Joel Kwiatkowski of the Chicago Wolves kisses the Calder Cup following a win over the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
The predominant question I’ve been asked in recent weeks is how the crisis in financial markets and the significant downturn in the economy are going to affect business in the American League.
While all pro sports are dependent on the disposable income of fans to drive the business engine, the AHL has a distinct advantage over some entertainment alternatives in that we appeal to a broad demographic across 29 cities in North America, and we have a terrific product at an attractive price point.
AHL hockey features the best young talent outside the NHL, with more than 200 first- and second-round draft picks playing in our league. More than half our talent pool will see NHL action over the course of this season.
Our players are one shift away from the NHL and with so much on the line each night, combined with the terrific competitive balance resulting from all 30 NHL teams placing their top prospects in the AHL, our fans are assured of world-class skill and an all-out effort every night.
As with every business we will need to face this challenging economic environment with innovative and creative marketing strategies and increased use of technology to connect with our fans. But above all, we will need to avoid the downward spiral that would result from reducing investment in our sales and marketing efforts.
On a brighter note we were thrilled to see so many of our AHL coaches graduate to the NHL over the course of the summer. John Anderson (Atlanta) and Scott Gordon (Islanders) join former Houston Aeros coach Todd McLellan (San Jose) in their first NHL head coaching assignments.
The success of Bruce Boudreau with the Capitals, which led to his selection as the NHL coach of the year, was one of the truly great stories in hockey last year. With the return of Barry Melrose to the NHL coaching ranks we now are able to point to 15 NHL head coaches who previously have been head coaches in the AHL, including both of the 2008 Stanley Cup finalists – Mike Babcock and Michel Therrien.
The 2008-2009 AHL season is now underway. As I look at our rosters I see a wealth of young talent and a solid core of returning stars. The prediction of an exodus to the Kontinental League and a subsequent weakening of the AHL competitive product have proven to be incorrect and this could be our strongest core group of teams in many years.
Seven months from now 16 of our teams will be challenging for the Calder Cup. Between now and then more than 300 of our players will get the opportunity to move up to the NHL, a new crop of first year pros will emerge as budding stars across our league, and more than six million fans across North America will attend our games.
And hopefully by then the economy will be on the way back.