AHL targeting a December 4, 2020 start to next season

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About this time last year, the dog days of the off-season continued in the American Hockey League with signings here and there. The schedule, which is always exciting from a fans standpoint, is out by late July at the latest.

This summer has a different feeling considering NHL hockey is being played in the summer. As we all welcome back our favorite game, the minor leagues of the sport continues to prep and iron out details for a return in the 2020-2021 season.

AHL potential start date for 2020-2021 season 12/4/20

The committee is active behind closed doors prepping for the upcoming AHL season. There are a few interesting points that came out in recent days with the league. As noted in the past, discussions on the financial impact, testing, travel, and other variable remains fluid through the difficult prep time for the league.

A day after John Hoven’s report, the AHL has announced the anticipated start date for the league. They plan to start on December 4th, 2020. The start date is in proximity to the NHL’s start date.

“At the recommendation of the AHL’s Return to Play Task Force, the Board of Governors has approved moving the anticipated start of the 2020-21 regular season to December 4, 2020, due to the ongoing COVID-19 public health crisis. The AHL will continue to work with its member clubs to monitor developments and local guidelines in all 31 league cities.

Further details regarding the 2020-21 American Hockey League schedule are still to be determined.”

American Hockey League

Start Date on par with NHL

Vitali Kravtsov Wolf Pack (Photo by John Crouch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Early discussions brought the idea of the AHL starting earlier than the NHL. We now see a census that the AHL will start at the same time. However, these starting dates can change due to the fluid situation with the Pandemic that has thrown plenty of turns for the sports world.

Ideally, starting around December or January would be beneficial as some teams hope to have limited capacity to earn revenue, considering the league is gate driven. The operating capacity will depend on the restrictions by each state and local government.

“Being honest, if we go December, we go 50% capacity…right now, there’s no vaccine that we know of…We will not open the doors unless we’re safe….the last thing we want is someone going to a Crunch game and…getting sick.”

Howard Dolgon, Syracuse Crunch Owner

AHL schedule

The AHL plays a 76 game slate, while allowing the Pacific Division to play in 68 contests. For next season, the league is expected to play 72 games that meets in the middle between 68 and 76 games (If they start in December).

Perhaps the 72 game schedule could be permanent to have all teams play the same exact number of games. Every year the league seemed to inch closer on making that happen. There is interest within the league to do so, but there was never enough votes to officially change the number of games. It would be disappointing if the Pacific Division still play 68 after reducing the number of games for other divisions.

If the league is pushed to January, every team will be expected to play 60 games, essentially making the schedule shorter and more flexible.

I would expect the regular season to stretch past April as well to complete the 2020-2021 campaign. Summer hockey is not a bad idea and finishing later is never a bad idea considering the times we are in.

“We are not closer to returning to play in a safe environment…we’re working as best we can as an organization and as a league, but…I would not be forthright or honest (To say the AHL will be 100% playing on December 4th).”

Howard Dolgon, Syracuse Crunch Owner

We should hear additional news soon from the league once they vote on the scheduling model for next season. August 4th is right around the corner.

AHL Teams opting out

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Another wrinkle that was discussed in the past was the idea of allowing teams to opt out next season. This has resurfaced once again, which is disappointing to see.

From a financial standpoint, independent owners would likely opt out if they are unable to host games in limited capacity. Given independent teams relying on crowds nightly, playing without revenue would strain ownership and long term sustainability.

If every AHL club participates next season, the NHL affiliate must provide financial relief if the independent owners cannot host games without a source of revenue. Having uncertainty if your prospects are playing creates a cloudy future for free agents and AHL veterans. Essentially, overseas would become an attractive option for players not in the NHL.

“You can’t develop a player if he isn’t playing. It’s treated like one family (with Tampa). Our goals are the same. Our discussions about moving forward are no different than (teams that are owned by NHL clubs).”

Howard Dolgon, Syracuse Crunch Owner

AHL teams may need financial support

AHL clubs owned by NHL teams would likely opt in considering they will have the financial stability to play in empty facilities. The two independent teams that could possibly opt in are the Cleveland Monsters and Hershey Bears. The Monsters are owned by the Cavaliers while the Bears are owned by Hershey, which is a Fortune 500 company.

From Hartford’s standpoint, the Rangers own the Wolf Pack while letting the XL Center management (Spectra) call the shots for the off ice decisions such as ticketing, marketing, and sponsorship. The Wolf Pack should opt in considering the structure of the deal. The relationship between Madison Square Garden, Spectra, and the state of Connecticut is on great terms. Accommodations could be done for next season.

Looking at the Wolf Pack’s opponents in the Atlantic Division, there could be a different story on who opts in. The Charlotte Checkers, Providence Bruins, Lehigh Valley Phantoms, and Springfield Thunderbirds are independent from their NHL club. The Hershey Bears could opt in, depending on the management’s feeling.

The Bridgeport Sound Tigers and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins are owned by their NHL team which would help their case to play. Two of the seven opponents within the division has a chance to play.

However, all of this can change as we get closer to next season. Financial support could be a huge factor on who plays next season. The deadline to opt in or out will be on September 15th.

COVID-19 Testing

The testing and safety guidelines will be close to the NHL’s next season. A huge plus is that the NHL will fund all testing in the AHL. Considering testing is expensive, this takes one less stress for the teams in the AHL.

As the summer continues, I will provide the latest up to date information regarding next season for the AHL. Stay tuned for further developments. Continue to stay safe everyone. Be well.

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