Rangers affiliate Wolf Pack and the AHL Face Tough Challenges Ahead
The American Hockey League and the Wolf Pack are facing their toughest challenge yet as they try and plan for the 2020-2021 season. While eyes are shifted towards a potential October puck drop in the minors, the National Hockey League is continuing with their pause and are prepping plans to finish the remainder of the 2019-2020 season. The NHL has money through sponsorships and television revenue incentivizing them to complete the season and award the Stanley Cup. The minor leagues have little to no television revenue and less sponsorship revenue to sustain completing this year which led to the cancellation.
As for next season ideas being floated include playing with no fans, pushing the season to a later date when buildings can allow capacity, or begin the season on time regardless when the NHL starts up. No one knows what Fall will bring with the pandemic or the restrictions regarding traveling and arenas. Generally the AHL begins their scheduling process December of each year, going back and forth with clubs and have continuous working drafts. The league will have to take a step back and go through the 2020-2021 season prep with abundance of caution. Around May of each year, AHL teams often get their six to eight guaranteed dates for the upcoming season. That is often compromised of opening night, selected special dates in each respective AHL market, and school day games. This may not be the case this year.
AHL Scheduling Complications
One area of concern is traveling. Luckily for teams in the Eastern Conference, majority of teams travel to cities on buses. However, the issue will be the teams traveling primarily through airlines and Canadian markets. Teams in the Western Conference rely on the airline industry frequently as teams are more spread out. For instance, the Texas Stars is the only AHL team around in Texas. They have to fly to Tuscan, Milwaukee, Des Moines, and other numerous cities to play opponents. Traveling by bus would be unrealistic and taxing on players, especially in a developmental league. Regarding the four AHL clubs in Canada, they will have further difficulties due to traveling out of Canada often for games and dealing with traveling logistics. If there are further restrictions in place such as a 14 day quarantine once entering, Canadian clubs will face tough stretches on handling such requirements.
Add in the factor that every AHL market will have different restrictions and opening times. Would teams still have opportunity to play in markets where the restrictions are tougher, opposed to markets that is more open? That would be a telling question if they would allow professional sports to resume.
AHL Team Structures Plays A Role
The AHL has a variety of owners in each respective market. Currently there are 19 clubs owned by their NHL affiliate, 1 club owned by a NBA franchise, and 1 club owned by a Fortune 500 company. The remaining 10 clubs are independent owners.
For teams that are owned by their NHL club, it is easier for those teams to play in their respective arenas with no fans in attendance as they have complete control. The Hershey Bears (Owned by Hershey) and Cleveland Monsters (Owned by the Cleveland Cavilers) may have different views on playing in empty arenas. The more sensitive clubs that are independent may not want to play until fans are allowed in. For teams that are not owned by an NHL club, there is a financial risk involved. The AHL has talked about the possibility of not having every club participate in the upcoming 2020-2021 season. Wait a minute, hold the boat.
That is one of the worst possibilities I’ve heard. This would not be right for prospects or AHL veterans if they are unable to play, and possibly develop further. This would create an unbalanced developmental league. Every NHL team needs their AHL affiliate to play. If the AHL has to, they can play without fans. Before that decision is made, clubs that are owned independently must have financial relief from their NHL affiliate. Otherwise, there could be further issues complicating next season if teams pull out to not participate.
AHL Team Structure With MSG, Spectra
The Wolf Pack would be fine playing next season if Hartford fans are barred from attending events. The New York Rangers own the Wolf Pack and can find ways for the club to play. Spectra, which oversees the XL Center and the off ice perspective of the team would be willing to accommodate the Rangers. The structure has Spectra running off ice operations while the state of Connecticut subsidizes the XL Center yearly (the arena loses money annually).
Guidance From NHL
The start of next season is preliminary October. However, the start will likely be modified depending on when the NHL will start up. The AHL will have often contact throughout the summer to ensure both leagues will have similar start up times. The AHL is planning for a potential start from October, to late as January 2021. Of course, the league would extend the regular season if need to be as AHL teams has submitted home dates as late as May. There could be other factors as well for the league, such as number of games played being reduced, or having more three in three weekends. The AHL will make a decision in advanced regarding each month of play beginning in August. In sometime August, the league will either accept the start in October, or push it to November. The motions of delaying the start will rely on the NHL and the pandemic.
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Uncertainty Trickles Past AHL
Examining other minor leagues below the AHL such as the ECHL and junior leagues, uncertainty persists. This is a troubling time for teams that are also revenue driven through attendance in their respective leagues. The ECHL has additional worries as all teams are independent and stands alone more than the AHL. The potential to lose markets is real. Playing with no fans would cause trouble in the minor leagues. Not knowing when fans can return may worrysome. Revenue for these teams rely on fans, concession, and other variables associated with game day. Playing with no fans is only a short-term solution for the minor leagues. After a while, teams could face significant financial trouble. The pandemic will test every league and the game at all levels. How to handle the situation will be a trial and error all across the board. We will hear more about upcoming season prep as time passes.