Hockey seasons are meant to end with one team joyfully skating around an arena with a trophy held high, not via phone calls and press releases. Unfortunately, in the time of COVID-19, things are different. On Monday, the American Hockey League officially announced what has been speculated ever since the sports world was put on pause in mid-March—their season is over.
It’s the decision we’ve all been expecting since stay-at-home practices and social distancing guidelines were all but mandated in most of the areas where franchises were located. After all, it’s pretty hard to hold a professional hockey game with less than 10 people in one area.
Along with the “paramount importance on the health and safety of our players, officials, staff, and fans and all of their families,” finances play a huge role in the league’s decision. While more than half of the league’s teams are owned by their NHL affiliates, there are twelve franchises that are independently owned (including the Syracuse Crunch). They don’t have quite the same financial war chest as the other franchises and continuing operations or hosting games without a live crowd would be extremely costly for them.
Why wait two months to pull the plug on the season? There could be a couple of reasons why. First of all, optimism. The league held on as long as they could to the hope that live sports could be played in front of crowds at some point. Once it became obvious that action in front live fans isn’t likely to happen until the fall, the league really had no choice but to end things.
Unlike the NHL, the league can’t rely on broadcast revenue to support the action. Owners of AHL teams rely heavily on ticket sales for the bulk of their revenue. They don’t have lucrative television or streaming deals that can offset a portion of the lost ticket revenue. It’s more economical for them to cancel the season than to play in empty arenas.
To a lesser degree, with speculation that the NHL may still try to finish their regulation season lasting until earlier this month, organizations may not have wanted their prospects in the AHL thinking their season was over in case they were needed as call-ups. This theory was mentioned by Elliotte Friedman a little over a week ago.
With the NHL now seemingly focused on the playoffs (whatever the scenario) teams can basically go with a normal Black Aces squad and release the rest of their prospects to summer workouts.
Whatever their reasons are, the decision to end the season is the correct one. Unfortunately, it does come with some unpopular side effects.
Not only will the Charlotte Checkers not have a chance to defend their title, but for the first time in the history of the AHL, the Calder Cup will not be awarded to anyone at all. Every year since 1938 (the Syracuse Stars won the inaugural cup, but it’s believed it was never actually given to them) the Calder Cup has been awarded to a team that’s won the AHL making it the longest continually awarded trophy in North American professional team sports.
Today’s announcement has to be extra rough for fans of the San Antonio Rampage. Earlier in the season, the franchise was sold to the owner of the Vegas Golden Knights who announced that they would be relocated to Henderson, Nevada, a suburb of Las Vegas. Now the fans don’t even get to give their team a proper send off.
There is also going to be a reshuffling of affiliations that will lead to a redistribution of talent. If you lived in Chicago and liked watching the Golden Knights’ prospects play for the Wolves, you’re going to have to adjust to seeing the future stars of the Carolina Hurricanes in Schaumberg. The same goes for fans in Springfield who will now see the St. Louis Blues prospects instead of the Florida Panthers.
The Crunch don’t have to worry about affiliate changes but they are still in line for some adjustments. First off the good news. Since there are no playoffs, they didn’t officially miss the playoffs, therefore Coach Ben Groulx’s streak of reaching the postseason is intact. He’s never missed the playoffs as head coach of the Crunch!
We will be back stronger. pic.twitter.com/IJurr4tVEc— Syracuse Crunch (@SyracuseCrunch) May 11, 2020
It also puts an end to a season that can best be described as uneven. Their final record stands at 30-23-4-5, good for fifth in AHL North and their .556 points percentage puts them squarely in the middle of the league overall as they finished 16th out of 31 teams.
That sums up their season pretty well. Whether it was due to injuries or call-ups or free agent signings that didn’t pan out, they were at best, a decidedly average team this season. With 14 games left to play, they could have turned things around. After all, they were playing better hockey just as the stoppage happened having gone 6-2-1-1 in their previous 10 games. Unfortunately, if they could have cleared the hurdle and made the playoffs is something, like Stachel Paige’s real age, we’ll never know.
The 2019-20 season raised more questions than it answered for the team. Can the next wave of prospects such as Boris Katchouk and Taylor Raddysh progress enough to be viable NHL options in the next season or two? Does Cal Foote have enough experience to compete for a spot on the Lightning’s blue line next season? Alex Barre-Boulet’s offense is ready for the NHL, but did he develop his defense enough to make the next step?
A month of hockey as the team fought for a spot in the playoffs could have answered some of those questions. The experience gained over that stretch would have been huge for the younger players who haven’t had to play a long stretch of games where every night required playoff-esque intensity.
Pondering the possibilities is a nice thought exercise, but it won’t do anything to change the past. Ending the season now allows Julien Brisebois and Crunch GM Stacey Roest to start focusing on next season (even if no one is sure when that will begin). For the second straight off-season, the Crunch do not have a goaltender under contract.
There are also going to be holes up front as Mitchell Stephens most likely will spend next season in Tampa and Gemel Smith may have earned a free agent contract with another organization with his play for the Crunch. More questions arise on the blue line as well (will Cameron Gaunce come back?), but the signing of Dmitry Semykin last week at least gives them another option.
Who knows what the off-season is going to even look like this summer. At least now the Syracuse Crunch can stop worrying about 2019-20 and focus on 2020-21.