NHL to SEATTLE

Part 2: The AHL Candidates

Last week I posted the first part of the two-part series. If you would have asked me a month ago where I thought the AHL franchise would be, my list would have been totally different than what I am posting here. It wasn’t until I did the research on the current AHL landscape that I realized the priority of certain factors. One of the most important factors being the distance from other AHL team. I’ve determined that the clustering of teams in the AHL Pacific division is probably the ideal place to put an AHL franchise for the (potential) Seattle NHL club.

This whole post is speculative and is largely based on the current landscape, specifically the fact that there are only 7 teams in the AHL’s Pacific Division. All other AHL divisions have 8 team. If Vancouver were to move their Utica based affiliate back west and in the Pacific division, then this list would change.

 

1st Tier

Reno, Nevada

Reno, “the biggest little city in the world”, probably flies under the radar on most people’s list. Roughly 220K people and just 35 minutes from Lake Tahoe, this city already has a winter sports culture vibe. It is considered a San Jose Sharks market, but with the birth and success of the Vegas Golden Knights it undoubtedly developed an interest in hockey. Reno is about 4 hours by bus from Stockton, the closest AHL affiliate, and would create a new geographic outer edge of the AHL’s Pacific Division. A suitable arena might be the issue in Reno. It is doubtful if Lawlor Events Center could accommodate the team, but the downtown Reno Event Center might to be able to support hockey. Lawlor was designed for basketball and might not have enough room for a hockey rink without an obstructed off center view. The Reno Event Center is more of an open space layout, like a convention center, that is not designed for a professional sporting events.

Pros: Proximity to Parent NHL club. Winter sports culture. Decent size city that would be perfect for an AHL club. Relatively close to the current AHL teams.

Cons: No clear arena solution. Winter travel could be a challenge as all other AHL teams are on the other side of the Sierras. Most AHL teams travel by bus. Reno also seems like a perfect spot as an AHL affiliate for the Golden Knights should they ever want to move from the Chicago Wolves.

Sacramento, California

Just two hours west of Reno, but more importantly, on the other side of the Sierras. Close to 500,000 live in “Sacto”. Just an hour away from the Stockton Heat (Calgary) and for visiting teams, they would not need to worry about crossing a snowy mountain pass that Reno would pose. There are a few arena options, but both would require some work and/or integration. The relatively new Golden 1 Center would probably be the best option. If the Golden 1 Center can’t work for space or business reasons, they might be able to use the Sleep Train Arena.

Pros: AHL bus friendly. Right size of the city. Appears to have arena options. Very close to AHL pacific nucleus. Easy flights for call-ups.

Cons: Not a lot. Very much Sharks territory (but so is Stockton). So much so I expect the Sharks to move the Barracuda there eventually.

Fresno, California

You geography buffs are probably seeing a trend, or more specifically a direction we are headed. Fresno is located in central California and would fit rather perfectly into the AHL footprint to give the Northern and Southern California teams a perfect stopping point on their road trips south and north and vice versa. The Fresno Falcons represented some form of pro hockey for a long time, with iterations in 7 different leagues until the ECHL franchise eventually folded them in 2008 when the economy went south. Save Mart Center seems like a modern facility that could fit an AHL franchise with a capacity of close to 14K for ice hockey.

Pros: Inside the current AHL pacific footprint and very bus friendly. Existing arena that could host a hockey team immediately. History of hockey in the market.

Cons: Also, not a lot. A few direct flights from Fresno to Seattle for callups, but joining the NHL club on the road could be a bit more challenging with few direct flights to East Coast cities.

Riverside, California

Riverside is located right in the middle of the AHL Pacific division inside a city with a densely populated region. Roughly 45 minutes from where the Ontario Reign (Los Angeles) play, a team here could create an instant rivalry. The arena would be the big obstacle here. It would appear that they don’t have an existing arena, therefore one would need to be built.
Pros: Square in the middle of the AHL Pacific division. Easier bus rides. Close to major airports – callups could get anywhere fast.
Cons: No arena. Might be too close to the LA Kings epicenter to draw decent crowds for a rival team’s AHL affiliate.

