AHL-to-California rumor rekindled.

A report on TSN.ca Thursday rekindled a long-simmering rumor that the American Hockey League is heading to the West Coast. Here was the crux of the news, as reported by Darren Dreger:

Sources tell TSN several NHL western conference teams are involved in
ongoing discussions to improve the geographic challenges some teams face
in trying to develop their players from afar.
Los Angeles,
Anaheim, San Jose, Phoenix, Colorado, Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary
attended a private meeting with NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly
earlier this month, where the group conceptually talked about the
introduction of a western wing to the American Hockey League to ease the
burden of travel on prospect players, as well as provide NHL teams with
a more hands on approach in day to day development.
Most in
that group are content with their existing AHL partnerships; however,
there are some who who like to see change and are considering a more
extreme approach if necessary.

Citing sources, Dreger says the next step for the interested NHL clubs is “to get a clear view of how realistic such a drastic move is, within the next 2-3 years.”

How does this affect Ontario? Right this second, it doesn’t.

Asked if he’s heard about any progress in the discussions since the summit — which was in September, not October — Reign president Justin Kemp said “not since then, no. That isn’t to say there hasn’t been, but I haven’t heard any discussion.”

It’s possible that the AHL could have its eye on former minor-league markets like Fresno, San Diego and Long Beach. Even still, they might want to call Kemp. His father, Barry, owned the Long Beach Ice Dogs before the franchise ceased operations in 2007. Back then, the Kemps had their eye on the Ontario market before getting the Reign (with AEG as the majority owner) in time for the 2008-09 season.

More likely, the AHL and NHL would examine existing markets. The Reign, Stockton Thunder and Bakersfield Condors are among the ECHL leaders in attendance this season, all drawing more than the average AHL team (5,023), and all possessing arenas built in the last decade.

It would take several ECHL teams to make a move to the AHL happen.

“It’s tough for any team to come out and be an island,” Kemp said. “Ontario would never be an American League team by itself. Any other market that you potentially hear about isn’t going to come out as an island team. You’d have to see realistically at least three or four teams go in that direction.”

The main obstacle is — not surprisingly — money. For as hard as it is for ECHL teams to turn a profit (the Reign, who led the league in attendance the last two years, are still in the red) it’s even harder for AHL teams.

AHL logoA source with knowledge of both leagues said that most AHL teams lose money each year, and a major reason why is affiliation fees in the 7-figure range. So for example, if the Condors, Thunder and Reign were to join the AHL today, subtract a million or so dollars from their profits and you have their biggest deterrent.

“You’d have to have NHL teams agreeing to own their own clubs,” the source said. “I just don’t see any (potential ECHL-to-AHL) teams doing it on their own dime.”

Maybe the NHL teams could lower their affiliation fees, knowing they will in turn save money flying prospects back and forth across the country — Anaheim to Syracuse, Los Angeles to Manchester, San Jose to Worcester. But there would still be a financial risk for an ECHL owner looking to move up into the AHL.

“You’re talking about bigger budgets. When you talk about bigger budgets you talk about bigger losses, potentially,” Kemp said. “I haven’t looked too closely at what the financial advantages would be.”

The Charlotte Checkers moved up to the AHL a year ago. The Utah Grizzlies moved down to the ECHL in 2005. Neither move reflected a trend; in fact, the only trend is for teams stay put in the league they’re in.

The TSN report is just the latest acknowledgement of a long-standing desire by the western-based NHL teams to move their top affiliates closer. The Abbotsford (British Columbia) Heat, the Calgary Flames’ affiliate, is the
westernmost AHL team. In the U.S., it’s the Frisco-based Texas Stars.

“At this point I think it’s just in the exploratory stages,” said Kemp, noting that such talks have been in this stage for a while. “I think ever since the IHL as a Triple-A league went away (in 2001) it’s been explored.”

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About J.P. Hoornstra

J.P. Hoornstra covers the Dodgers, Angels and Major League Baseball for the Orange County Register, Los Angeles Daily News, Long Beach Press-Telegram, Torrance Daily Breeze, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Pasadena Star-News, San Bernardino Sun, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, Whittier Daily News and Redlands Daily Facts. Before taking the beat in 2012, J.P. covered the NHL for four years. UCLA gave him a degree once upon a time; when he graduated on schedule, he missed getting Arnold Schwarzenegger's autograph on his diploma by five months.