The Grand Rapids Griffins being in the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup Finals has inspired a couple different small discussions on Twitter about the differences between that league’s two conferences.
Early last week I had an exchange with Matt Saler of On the Wings when he asked “How do the Crunch get away with such a small arena?” upon seeing that War Memorial in Syracuse doesn’t have regulation-sized ice. I responded with a generalization about the AHL Eastern Conference being made up of old markets where they can’t be bothered to renovate old arenas.
Then last night I had a short exchange with George Malik about what might have happened if the Vancouver Canucks had been able to relocate the Peoria Rivermen to Seattle, as they attempted to do before eventually settling on Utica, NY. George commented that travel to Abbotsford and Iowa would be good for the Seattle team and I countered saying that, aside from Abbotsford, Seattle’s closest rival would be further than any Eastern Conference’s team furthest rival.
My thought was that the Western Conference is generally made up of the IHL refugees and teams that play second-fiddle in NBA arenas. Teams that play in newer, larger arenas in markets that haven’t had higher-level hockey for as long. The Eastern Conference, meanwhile, is it’s own private bus league (within a bus league), made up of older, smaller markets in older, smaller arenas.
That assumption seems to be proven true by the numbers but it’s closer than I would have thought in some cases.
The average construction date of a Western Conference arena is 1991 compared to 1983 in the Eastern Conference. More telling, perhaps, is that the Eastern Conference has eight of 15 arenas that were built prior to 1980 while the Western Conference has only two. Those newer Western Conference arenas seat an average of 12,734 compared to only 9,033 in the Eastern Conference.
On top of that, all five of the AHL’s teams that play in NBA arenas are in the Western Conference.
I was surprised to see that the teams of the Western Conference were, on average, founded in 1998, only two years later than the 1996 average for the Eastern Conference. However, the Eastern Conference’s markets have, on average, been served by high-level hockey leagues since 1972 while the Western Conference markets have only been in use since 1985.
The bus-league dynamic of the Eastern Conference is undeniable, however. Of the 15 teams, only two are more than 100 miles away from their closest rival compared to seven in the Western Conference. The average distance to an Eastern Conference team’s closest competition is 119 miles, skewed by the 888-mile trip from St. John’s to Portland. The average distance to a Western Conference team’s closest opponent is 216 miles, with the 1,563-mile trip from Abbotsford to Oklahoma City as the largest outlier. Additionally, no Eastern Conference team’s closest rival is in the Western Conference while two Western Conference teams (Rochester and Charlotte) are closer to an Eastern Conference team than anyone else (Syracuse and Norfolk, respectively).
For the record, if you remove the outliers of St. John’s and Abbotsford, the average distance to the closest rival in the East drops to 64 miles while dropping to 119 in the West.
Disclaimer: There were a few assumptions I made when compiling this data. One is that I used each arena’s max capacity for hockey, so if a team uses curtains to block off sections I didn’t account for that. The thinking being that they still play in a big arena, whether they use it all or not. Another is that “higher-level hockey” is defined as AHL, IHL, WHA or NHL. In the case of Chicago and Toronto, I ignored the Blackhawks and Maple Leafs because, unlike markets like Hartford, their AHL teams aren’t meant to be replacements for the NHL clubs. Also, I used the 2012-13 AHL alignment that includes Peoria and Houston because, while we know those teams will be replaced by Des Moines and Utica, we don’t know what the league’s alignment will be to accommodate that. I determined a team’s year of founding by when a franchise began play in its current market, with IHL refugee teams counting for when they began play in the IHL.
The numbers I compiled are as follows (click for full-size):