American Hockey League westward expansion has been a sore topic among AHL fans for a good few years now. The idea of the AHL having teams on the west coast has been something occasionally tossed out among the fans and some media personalities, a topic that was filled with more guesswork and conjecture than actual facts. Fans would get all hot under their collars, argue about it for a day or two, and then the topic would float away again. It'd always come back, usually spurred on by people "in the know," but little in terms of the concrete could really be said about it.
Then, about a month ago, the news that the Oklahoma City Barons were closing after the conclusion of the current AHL season rippled through the league. It soon became clear that the intention of the Edmonton Oilers, the NHL parent club of the Barons, is to move their farm team to Bakersfield, California. The Oilers purchased the Bakersfiled Condors of the ECHL last season, putting in place the beginning pieces needed to get their AHL club much closer to them.
Then, this past week, The Virginian Pilot published an article that cited two sources close to the Norfolk Admirals. Those sources fanned the flames of a report that came out earlier in this year's AHL season, a report that stated that the Admirals were going to be sold to the Anaheim Ducks and then moved out to San Diego, California. The Ducks are the current NHL parent club of the Admirals. According to the article in the Pilot, Ken Young, who leads the Admirals' ownership group, confirmed back in October that the team had been approached about making a sale but that no sale had been completed. However, those two new sources told the Pilot that the "sale of the American Hockey League team and a move of the franchise to San Diego is a near certainty."
Later on in the week, the Admirals' Facebook page posted an unconvincing response to the rumors and speculation, stating the following:
In regards to recent media reports, rumors of the Admirals sale and/or relocation remains speculation. The American Hockey League has been in discussions with a number of Western-based NHL teams for over 30 months with regards to their objective of creating a Pacific Division in our league. While progress is being made, there remains much work to be done and there is still no timeline for the establishment of a Pacific Division.
With respect to what may or may not be discussed at our upcoming Board of Governors meeting, the AHL as a longstanding matter of policy does not disclose matters placed before its Board of Governors for consideration.
In the wake of the Norfolk news, more speculation started to pop up concerning other AHL clubs, starting with an announcement that the Calgary Flames have an agreement in place to purchase the current ECHL team in Stockton, California. Currently, their prospects play at the Glens Falls Civic Center in Glens Falls, N.Y. That article in the Glens Falls Post-Star states that the sale is contingent upon approval from both the city of Stockton and the ECHL. It doesn't take much of a leap to make a connection that Calgary would then want to have their AHL farm club in Stockton. Calgary is another team, like the Ducks, that has long wanted their AHL affiliate closer. According to that article,
The ECHL Board of Governors will meet Jan. 21, when it will discuss the Calgary purchase, according to the documents filed in Stockton. The AHL Board of Governors meets Jan. 25. It is possible for both boards to discuss the new division and transfer of teams and even bring it to a vote in those meetings.
Other dominoes in the AHL are expected to fall, something that might happen as soon as by the end of this season. Multiple reports have Los Angeles, who currently has their farm team in Manchester, New Hampshire, and San Jose, whose farm team is in Worcester, Massachusetts, as also wanting their AHL clubs closer.
The thing with all of this is that it's now too much to ignore, which is what it was easy to do when it was just a team or two involved in the rumors. Logic dictates that If the AHL was really looking to create a true western division, they'd certainly need more than just one team out there. The AHL is a primarily a bus league, with teams generally renting sleeper buses to get to longer destinations instead of flying. One could bet that even current westerly teams like Grand Rapids or the Texas Stars wouldn't be willing to shell out plane fare for their teams to get to one or two clubs out in California on a regular basis. Those clubs out there wouldn't have been able to survive if they had to fly everywhere; it just would have been too cost prohibitive.
But, put four or five clubs way out west and suddenly there's a division there. Sure, something will have to be done so those teams somehow see more of the Western Conference, but it's certainly easier to spread the cost around when those teams can bus to get to each other.
Now, with all of this happening, there's probably one big question on the mind of both Crunch and Lightning fans: what does this mean for Syracuse?
To be fairly honest...probably not much.
Affiliation-wise, it goes without saying that the Lightning isn't going to want their farm team in California. The western NHL clubs want their AHL teams closer, and the Lightning, as an east coast team, doesn't want their farm club further away. The Lightning moved their farm club to Syracuse because they liked the idea of a more centrally-located hub city within the AHL. The Crunch is within an hour and a half or so of Rochester, Binghamton, Utica, and Glens Falls. Expand the time limit out to two to five hours and the team can still easily get to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Toronto, Hamilton, Albany, Hershey, Worcester, Springfield, Hartford, Manchester, etc.
Syracuse's location means less travel time for the team and more practice time at home. Tampa Bay empathized this when they made the move, and it's doubtful that they'd put their prospects in a place that would change that. Also, as seen recently, Syracuse's location makes it easy for Tampa Bay to call players up if needed while on the road. Both Nikita Nesterov, who was recalled on December 31st, and Andrei Vasilevskiy, who was recalled the day before, were called up during a recent Lightning road swing. The close proximity of Syracuse to many NHL cities certainly makes moves like that easier.
But, to be fair, any New York AHL city can pretty much say the same. The Crunch and the Lightning renewed their affiliation this past summer, extending their partnership through 2017. Whether the teams will continue to work together after that remains to be seen, but there are some positive signs there, as well.
When the Lightning first came into Syracuse, they weren't shy about spending money on behalf of their prospects. They improved the Onondaga County War Memorial's Friends and Family room, the locker room, the workout and training rooms, and offices. This past summer, the building saw more improvements happen, with new dasher boards and glass going in. This upcoming summer, even more dramatic improvements are scheduled: under a joint plan mapped out by the Crunch and the Lightning, the length of the War Memorial rink will be brought up to standard NHL size.
The Crunch has never had a parent club take this much interest in winning at the AHL level, both in terms of development consideration and all of the extra, aesthetic, comfort-level stuff that goes into winning hockey games. It's amazing that the Lightning is willing to do all of this. It makes the hockey environment in Syracuse that much better for both Tampa Bay's farm team players and the Crunch's fans.
However, it also makes one wonder why the Lightning would, for instance, help the Crunch enlarge their ice space in exchange for only two seasons worth of a return on their investment. Why would they sink money and time into making an NHL-sized rink a reality in Syracuse only to see another NHL team prosper from that investment in three seasons? Sure, there's something to be said for improving conditions now and making things better now, but two years just doesn't seem like a long enough return investment for them to seriously consider helping with these kinds of changes. It isn't hard to make the leap to an assumed third extension being planned down the road.
But, what about the Crunch itself? So many AHL organizations seem willing to close up shop and leave their current city, could Crunch be leaving Syracuse in the next few seasons? No one can tell the future, of course. But, since Howard Dolgon mapped out a plan this past summer that led to a lease agreement with the War Memorial until 2025, one can probably bet that the Crunch isn't going anywhere any time soon.