2nd Tier

Boise, Idaho

A month ago, I would have put Boise on the top of the list for the most likely landing spots for the AHL Affiliate. It is a place that checks a lot boxes that make it attractive. The City has a population of over 200,000. Proximity to Seattle is also a plus with a 90-minute flight to Seattle. It is also reasonable to consider Boise as part of the expected TV market. They have also had a strong history of professional hockey in the area, hosting the ECHL’s Idaho Steelheads (formerly part of the now defunct WCHL). They play in CenturyLink Arena which is on the older side of arenas (built in 1997) and is on the lower side of arena size with a capacity of 5002 for hockey games. Since the Steelheads are currently playing in the ECHL, the team would need to be converted to an AHL club, much like the Colorado Eagles (Colorado Avalanche) did this year. The challenge is the location in relation to the other AHL Pacific clubs which is one of the biggest requirements when selecting the affiliate location.

Pros: Proximity to parent NHL club. Shared TV market. Existing arena. Existing hockey presence.

Cons: Further away from the current AHL Pacific nucleus. Bus travel in the winter could pose a challenge. Arena would be on the older side of the other arenas and would be the 5th smallest in the league.

Spokane, Washington

Spokane is the second biggest city in Washington state with over 200,000 residents. It would be the perfect size for an AHL team. Being in the same TV market as the parent club provides an added bonus. Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena hosts the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs and is an excellent place to watch a hockey game. Spokane is also developing a bit of an NHL pipeline with Tyler Johnson, Derek Ryan, and Kailer Yamamoto all born and raised in Spokane and played for the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs. Again, it is outside the AHL Pacific footprint which would create logistical challenges ($$$) for the entire league.

Pros: Proximity to the parent NHL club. Shared TV market. Existing arena. Existing hockey presence.

Cons: Very far away from the AHL Pacific cluster that would drive expenses up. AHL and WHL hockey attracts the same customers and could dilute attendance of both clubs.

Salt Lake City, Utah

Salt Lake City and the surrounding cities would be another ideal sized city for hosting an AHL Team. The ECHL’s Utah Grizzlies currently play in the area so they would need to convert into an AHL club. The team could play in the Maverik Center that hosted a majority of the Olympic Hockey as part of the 2002 Olympics and has a capacity of 10,100. Salt Lake City weather can create challenges for visiting teams and is quite the haul to get there from California.

Pros: Existing arena. Existing hockey presence. Winter sports friendly environment.

Cons: On the outskirts of the AHL Pacific division.

(Random City), California

Before I began my research, I would have thought Portland, Spokane, and Boise would be the leading candidates for the AHL club, but the more I researched it, the more I realized that clustering near other AHL teams is a priority. Proximity to the NHL parent also ideally needs to be within the same time zone. Both Edmonton and Calgary purchased their AHL affiliates and moved them to California. If getting the AHL affiliate close to the NHL parent was the priority, they would have moved them somewhere in Western Canada.

If you eliminate counties that already host an AHL or NHL club, there are still several California towns to choose from that fit in the 50k to 500K population sweet spot; Thousand Oaks, Moreno Valley, Simi Valley, Corona, Modesto, and Visalia just to name a few. Inside Los Angeles County is Long Beach, who hosted the Ice Dogs (IHL, WCHL, ECHL) from 1995 to 2007 so re-introducing hockey to the area shouldn’t be too challenging. The team played in the Long Beach Sports Arena which is now called Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center. Bottom line, there are a lot of options in California that could make a sound landing location for the AHL affiliate.

Pros: Located in the heart of the AHL pacific division. Lots of options to choose from.

