates teams and decrease/eliminate jet-lag issues for players. Although the details about how this “Western Pod” will integrate with the remainder of the AHL are unclear, the teams that will be moving west are all but set in stone.

  • The Los Angeles Kings will move the Manchester Monarchs to Ontario, California
  • The Edmonton Oilers will move the Oklahoma City Barons to Bakersfield, California
  • The San Jose Sharks will move the Worcester Sharks to San Jose, California
  • The Anaheim Ducks will buy the Norfolk Admirals and move them to San Diego, California
  • The Calgary Flames will move the Adirondack Flames to Stockton, California.

While these changes will help affiliated NHL teams, there are some rather far reaching implications.

First and foremost the formation of a “Western Pod” introduces a great deal of uncertainty for remaining AHL teams. Will fans/cities/regions have an AHL team next year? That will certainly be the question weighing on the minds of every city and state official debating on investing in a local sport franchise. New arena construction costs are quickly approaching the $90 million mark and renovations commonly exceed $10 million. Is either a viable investment? Can those funds ever be recuperated or will a sudden AHL realignment leave governments with a massive deficit? To get a better picture of how much money was spent on the teams being relocated let’s take a look at the cities and arenas affected by the “Western Pod’s” creation:

  • Manchester, New Hampshire
    • Verizon Wireless Arena
      • Primary Tenant: AHL Manchester Monarchs
      • Seats 9,852 for hockey
      • Constructed 2001
      • Cost: $68,000,000 (Wikipedia)

  • Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
    • Cox Convention Center
      • Primary Tenant: AHL Oklahoma City Barons
      • Seats 13,399 for hockey
      • Renovated/Expanded 1999
      • Cost: $55,800,000 (Wikipedia)

  • Worcester, Massachusetts
    • DCU Center
      • Primary Tenant: AHL Worcester Sharks
      • Seats 12,239 for hockey
      • Renovated 2009, 2012, 2013
      • Cost: $26,000,000 (Worcester Gov)

  • Norfolk, Virginia
    • Norfolk Scope
      • Primary Tenant: AHL Norfolk Admirals
      • Seats 8,701 for hockey
      • Renovated 2003-Present
      • Cost: $14,500,000 (Wikipedia)

  • Glens Falls, New York
    • Glens Falls Civic Center
      • Primary Tenant: AHL Adirondack Flames
      • Seats 4,794 for hockey
      • Renovations Planned (required to acquire AHL team)
      • Cost: Unknown (planning phase)

As you can see, each of the cities losing an AHL team made considerable investments in each team’s arena. In each case the AHL team is the building’s primary tenant. Manchester, New Hampshire specifically constructed the Verizon Wireless Arena for the Manchester Monarchs and the renovations of Worcester, Massachusetts’ DCU Center and Norfolk, Virginia’s Norfolk Scope were specifically intended to keep the AHL team from relocating to another city. Glens Falls, New York obtained state and local funding for an upcoming Glens Falls Civic Center renovation that was necessary to entice the Adirondack Flames to their city. There’s always a risk/reward involved in local investments. Each of the cities above (except, perhaps, for Glens Falls) has lost on their investment. These cases will be fresh on the mind of ANY official dealing with a present or future AHL team and will undoubtedly hurt remaining teams when negotiating with cities and states on a multitude of issues.

The next implication for the AHL is what the divisional alignment will look like for the 2015-16 season. Several teams in the current Western Conference will have to move to the Eastern Conference. The teams within each conference’s divisions will need to be shuffled. This means each team’s schedule will look very different, especially considering the leagues intra-division opponent priority. A realignment could result in more inter-division scheduling but based on the historical preference for intra-divisional play that seems unlikely at this time. There is also the consideration of how much the “Western Pod” will play “outsiders”. There has been a rumor that the “Pod” will only play amongst themselves, but, more recently, a rumor that the teams in the “Western Pod” WILL play outsiders and that the “Pod” may foot some of the travel expenses for visiting teams. As a concession the AHL season will be shortened. Rumors include a 66 game season and a 72 game season. It will be incredibly interesting to see how the divisions are realigned and exactly what it means for each teams’ schedule.

Another implication is that allowing the creation of the “Western Pod” is a purely development based decision and, as such, officially aligns the American Hockey League as a development-first league. While hearing the league described as development-first might not shock current fans, the team moves and resulting divisional realignment signal an official designation not necessarily declared before.

How will the “Western Pod” affect the AHL fan base? How will cities deal with the “new” AHL? How will development-first hockey affect revenue streams? Only time will tell.

Chris Schiffner is a New Yorker turned Rochestarian who loves the Amerks, is passionate about the success and development of Downtown Rochester, and celebrates all things local. He maintains a personal website at Schiffner.com and you can follow his personal twitter feed at @ChrisSchiffner.
 

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