The decision by NHL owners to add Las Vegas as an expansion team in 2017-2018 means that AHL expansion is likely to happen as well — and there’s already plenty of chatter as to where a new team would play.
Though it’s probably not been a huge topic of discussion for new Las Vegas owner Bill Foley, the issue of a farm system will indeed require some planning. The trends for NHL teams — especially on the West Coast — has been to own their own AHL teams, a move that’s worked out surprisingly well for those 17 NHL teams. So it’s no shocker that the initial plan has the Vegas ownership also has tentative plans to own its own AHL team.
So where would an expansion AHL team play? Early odds are on Fresno, Reno, Salt Lake City — and Las Vegas.
Let’s begin with the three cities outside Vegas. All three are fairly close, and all three feature non-stop air service to Las Vegas — a key for any AHL location. And two of the three feature available arenas.
- Fresno is still regarded in minor-league circles as being a potentially good hockey market; basically, the Fresno Falcons were successful in the ECHL until they weren’t. Selland Arena is available, and with a seating capacity of 7,200, is the right size for AHL play.
- Reno would be a solid choice in terms of marketing the NHL team to northern Nevada, and the town has shown itself capable of supporting minor-league sports in the form of the MiLB Reno Aces and the D-League’s Reno Bighorns. But sharing the Reno Events Center would cut into potential big dates for the hockey team.
- Salt Lake City is the largest market under consideration, but it may be the most problematic. The ECHL’s Utah Grizzlies play out of West Valley City’s Maverik Center, a 10,100-seat arena that also hosts plenty of concerts and other big events. Whether Grizzlies owner Elmore Sports Group could be persuaded to vacate the market is an open question; the path of least resistance for the new Vegas NHL team would be to partner with the Grizzlies and move the team from the ECHL to the AHL.
And then there’s Vegas. There’s a history of successful minor-league hockey in Las Vegas with the IHL’s Las Vegas Thunder and the ECHL’s Las Vegas Wranglers. Orleans Arena has a record of successfully hosting minor-league hockey. And a potential new training facility in Summerlin could include enough seating for an AHL team.
Playing in Las Vegas may not be the best of business decisions. Though there are situations where the NHL and AHL share a market, they don’t necessarily share the branding or arena. The Toronto Maple Leafs own the Toronto Marlies, but the AHL teams plays in Ricoh Coliseum and are generally perceived to have their own identify. The San Jose Barracuda drew only 4,432 a game to SAP Center and some suspected the team of negatively affecting Sharks attendance. Conversely, in Winnipeg, the Manitoba Moose AHL team was a huge success, drawing 7,285 fans a game to MTS Centre.
RELATED STORIES: It’s Official: Las Vegas NHL Team to Launch in 2017-2018; Location for Las Vegas Practice Facility is Undecided; More on Las Vegas NHL Expansion Team; Report: NHL Selecting Las Vegas for Expansion; Seattle Rejects Street Closure — And New Arena in Process