Cons: Might have limited appeal for local fans due to affiliate is for non-NHL California team. Not clear if the Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center can accommodate an AHL team.

Long Shots

Portland, Oregon

How can this be…Portland a long shot? It’s true, the community favorite in my book, is a long shot. The priorities for clubs is geographically in the same time zone then close proximity to the other AHL clubs. Portland fulfils one of those priorities, but fails on the other. There is also a challenge of the Winterhawks and Trailblazers playing during the same season. Adding an AHL club makes for a crowded sports calendar in the 6-month season. It’s not a question of arena capacity since they could leverage the Modo Center and Veterans Memorial Coliseum for the games, but packing in ~110 home games across those three sports can be a little exhausting for the sports fans to a point of saturation. Additionally, the AHL team and WHL team would compete directly for the fan’s entertainment dollars, which leads me to believe the Winterhawks will try to keep the AHL team out of the area. Additionally, there is always the looming scenario where Portland tries to land an NHL team of their own. NHLpdx also wrote an interesting scenario regarding the labor issue facing the Winterhawks.

Pros: Existing arena. Existing hockey presence.

Cons: Distance from the other teams in the AHL Pacific division, Crowded winter sports market, Portland fans rooting for a Seattle team could pose a challenge.

Tacoma, WA

Wait what? You did it again…another local fan favorite. Tacoma, just 37 miles from Seattle, has hosted several hockey teams before. The Rockets of the WHL played 4 seasons in Tacoma before moving up to Kelowna. Shortly after the Rockets left for Kelowna, Tacoma would host the Sabercats for 5 seasons from 1997-2002 as part of the WCHL. There is a strong appetite for hockey in the south Puget Sound, but that demand is largely filled by the Seattle Thunderbirds right now who operate less than 20 miles from Tacoma in Kent. I’ve observed OVG/NHL Seattle wanting to work with the two junior clubs in the area and I doubt they would want to introduce competition with the Tbirds or Silvertips.

Pros: Existing hockey presence. Located in the Seattle TV market.

Cons: Distance from the other teams in the AHL Pacific division. Competes directly with the Thunderbirds. Debatable if new remodel of Tacoma dome will create a solid experience for hockey fans and would be an additional cost.

Houston, TX

Houston supported the AHL franchise, the Aeros (Minnesota Wild), extremely well until Rockets & Toyota Center owner, Leslie Alexander, chased them out of town with unrealistic lease terms in 2013. Since then, Alexander sold the Rockets and Toyota center to Tilman Fertitta. Fertitta is much more welcoming to hockey operating in the Toyota Center, so it is conceivable we will see the return of the Aeros in some capacity. It is still a long shot and the only way I see Houston landing the AHL team is if a) Vancouver moves their AHL affiliate to the Pacific division and filling up the Pacific division and b) the NHL approves putting an AHL affiliate in a location they might want to keep open for an NHL franchise option down the road.

Pros: Arena is ready. Solid history of supporting AHL hockey.

Cons: Outside of Pacific time zone. Would require shifting of other AHL teams and divisions to accommodate. NHL might keep Houston open for future expansion or relocation

Didn’t make the cut

Western Canada – Several folks suggested Abbotsford, but if Calgary and Edmonton don’t have their affiliates in Western Canada, we shouldn’t expect Seattle to place the AHL club there. Also, too far relative to the rest of the AHL Pacific Division teams.
Anchorage, Alaska – Great place for hockey and could really tie in the Anchorage community to be fans of the Seattle NHL team. It’s just too far for other AHL teams.
Eugene or Bend Oregon – Lovely cities and both communities would probably support AHL hockey but just too challenging to get in and out of with limited flights and too far from the rest of the AHL Pacific division.
Olympia, Washington – Close to Seattle, but a challenge to get to for the other AHL clubs. On the small side of population size with just over 50,000 people.

After the countless hours of research on this topic and after I laid out my arguments for different locations, let me know why I am completely wrong.