On the AHL’s Nationwide Footprint

With this week’s news that the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights had reached an agreement to purchase the AHL’s San Antonio Rampage, intending to relocate the team to the Las Vegas area, I got to thinking about the AHL’s alignment.

I should say I got to thinking about it again, because every year when the league’s schedule comes out, I find myself questioning why the teams of the AHL even bother operating as a single league.

This season the Grand Rapids Griffins play a 76-game schedule.  Of those games, 76% are against teams in their own division.  They play the Milwaukee Admirals and Rockford Ice Hogs ten times each, meaning over a quarter of the Griffins’ schedule is made up of two opponents.  They play eight games against the Pacific Division and ten against the Eastern Conference, with six of those being against relatively-nearby Toronto and Cleveland.

The Springfield Thunderbirds, meanwhile play inside their division for 79% of their games.  They play the entirety of their schedule inside the Eastern Conference, which doesn’t span any further west than Cleveland.

As much as I – as a Griffins fan – might get sick of seeing Milwaukee seemingly every other weekend, this scheduling format makes sense.  The AHL might be a nationwide league but this is still minor-league hockey.  Teams can save money by playing only the opponents closest to them.  At least it’s not as bad as when the Pacific Division was playing a completely different number of games as the rest of the league.

The difference between the divisions is only going to be worse, though, when Seattle’s affiliate in Palm Springs comes on line.  With the Rampage off to Vegas and Palm Springs operating, a four-division alignment would see the Colorado Eagles join the Central Division.  This would give the league one division for the Pacific, two divisions for the Atlantic, and a Central Division spread out over the entire rest of the continent, from Colorado Springs to Grand Rapids and Winnipeg to Austin.

With this in mind, the question to me is, is there a need for a nationwide “AAA”-level hockey league?

To be clear, I’m not saying that the AHL should collapse back to its northeastern roots.  The league got this way because NHL teams want their affiliates in easy-to-reach locations.  What I’m saying is that maybe there doesn’t need to be one league to solve that.  Having the International League and the Pacific Coast League separate works for baseball, after all.

Perhaps the current Pacific Division could become a ten-team league by adding Palm Springs and the Texas teams (with the Rampage having become the Silver Knights along the way), a reborn WCHL.  The remaining Central Division teams could replenish their ranks by adding Cleveland and Charlotte as yet another iteration of the IHL.  This would leave the AHL core from the Eastern Conference intact as a 14-team league.  Toronto and Belleville could join the Central teams to even things out better if needed.

Of course, all of baseball is run under one umbrella, something that is not the case for hockey.  While it’s easy to look at a map and see not one AHL but instead a WCHL, an IHL, and an AHL, the NHL may not want to deal with three individual leagues.  A single league may prevent teams from getting out of line.  Remaining a single league would certainly prevent what happened with the IHL of the 1990s, attempting to rise up to challenge the NHL.

I can’t help but think those issues could be handled, however.  While minor league hockey doesn’t have the umbrella organization that minor league baseball does, perhaps the creation of such an umbrella would be a part of this shift.  In my mind, this would also eliminate the issues that led to the fall of the original WCHL and IHL.

That said, perhaps I’m seeing problems that just don’t exist.  I can’t shake the feeling, though, that the American Hockey League is three smaller leagues in a trenchcoat.

Author: Clark Rasmussen

Clark founded the site that would become DetroitHockey.Net in September of 1996 with no idea what it would lead to. He continues to write for the site and executes the site's design and development.