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Players in the AHL are just one step away from fulfilling NHL dreams

By Andy Eide

The arenas are smaller, the crowds more sparse and the spotlight they play in is not that bright. While the jerseys they wear often resemble the colors and logos of their NHL counterparts, players in the American Hockey League may feel like they are still a long way from their big-league dreams. The truth is that they are knocking on the front door.

One of the oldest, active, professional hockey leagues in North America, the AHL has been playing since 1936 and while it is a minor league, a development league, there is good hockey being played night in and night out in AHL arenas.

“One of the highest-level leagues in the world,” Seattle Thunderbirds head coach Matt O’Dette, who played 263 games in the AHL, says about the league. “It’s comparable to some of the top leagues in Europe. I think the American League is filled with younger, hungrier players trying to make it to the NHL. It makes for a high-quality league and a highly competitive league.”

NHL Seattle has yet to announce where it will be placing its AHL affiliate, but that announcement could be coming soon.

Now the head coach with the Seattle Thunderbirds, Matt O’Dette played in 263 AHL games (Brian Liesse)

At the beginning of February, Oak View Group’s Tim Leiweke told KING 5 that he expected an AHL announcement in “the next 30-60 days”. That timeframe has come and passed but Leiweke’s comments seem to indicate that the NHL franchise is close to formalizing a location.

The AHL has not had much of a presence in the Northwest and the league may be unfamiliar to local hockey fans. The closest the AHL has come to the Puget Sound area was a five-season stint (2009-2014) with the Abbotsford Heat just across the border with British Columbia.

Then, five years ago, the Vancouver Canucks flirted with the idea of placing their affiliate in Seattle before finally settling on the Utica Comets. The league is made up of 31 franchises, each affiliated with an NHL club, and will expand for the 2021 season with Seattle.

So, exactly who are these players that make up the AHL?

Most top drafted prospects find their way to the NHL straight from their junior teams, NCAA teams or their European teams. But for the guys who may have been selected in the second round of the NHL draft, or later, some time in the AHL is most likely the path they will find themselves on.

Of the four teams that made the conference finals in the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs this year, 38 players had spent at least one full season in the AHL before sticking in the big leagues. Many more saw some time in the minors.

St. Louis goalie Jordan Binnington, who’s arrival midway through the season sparked the Blues to a torrid second half and to within one win from playing for the Stanley Cup, played 164 AHL games before making it to the NHL. His teammate, Patrick Maroon, who was the hero of Game 7 against the Dallas Stars suited up for 353 games in the AHL before settling in the National League.

Boston Bruins star, and major-league pest, Brad Marchand toiled with the Providence Bruins for 113 games at the start of his professional career. AHL fans get a chance to see young professional players on the way up to the top.

Former Seattle Thunderbirds forward Keegan Kolesar is currently playing with the AHL’s Chicago Wolves. (Chicago Wolves)

It’s a different beast than local fans are used to with the WHL teams in the region.

AHL players are professionals and the rosters are made up of a mix of guys coming from different backgrounds. One of those guys was Thunderbirds assistant coach Kyle Hagel.

After playing NCAA hockey for Princeton, Hagel went undrafted by the NHL. He eventually signed a pro contract with the Blues organization and would later end up in the Carolina Hurricanes system, playing 373 AHL games between the Rochester Americans, Rockford Ice Hogs, Peoria Rivermen, Hamilton Bulldogs, Portland Pirates and Charlotte Checkers.

His pro career ended after the 2017 season and he joined the Thunderbirds coaching staff the following fall. He recalls the noticeable jump in play and lifestyle going from college to the pro ranks.

“The hockey was faster paced, and a lot more games than you play in college,” Hagel recalls. “In college, it was like 30-something games. In my first full year in the A, I think I played 77 games, so that’s the big change.”

O’Dette’s route to the pros started in major-junior with the Ontario Hockey League.

He was drafted by the Florida Panthers in 1994 and would play in the AHL for the Saint John Flames, Quebec Citadelles and Hamilton Bulldogs. Junior leagues like the OHL mimic a pro schedule but O’Dette says there was still an adjustment to make.

“Just getting used to the fact that it’s a job and the type of professionalism that goes behind it,” he says. “Some of the guys have families and things like that so its serious business and guys are striving to make the NHL. You see what kind of day-to-day professionalism goes into it. That can be an eye-opener for a kid coming from junior.”

For the most part, rookies in the AHL are 20-years-old and living on their own for the first time. Gone are billet families in junior who cooked and make sure players have everything that they need.

