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Dave Andrews' Blog: Managing and growing the AHL

Oilers prospect Alex Plante of the Springfield Falcons has played in four NHL games this season. (Photo by Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images)

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Oilers prospect Alex Plante of the Springfield Falcons has played in four NHL games this season. (Photo by Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images)

Sharing an inside look from the office of a league president was one of the perspectives editor in chief Jason Kay proposed when suggesting I submit periodic blogs to THN.

The view from the American League office today is of a very cold Connecticut River, with Hartford in the distance, but the inside look at my work plan would show a priority strategic focus on next season and a short-term to-do list to match our objectives in the weeks ahead.

The reality is a good part of every day is taken up with the day-to-day demands that come from having 29 teams, 30 NHL affiliates, our players’ association, media requests, disciplinary reviews and the general clutter everyone faces in their jobs that puts even the best time-management practices to the test. We have a lot of stakeholders with an interest in the successful operation of the AHL and a relatively small head office staff (13) with which to service them.

MANAGING CHANGE
Our business at the AHL is built on a model that, essentially, places a very high priority on the player supply from our NHL affiliates.

The NHL player supply is our core product, our brand and what drives our revenues. It is also the most substantial cost element we have, through affiliation agreements between our independent owners and NHL affiliates.

So, one of my most important tasks is to protect and grow our relationship with the NHL and its clubs and to make certain the AHL is providing good value to the NHL GMs who invest in our league.

The affiliation relationships often face challenges. This year, as with most years, there is the probability five or six NHL clubs, and a similar number of AHL owners, will be seeking new opportunities and I will serve as the marriage counselor in an attempt to find productive outcomes as we prepare for next year.

These relationships usually break down either as a result of extended poor team performance, leading our owners to want a new NHL affiliate, or sometimes our ownership doesn’t fulfill its obligations as an AHL partner, leading the NHL club to seek greener pastures to develop its players.

At the same time we have market and ownership opportunities resulting from new and attractive markets and/or investors coming into play sometimes resulting from difficulties with existing teams and owners. I have the responsibility of facilitating solutions and managing the inevitable changes in a productive manner, ensuring the long-term growth and stability of our league and its stakeholders. It seems managing the process of change effectively is the greatest priority each year at this time.

A perfect example of these changes is this week’s announcement of the additions of Oklahoma City and Charlotte to the AHL for next season, with the Oilers and Hurricanes as their affiliates. Those changes act like dominoes: Who will replace Edmonton as the affiliate in Springfield? What is the future of the AHL in Albany? On top of that, we anticipate the sale of our franchise in Iowa, which, if activated, will need an NHL affiliate, too.

We’re working with the Anaheim Ducks to find a suitable long-term AHL home after going without a full AHL affiliation this season. And we’re also monitoring a number of other AHL-NHL affiliation agreements that are expiring this year.

The good news is we should hit 30 teams for the first time next season and demand for membership in our league continues to be strong.

UPCOMING EVENTS
In early February, we announced our television schedule on the NHL Network for the balance of the season, as well as a schedule of AHL broadcasts on XM Satellite Radio to air during the Olympics.

The first NHL Network telecast will come on Feb. 20, when the Syracuse Crunch host the Mirabito Outdoor Classic at the New York State Fairgrounds, with the Binghamton Senators as their opponent. This will be the first outdoor AHL game and may well set an all-time league attendance record, with an expected crowd of more than 20,000.

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We are deep into preparations for next season, when we will celebrate our league’s 75th anniversary. Lots of events and initiatives are planned to suitably celebrate the occasion and we are really looking forward to it. Our heritage is remarkable, with more than 100 AHL graduates in the Hockey Hall of Fame and historic places like Hershey, Rochester, Providence and Springfield that have been synonymous with the AHL for decades.

As we head into the final two months of the regular season and the drive for the Calder Cup playoffs, we have very competitive battles in every division. The Hershey Bears – like their parent club the Washington Capitals – are having a year for the record books. The Bears are on track to challenge the all-time AHL record for most wins in a season, a mark set by the 1992-93 Binghamton Rangers, which was coached by current NHL senior vice president Colin Campbell.

Off the ice, we’re showing a slight increase in ticket sales and sponsorship revenue compared to last season. We are very proud of the work our teams have done to achieve those results and are thankful for the highly skilled and competitive players who provide terrific experiences for our fans every night.

SUSPENSIONS
It has been relatively quiet over the past couple of months in terms of significant disciplinary action required for on-ice infractions.

Recently, we dealt with a lot of media requests related to the ‘what if’ scenarios before and after the Patrice Cormier suspension in the Quebec League. The easy answer is any player assigned to play in the AHL while under suspension in another league is subject to a review by the president, a review that will determine the player’s eligibility to play in our league.

We have dealt with these situations several times over the years, but have not had to deal with it in this case, as the QMJHL took appropriate action and the Atlanta Thrashers, who acquired Cormier’s rights from New Jersey in the Ilya Kovalchuk trade, have not indicated an intent to assign him to the AHL while his suspension is in effect.

(On the topic of honoring suspensions, I remain perplexed our yearlong suspension of Alexander Perezhogin in 2004 was not reviewed by the IIHF, who allowed the player to compete internationally in September of that year. This was disappointing considering the nature of the offense and the public positioning of the international federations against violent play.)

PLAYERS STEPPING UP
This year we have seen a 10 percent increase in the number of recalls to the NHL (more than 500 and counting), due in part to the compressed schedule as a result of the Olympic break.

These recalls provide the opportunities that motivate our players and many of them have seized the moment admirably. Players like Mike Brodeur in Ottawa, Tyler Bozak in Toronto, Jimmy Howard in Detroit, Michal Neuvirth in Washington, Cody Franson in Nashville, Antti Niemi in Chicago, Jamie McGinn in San Jose and Matt Moulson with the Islanders have all made significant impressions during their first real opportunities this year in the NHL.

Finally, the AHL will be represented by 135 former and current players at the 2010 Olympics, including 28 on Team Canada and Team USA. I look forward to joining all of THN’s readers as we gear up to watch some great hockey from Vancouver starting next week.

Dave Andrews is the American League's CEO and president, roles he has held since 1994. A goalie during his playing days, his administrative hockey career has included stops as the Edmonton Oilers’ director of AHL operations, senior consultant with SportCanada, and head coach and director of hockey operations for the Western League’s Victoria Cougars. You can read his other THN.com Blogs HERE.

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