What’s going on with the ECHL?

Last week a second ECHL team in less than a month announced that they would be ceasing operations at the end of the 2016-2017 season.

The Elmira Jackals are joining the Alaska Aces in the soon-to-be-defunct-teams category of sports trivia at your local bar that actually asks questions about ECHL teams. First of all, if such a bar exists, I am impressed. Secondly, real talk, stump trivia could really up their game by asking all sorts of questions relating to the ECHL, but I digress.

The more important question to be asking right about now is what is happening with the ECHL? Is there some sort of financial instability league wide that has yet to be exposed (similar to the concerns that have pained the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) since its birth) or is the loss of two organizations in one season simply a matter of growing pains for the growing in popularity– and importance– second-tier minor league?

As a fan of the forthcoming 29th team in the league– make that 27th team– the Worcester Railers, there is reason to be concerned about the ECHL, if not simply its franchises.

Worcester, Massachusetts as a professional hockey market has long been a staple to minor league hockey in its accessibility to a wide market of fans in the New England region, as well as its affordability compared to some of the major league NHL tenants in the area.

Not to discredit the Manchester Monarchs who appear to be killing it in attendance (by ECHL standards) since dropping down from the AHL as a result of the mass exodus of AHL organizations to California, but having Worcester is crucial to the viability of the ECHL.

From the first puck drop in Railers history, having a rival in the New England region is certainly something to work with for both the Monarchs and Worcester. However, my preference for the Worcester organization over Manchester, as a fan, is not simple.

It all harkens back to the days of growing up with the AHL’s Worcester IceCats, the betrayal that was felt when they left (despite no other options), the joy of seeing a return to the AHL in the form of the Worcester Sharks and the consequential loss of yet another AHL team to bigger and better prospects of league sustainability, as well as prospect development from an NHL standpoint– hello, San Jose Sharks.

Losing the Alaska Aces is a shock, despite their declining attendance figures. Losing the Elmira Jackals almost a month later is a blow below the belt for the ECHL.

It’s one thing to foresee the longterm success of a professional sports franchise in Alaska as well, not ideal, but somehow the Aces made it work for years despite all of the travel, especially in the modern ECHL.

Nobody said it couldn’t be done once the Aces made it happen, in terms of both on ice success– having won three Kelly Cups in their venture in the ECHL from 2003 to 2017– and off the ice, however the ultimate downfall of the team was brought forth by a sluggish Alaskan economy, mounting bills on travel and faltering attendance.

Minor league hockey has long been a staple in New York.

Just look at how many AHL teams there are in the state. Now multiply that number by 1,000 and you should have approximately the number of ECHL teams and AHL teams in the Empire State. I’m only kidding.

Acknowledging that hockey has grown to being more than just a Northern sport on all levels, we really should have seen this coming in terms of perhaps overexerting the market and maxing things out on a bunch of affordable, minor league options in one state that also boasts several NHL teams to boot (in state and within a short driving distance out of state).

The New York market contains the Albany Devils, Binghamton Senators, Rochester Americans, Syracuse Crunch and Utica Comets are all AHL teams in state (with the Toronto Marlies not that far from the up-state border in Canada). Albany, of course, is relocating to Binghamton to replace the Senators who are moving to Belleville, Ontario at season’s end.

All of the teams above are in the AHL, which prides itself not only as being the top minor league in the world, as the greatest affiliate of the NHL, but as one of the most family-friendly sports and entertainment options in minor league sports in general.

Coincidentally, the ECHL is in the same market of family-friendly sports and entertainment options.

The Elmira Jackals are the only other ECHL team in New York besides the Adirondack Thunder– and Adirondack had long been a staple in the AHL, despite changing hands and franchises over the years. Similar to the AHL’s situation in New York, where the Marlies are just across the Canadian border, the Brampton Beast (the Montreal Canadiens ECHL affiliate) aren’t that far at all from the states in Brampton, Ontario.

It should be no surprise that the overcrowding of minor league hockey in New York is quickly disintegrating before our eyes, given the AHL’s Californian adventure prior to the 2015-2016 season and all, but at this point there’s no sense in repeating myself.

The ECHL needs to thrive on bigger smaller markets.

They’ve found niche successes with the Allen Americans (San Jose’s ECHL affiliate), Wheeling Nailers (Pittsburgh’s ECHL team), Orlando Solar Bears (Toronto’s ECHL farm team) and more, although sometimes their successful franchises in market draw has been helped by their NHL affiliates, recent ECHL championships or admittedly necessary constant ownership turnover.

But one thing is constant, the teams above have all done well in non-traditional hockey markets, where fans are sometimes exposed to the game for the first time at its most pure and otherwise violent level. Minor league hockey isn’t for the faint of heart, considering how many players are trying to live out a dream others might easily have given up on two rungs below on the NHL ladder.

Sure, the loss of the Aces and Jackals can probably be chalked up to the changing environment of NHL-AHL-ECHL affiliate systems and where parent clubs prefer their minor league teams physical locations over others, but the loss of two franchises in an otherwise up-and-coming brand of hockey that could rival baseball’s minor league system shouldn’t be handled lightly.

Despite the contraction, there is a possibility for light at the end of the tunnel. A return could be looming in or around the Las Vegas market with the incoming Vegas Golden Knights in the NHL, as well as a return to professional minor league hockey in Portland, Maine, as a group of former Portland Pirates executives slowly explore their options.

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