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Best of 2016, #4: AHL Moves to the West


We end 2016 with a countdown of the 10 biggest stories of the year on Arena Digest, as chosen by editors and partially based on page views. Today, #4: The successful first year of Western expansion by the American Hockey League.

The American Hockey League enjoyed its own version of the Gold Rush in 2016, bringing five teams to California in a newly-created Pacific Division, which proved to be a winner by virtually every metric.

The new division consisted of teams in San Diego, San Jose, Ontario, Bakersfield and Stockton, having been relocated from mostly Eastern cities that struggled to support their franchises at the box office. That was not a problem in the Pacific Division.

The San Diego Gulls ended the 2015-16 regular season with the second-highest average attendance in the AHL, 8,675 per game. The Ontario Reign were fourth with an average of 8,570. San Diego’s average increase over its previous city, Norfolk, Va., was 82.6%. Ontario saw an increase of 52.5%.

While the Bakersfield Condors ranked 19th in the league with an average attendance of 5,195, they improved 59.2 percent over their previous home, Oklahoma City. Stockton ranked 22nd (4,647) and San Jose 24th (4,432) out of 30 AHL teams, but they improved over 2014-15 by 27.6 and 15.2 percent.

“Our ownership [in Anaheim] is stable and invested in the market right away,” former San Diego president Ari Segal said before a Gulls playoff game in April. “There was no risk of, ‘We’re going to give this a shot and in two years, we’re going to go belly-up and leave.’ They’re building a new practice facility, they’re putting in new boards, there’s a new scoreboard, new concessions, new locker rooms, they’re taking care of the players. These people aren’t just coming for a year or two. It’s an investment in the future.

“And with that NHL and American League brand and credibility comes high-quality product. You get people into the building and they’re here to watch those guys on the ice, and those guys are high-quality players. Shea Theodore. John Gibson, an NHL All-Star, Brandon Montour, an AHL first-team player. Not just Minor League players with varying degrees of success, you’re talking about high-ceiling prospects. When you do all that work to get the customer in the door, then we step back and those guys take it from there.”

For the five NHL teams affiliated with the new AHL franchises, the Pacific division was a logistical dream come true. Whereas four of the five franchises were previously located in Eastern cities such as Worcester, MA and Manchester, NH, now the three California NHL teams had their primary farm team located within 90 miles of their arena. The Sharks and their AHL team actually shared the same building.

Overall, this was a major factor in a strong year for the AHL. The league confirmed at the end of the season that it had established an all-time total and average attendance records, surpassing marks that were previously set during the 2004-05 season.

Western expansion continued after the 2016 season was completed, as the Springfield (Ma.) Falcons relocated to Tucson, Az.

“We’ve done our research: tens of thousands of fans in Tucson buy tickets to go and watch the Coyotes play,” Coyotes President Anthony LeBlanc said at a press conference after the AHL’s Board of Governors unanimously approved the move to Tuscon. “If you have that many people purchasing tickets to drive two hours to go see a hockey game, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll have a strong market here. San Diego’s team has really become part of the fabric of the city and surrounding regions. “We’re definitely aiming to do the same with this team.”

Previously in our Top Ten Stories of 2016 List:

#5: Seattle’s Arena Debate

#6: New York Islanders

#7: Rogers Place Opening

#8: Arizona Coyotes Pitch New Arena

#9: Quebec City Left out By NHL

#10: D-League Plots Future

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