With the CHL in rough shape and the Fort Wayne Komets looking to move to the ECHL, owner Michael Franke says more structure is needed in minor-league hockey — with the NHL’s involvement.
His solution is simple: there needs to be a more organized structure to minor-league hockey, mimicking the tiered structure used in Minor League Baseball, working closely with Major League Baseball: A Class AAA league (the AHL), a Class AA league (the ECHL, presumably) and Class A leagues (the CHL, the SPHL, etc.).
Minor-league hockey is facing many challenges. While the AHL is in excellent shape, both the CHL and the ECHL face challenges: the CHL is down to 14 teams this season from 18 last season, and there’s talk about as many as eight more CHL teams leaving the league before next season, according to Ben Smith. Franke and the rest of the IHL made the decision to join forces with the CHL, but he admits he’s also considering a move to the more stable ECHL.
â€œI believe in the long run itâ€™s the wish of all the hockey people to have one AAA (structure), one AA and one A,â€ Franke says. â€œI think thatâ€™s the model that eventually is gonna occur. I think it has to occur. Major league baseball has the best minor-league system setup of all the minor league sports, and thatâ€™s the way theyâ€™re set up.â€
Indeed, there’s a growing recognition that better coordination and the increased involvement of the NHL is needed. One thing about MiLB that could work out for minor-league hockey: because the leagues are involved in working together, there are clearer territorial rules and less competition between leagues: you have clearly defined International League markets, Eastern League markets, etc. Right now the league territories are all over the map in minor-league hockey: the AHL stretches from coast to coast (another situation that could be addressed with some sort of umbrella organization), the CHL is centered in middle America, and the ECHL exists on both sides of the country. (We’re not forgetting the SPHL, which could be part of any discussions.)
We’re also guessing the USHL will be part of the discussion, as there are a couple of CHL teams — like Rapid City — playing in markets more suited to that circuit.
Franke is a successful operator: the Komets attract around 7,000 fans a game and are one of the premier draws in minor-league hockey. He also comes at the issue as someone formerly working as an independent outsider, giving him a unique perspective on the issue.
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