A global pandemic had made for strange times and even stranger waters for North American pro hockey leagues to wade through.
The ECHL, with 13 of its 26 teams committed, stuck to its guns and began its abbreviated 2020-21 regular season on December 11, 2020. The Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL) announced on October 6, 2020 that it would commence its 42-game regular season on December 26, albeit with only five of its ten total teams participating. The NHL had originally planned to start on December 1, but negotiations between the league and players union prevented that. The NHL then hunkered down and confirmed on December 20 that it is, in fact, going to start its 56-game regular season on January 13, 2021.
This leaves one league left yet to begin their pandemic-adjusted campaign for 2020-21.
The American Hockey League.
GETTING SOME ANSWERS
While the “AAA” league just below the NHL hasn’t dropped the puck like its other minor league counterparts, the general public did receive some clarity recently regarding next season. The AHL, after calling an audible from an initially announced December 4, 2020 start date, stated on December 30 that it was going to stay true to its February 5, 2021 opening day. AHL President Scott Howson released a brief statement:
“The American Hockey League Board of Governors has approved the structural framework for an AHL season that will begin on February 5, 2021.
“Details are still being worked out, but this step allows our teams and their National Hockey League partners to better determine their plans for the coming season. We look forward to dropping the puck on Feb. 5.”
DEVIATING FROM THE NORM
However, just because the framework is approved doesn’t mean all 31 AHL teams will necessarily opt-in for this coming year. The league has set a deadline for Monday, January 4 where teams shall decide whether or not to play in 2020-21. And, with exactly half the teams in both the ECHL and SPHL opting out of “pandemic hockey”, one has to wonder how the landscape of the American Hockey League will appear after Monday.
One concern that the NHL and ECHL had to address this season was its teams north of the US border in Canada. The COVID-19 pandemic has effectively closed transit between the United States and Canada, thereby making international play impossible in every sporting league. The NHL had a fairly easy solution — group all seven Canadian teams into their own division for 2020-21. The ECHL, however, had its two Canadian teams — the Newfoundland Growlers and Brampton Beast — decline to play this season, alongside the rest of the North Division.
The AHL has a number of Canadian teams, as well. With four squads — Belleville, Laval, Manitoba, and Toronto — all residing in Canada, alternate plans will have to be made regarding what their potential schedules may look like. Like the NHL, an all-Canadian division is on the table. But, with a lesser number of AHL teams in the Great White North, a regular season that could have anywhere between 26 to 40 games would have these four teams playing one another nine to 13 (!) times in the span of just a few months.
If familiarity breeds contempt, then the aforementioned group of four would absolutely loathe each other by season’s end. While not ideal, the opportunity certainly lends itself to the AHL avoiding an ECHL scenario by adopting the NHL’s philosophy to include more teams in 2020-21.
Another point of interest leading to the end of 2020 was how the three Canadian NHL teams with AHL affiliates in the US (Edmonton/Bakersfield, Calgary/Stockton, and Vancouver/Utica) would work out call-ups across national borders. A player going either to or from said teams would have to serve a 14-day quarantine, and by the time they were cleared, may not even be needed anymore. Thankfully, the NHL instituting a taxi squad of four to six players that stays apart from the main NHL team’s roster has pretty well remedied that potential problem (although threatens to dilute the AHL product once that league begins).
Another major hurdle that the AHL needs to clear is COVID-19 restrictions and local mandates placed over ice hockey and sports in general. States like Illinois and New York have been hit particularly hard by the Coronavirus; teams like the SPHL’s Quad City Storm & Peoria Rivermen and ECHL’s Adirondack Thunder aren’t playing in part due to that. It’s not a stretch to say that the entirety of the ECHL’s North Division was affected by many northeast US states clamping down hard on gatherings for sports. With no income at the gate meaning no profit for minor league teams, opting out was the only choice these teams could feasibly make. The AHL has four teams in New York and two in Illinois; Monday’s opt-in deadline will push these six clubs to make a tough decision regarding their own fates for the 2020-21 regular season.
California is another state that has reported a high number of COVID-19 cases and deaths this past year. With five of the eight teams in the AHL’s Pacific Division residing in The Golden State, it could be precarious figuring out exactly how these franchises will hit the ice come February. Can they do a small bubble for the division, a la the NHL Playoffs this past summer? Putting up eight teams in one general vicinity would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the AHL teams would more than likely need financial help from their NHL parent clubs to pull it off.
CONCLUSION: TO PLAY, OR NOT TO PLAY?
The final piece regarding the AHL’s major concerns in 2020-21 will simply be which teams opt-in and which don’t. What happens if a number of Atlantic Division squads decide not to play this year, but the southernmost division member — the Charlotte Checkers — does? Travel costs significantly rise if that becomes the case. If the previously mentioned California teams say no thanks this year, where does that leave Pacific Division foes Colorado, Henderson, and Tucson? Bumping those clubs over to the Central Division this season would probably be the most viable solution there. Cost and proximity will most certainly play a part in what teams say yea or nay this season (and how divisions and opponents will look, as well).
There’s no question that some AHL teams may decide to not play this season; the league has the unenviable task of figuring out how to logistically handle it when February 5 rolls around.