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AHL Western Footprint Continues to Evolve


Major changes are taking shape in the AHL, as future facility plans reflect an evolution of the league’s burgeoning western footprint.

The AHL has changed considerably over the years, with its current form owing much to a trend that saw the creation of the Pacific Division for the 2015-16 season. This came as several NHL organizations based in the Western United States moved their top minor-league affiliates closer to their home operations, and some of those AHL teams—including the Ontario Reign and San Diego Gulls—have provided attendance success stories.

Further evolution is coming in the west, highlighted by expansion, new facilities, and relocations that could be taking place. Palm Springs has been approved as the AHL’s 32nd team, with Oak View Group and Seattle NHL awarded the club, which will serve as Seattle’s affiliate when it launches in the 2021-22 season. The plan calls for the team to play in new arena in downtown Palm Springs, a $250-million privately financed venue built on tribal land as part of a partnership between OVG and the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.

Another shift involves the San Antonio Rampage, as the Vegas Golden Knights have agreed to buy the team from Spurs Sports & Entertainment and relocate it to the Las Vegas area after this season, pending AHL approvals. While 2020-21 home games would be played at Las Vegas’s Orleans Arena, the long-term goal is to build a new 6,000-seat arena in suburban Henderson. The Golden Knights announced those plans this month, with the arena pitched for the site of Henderson Pavilion, and the city is continuing its planning process by scheduling a public meeting for next month.

Meanwhile, rumors are emerging that Colorado Springs could become home to an AHL team. In the scenario that is being reported, the Calgary Flames would relocate the Stockton Heat after the 2020-21 season and place the team at Broadmoor World Arena. There are plenty of questions surrounding the future of the Heat (more on that in a moment), but there are a couple of underlying motivations rumored to be part of the possibility. While the arena will have more open dates to accommodate AHL once Colorado College opens its own hockey arena in 2021, a move of the Heat to Colorado Springs would allow the AHL squad to play in the same time zone as its NHL parent, The Denver Post recently reported.

Broadmoor World Arena is interested in having a sports franchise take the place of Colorado College, and a survey distributed by the venue this week included questions about community interest in a potential AHL team. However, venue officials would not confirm the possibility of landing the Heat and also emphasize that there is not a deal with an AHL team at this point.More from The Gazette

The survey asked El Paso, Teller and Pueblo County residents to gauge their level of interest in an AHL team based at The Broadmoor World Arena. They were asked whether they’d be willing to pay for single-game to “$500 to $1,500” season tickets, and if purchasing on a game-by-game basis, how many of the 34 home games they’d likely attend.

Each AHL team has an NHL affiliate. A team frequently referenced to being on the move is the Stockton (Calif.) Heat, affiliated with the Calgary Flames. In 2018-19 the Heat’s average attendance was 3,690 fans, fourth worst in the AHL.

KOAA’s Jake Gadon tweeted a statement from the Flames’ VP of Communications Peter Hanlon on a potential Heat move: “We have recently extended our agreement in Stockton through 2020-21 and that’s all we are focused on at this time.”

[Broadmoor World Arena general manager Dot] Lischick would not confirm that Stockton is interested in moving to Colorado.

The Heat are locked into a lease at Stockton Arena that runs through the 2020-21 season, part of a one-year extension between the Flames and the city announced last week. Previously, both sides have indicated that a one-year lease extension could serve as the placeholder while a longer-term agreement that includes facility upgrades is negotiated. At this point, the Flames have not stated whether Colorado Springs—or any other market, for that matter—is on their radar for the Heat after the 2020-21 season, while Stockton officials made it sound last week as if discussions over a long-term lease were ongoing.

In theory, Colorado Springs could present an option if a longer agreement cannot be worked out in Stockton, as it fits within the league’s geographical footprint and provides an arena that could be suitable for AHL. Whether that comes to fruition remains to be seen, but it is a possibility that should be monitored.

Another notable facility development in the west is taking shape in San Jose, where the Sharks are planning a new home for the San Jose Barracuda. The Barracuda will eventually play home games at a 4,200-seat, two-story arena that will be built as part of a 200,000-square-foot expansion of the Sharks’ existing Solar4America Ice at San Jose.

According to an announcement issued late last month, the Sharks are hoping to break ground on the project in late April, with the expansion completed in April 2022. The Sharks and Barracuda have both played home games at SAP Center since the AHL club was relocated from Worcester, MA in 2015.

The Western footprint of the AHL has attracted plenty of attention in recent years and has been an important part of the league’s evolution. It might be evolving further, bringing more change to the league as a whole.

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