That can be an adjustment and many young players group together and get apartments or houses together.

AHL rosters are made up of guys playing on NHL contracts as well as guys who have signed AHL deals as free agents. Everyone wants to win but they’re also striving to advance up the lineup and ultimately into the NHL.

“There is an interesting dynamic of competition,” O’Dette says. “You have to make sure you’re the best option for your team and that can create an internal competition to play well, and better than everyone else, to be the guy who gets the call up. It can create some animosity if you think ‘why does that guy get called up and I didn’t’? It can create some tension, but I think for the most part guys bond together, become a team and are pushing for the same goals.”

The contract situation has the potential to create some awkward team dynamics as well.

Some guys are getting paid more and are on NHL, two-way deals, while others weren’t drafted and not as highly ranked within the organization’s depth charts. Can that get in the way of winning?

Thunderbirds assistant coach Kyle Hagel retired from the AHL and pro hockey in 2017 (Brian Liesse)

“I played most of my career on just AHL contracts and I would normally be one of a couple guys like that,” Hagel says. “The type of contract that you’re on, I don’t think that changes the dynamic of the team. The guys who are on their entry level deals are really trying to adjust to the pro lifestyle and become pros, try to take their shot at the NHL.

“I don’t think that there’s too much of a rift between which type of contract guys are on. You’re all teammates and everybody, no matter what type of contract you’re on, are trying to prove as much as they can. Everybody is playing to win a championship but also trying to better your career and make the jump to the next level.”

While there is highly-skilled hockey being played in the AHL, it can also be a bit of a rougher game than in the NHL.

Many teams will park some of the more physical type players in the AHL and call them up as needed. During the recently completed AHL regular season, 26 players topped 100 minutes in penalties. In the NHL, with the same number of teams, just six guys reached the century mark for penalty minutes.

Fighting is not as prevalent as it was 20 years ago but there is still a difference in the minor leagues. The AHL is a tougher league than the NHL.

“It was when I played for sure,” Hagel says about the toughness of the AHL. “They’re slowly drifting, or getting forced out of the game, with the way that they’re penalizing fighting. When I broke in it was still a pretty rough league in a lot of ways. For example, my line in Rockford, I was center between Brandon Bollig and Wade Brookbank.”

That’s a tough line and the trio combined for 503 penalty minutes in 2010-2011.

Over the past five years, the AHL has expanded its territory out west. What was predominantly a league playing in the Midwest and East Coast, the league has spread its reach. The West Coast NHL teams desired to have their affiliates closer to ease call ups, and scouting, and began relocating their AHL clubs.

Now, the AHL has a seven-team Pacific Division featuring the Bakersfield Condors (Edmonton), San Jose Barracuda (San Jose), San Diego Gulls (Anaheim), Colorado Eagles (Colorado), Tucson Roadrunners (Arizona), Stockton Heat (Calgary) and Ontario Reign (Los Angeles).

“Just opening up the West Coast has given the American League the opportunity to be with their own team and within a close proximity,” O’Dette says. “I think that’s important, to be able to call your guys up quickly, you want to be able to get your guy in town quickly. I think that’s helped the west coast teams.”

Its still unknown where Seattle will house its AHL affiliate, but all signs point to being in the West and most likely on the coast. The rumors have Boise, current home of the ECHL’s Idaho Steelheads, or Palm Springs as the front runners for the Seattle franchise.

Either city would allow the Seattle front office to have quick access to prospects and be able to call players up and get them in town on a moment’s notice.

That call up is the dream and goal of everyone in the AHL. You never know when it’s going to happen.

“It can feel like your opportunity might be far away, but things can happen fast,” O’Dette says. “You can see how a slew of injuries on the NHL team and all of a sudden you’re on deck to be called up. Your opportunity can come fast if there are injuries. If your teammates get called up you get opportunities, if the AHL team has injuries you get more ice time and more opportunities. You have to focus on your development, try to get better every day.”

The Seattle AHL franchise will begin in 2021, the same season that the NHL team begins its inaugural season. That team, wherever its located, will be key as the franchise moves forward. It will be where it gets injury replacements and where its young prospects will develop and learn how to be pro hockey players.

Currently, the AHL’s Calder Cup Playoffs are in the Conference Finals. In the West, the Chicago Wolves (Vegas) are playing the San Diego Gulls. In the East, the Toronto Marlies (Toronto) are matched up with Hagel’s old team in Charlotte. All games can be streamed on AHLTV found here.

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