As we’ve reached the one-year anniversary of a global health crisis, it is evident a pandemic cannot put an end to that in which we enjoy the most. Live sports.
For the ECHL 2019-2020 season, it was “Beware the Ides of March” as they announced the cancellation of their regular season and playoffs March 15, 2020. The AHL followed suit on March 16, while the NHL postponed their season just a few days prior. In parallel, the sports world was pumping the brakes, regrouping, and strategizing a way to get back on the field (court…or rink) of play.
On October 9, 2020, the ECHL did just that, as they announced plans for a 2020-2021 return-to-play. Within this plan, teams were given until Nov 30 to opt-out of the upcoming season. The entire North Division opted-out, along with the Norfolk Admirals, Atlanta Gladiators and Toledo Walleye (Kelly Cup runners-up in 2018-19).
Todd Mackin, President of Spire Hockey (who owns the Greenville Swamp Rabbits and Rapid City Rush) had this to say about the ECHL’s return-to-play plan: “I am extremely proud of what we were able to accomplish. Everyone had an ‘eyes-open’ approach, pulling in the same direction”
When asked about the ECHL being the first of the three leagues to resume play: “Our (ECHL’s) guidelines and procedures were consistent across the league.” Mackin also stated: “…we really wanted every team to play this season, but unfortunately some teams still opted-out.”
The ECHL split-season started on Dec 11, 2020, with 14 teams playing a 72-game schedule and regular season ending June 6. “It was important for us (Spire Hockey) to take care of our players in Greenville and Rapid City. Other teams around the ECHL felt the same,” said Mackin, when asked about starting the season as soon as possible.
Fourteen of the ECHL’s 27 teams are currently participating in league play. As the season is approaching its midway point, every team is battling for a spot in the playoffs, hopeful to take home the Kelly Cup.
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On January 4, 2021, the NHL announced their return-to-play schedule, with games starting Jan 13 and a 56-game regular season. Teams were split up into groups (divisions) of eight, each team playing the other divisional opponents eight times for a total of 56 games. The North Division, which is comprised of all seven Canadian teams will play more games against some divisional rivals to reach the 56-game mark.
As fans cheered the return of NHL hockey, the honeymoon phase of a new season seems to be fading out, leaving fans watching the same matchups over and over again. As the NHL is nearing its midway point, these matchups will continue until the Divisional playoffs are concluded sometime in late-May/early June.
The AHL’s return-to-play was announced on Feb 5, 2021, more than a month after the NHL and a whopping four months after the ECHL set forth its framework for a new season. Only three of the AHL’s 31 teams opted-out: the reigning Calder Cup Champion Charlotte Checkers, Milwaukee Admirals, and the AHL’s hometown Springfield Thunderbirds.
The “return to play” task force, which was announced in June 2020, took nearly eight months to get the season started. With names such as former AHL Commissioner David Andrews, NHL GMs Kyle Dubas and Steve Yzerman plus Charlotte Checkers COO Tera Black on the committee, the delay in execution leaves one scratching their head.
As 19 AHL teams are backed by their NHL affiliates, it is surprising the AHL was the last of the three leagues to begin the 2021 regular season. In addition to the late start, the AHL will not be handing out the Calder Cup this season; a trophy that has been awarded to the AHL’s Champion for 80+ consecutive years before the stoppage in play last year. The NHL and ECHL have announced a formal playoff format for the Stanley and Kelly Cups, respectively.
As we enjoy the return of live hockey, whether at the arena or on television, let’s stop for a moment and truly appreciate what the ECHL has done to continue supporting its players and their respective markets. The ECHL, with the least capital of the three leagues (and the most to lose) stepped-up, came together in a hurry and executed a well-devised plan that has seen little-to-no hitches thus far in the season.