This year, the American Hockey League decided to go west.
The league, which has mainly operated with teams located on the East Coast, relocated and graduated some of their franchises out to the West Coast. Teams that had been playing for years in the ECHL-Bakersfield, Ontario and Stockton, were upped to the AHL. Other California cities like San Diego and San Jose also got franchises.
Hockey has experienced a growth in California like no other. There's more kids playing hockey there than ever before, and if you walk around a lot of cities in California, you'll notice that kids are wearing San Jose Sharks, LA Kings, Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings hats.
It's definitely a beautiful thing.
Which is why the AHL should take advantage of this.
There are a few cities that I believe could support AHL hockey. It's just a step under the NHL, and if marketed right, there's no reason why franchises couldn't thrive in these respective cities. The ones that might have the best chances are Fresno, Spokane, Boise and Reno.
Fresno should be the first team considered for AHL expansion/relocation, just based on its size. In the city alone, it has over 520,000 people, and almost a million in the metro area. It's a larger city than Bakersfield and Stockton, and is actually bigger than Sacramento when it comes to city population (Sacramento has more in its metro).
The city has supported hockey before, with the Fresno Falcons. In total, the city supported the Falcons for 46 years, until 2008, when the owners of the Falcons, Fresno Hockey Club LLC, decided to close up shop. It was a sad end to a franchise that had a fan following, but just had the wrong ownership manning it.
Christian Lukens, sports reporter for ESPN 940 AM in Fresno, thinks hockey could work again in that city.
"I do think so. They supported ECHL for a long, long time, and the AHL would mean 1 step from the league. I think that's sustainable, especially given regional rivalries built into it and the NHL affiliate would be shouldering costs."
The new version of the Falcons would play at Selland Arena in downtown Fresno, which was renovated in 2006, and can seat 7,600 hockey fans. It provides the old school atmosphere that makes for a tremendous hockey experience. You can hear the crunch of the checks, the horns sound awesome, and when there is a packed house, the decibel level of the fans sounds just right.
It's a great, intimate hockey barn.
If they had the right ownership group, mixed in with the right marketing campaign, there's no reason why hockey can't work in Fresno again.
They just cannot repeat past mistakes.
Another market that could possibly support AHL hockey is Spokane. It has supported the Western Hockey League for a long time with the Spokane Chiefs, who have turned out some pretty impressive NHL players, like current Tampa Bay Lightning star Tyler Johnson, Ray Whitney, Valeri Bure, Trevor Kidd, Travis Green and Brent Gilchrist. The team has won two Western Hockey League championships and two Canadian Hockey League Memorial Cups.
Spokane is a smaller city than Fresno, with just over 200,000 people. But with the combined statistical area of the Spokane-Coeur D'Alene, Idaho area, there is a population of 679,989. The Chiefs ranked 5th in the Western Hockey League in attendance last year, with 5,289 fans attending. They have also ranked higher in past years, which is amazing considering the league is filled with big cities like Calgary, Portland, Vancouver and Edmonton.
If you put almost NHL-like caliber talent in there, you'll get even more fans attending the games.
The Chiefs also have a nice radio & television area, which covers Eastern Washington, Northern Idaho, and British Columbia. Their games are also seen in hockey hotbeds like Calgary, Edmonton and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. So, with all of those areas covered, you'll expose more people to the AHL, which makes it just as a attractive a hockey market as some of the AHL's current areas.
Spokane is almost like a Canadian city located in the United States, which makes them perfect for a shot at the AHL.
Located a few hours east of Spokane is one of the most beautiful cities in the northwest. It's skyline and unbelievable weather attracts new people each year. It's also a wonderful area to ski, camp and catch high quality college football.
This area is Boise, Idaho.
Boise is not only home to a great college football program, but they have had a winning hockey franchise as well. The Idaho Steelheads have won two Kelly Cups as league champion, and the Brabham Cup in 2009-10, which is the ECHL's version of the President's Trophy. They have also had NHL talent play for the team like B.J. Crombeen, Richard Bachman, Dan Ellis and Matt Climie. Their former coach, Derek Laxdal, went on to have some pretty good years with the WHL's Edmonton Oil Kings, including a Memorial Cup Championship in 2014, and now is the head coach of the Texas Stars of the AHL.
The question is: Will Boise ever become an AHL town?
Boise is a bigger city than Spokane, with a population of 216,282. Their metro is also comparable, with 664,422. It's a thriving area, with more and more businesses and professionals moving to Southern Idaho for better opportunities.
Their rink, Century Link Arena, can hold just over 5,000 for hockey. It's a nice modern rink but inside, has the intimacy of old school barns. And when the place is packed, it can be truly be a fantastic hockey experience.
Boise definitely deserves a look.
Seven hours south of Boise, is the World's Biggest Little City-Reno, Nevada.
The area is not only a hub for gaming and entertainment, but also of scenic beauty. Located just an hour from town is Lake Tahoe, there are many skiing and outdoor activities to do. It's home to the University of Nevada sports, AAA baseball's Reno Aces, the NBA-D-League's Reno Bighorns and every year the area hosts one of the premier PGA events in the country-the Reno-Tahoe Open.
Reno has about the same population number as Boise, with 225,221 people, but its metro is much lower, with just over 425,000 people. It has two arenas-the Reno Events Center and Lawlor Events Center, plus a convention area-the Reno-Sparks Convention Center.
Minor league hockey has been in Reno before, with the Reno Renegades playing in the WCHL from 1995-1998. Since then, Reno has pretty much stuck with college sports and minor league baseball and basketball. However, with a increase in hockey popularity and many sports bars in Reno showing NHL games, it might be worth a shot. Corporations such as Tesla have set up shop in Northern Nevada, so the corporate support might be there. Plus, with the cold climate and a ballpark in downtown Reno, it would be the perfect place to host an outdoor hockey game.
I have created a mock division of what the AHL Western Conference would look like with these markets in it.
Jake's AHL Western Conference
1. Chicago Wolves
2. Texas Stars
3. Manitoba Moose
4. Milwaukee Admirals
5. Grand Rapids Griffins
6. Rockford Ice Hogs
7. Iowa Wild
8. San Antonio Rampage
1. Bakersfield Condors
2. Ontario Reign
3. Stockton Thunder
4. San Diego Gulls
5. Fresno Falcons
6. Idaho Steelheads
7. Reno Renegades
8. Spokane Chiefs
I think that Spokane is truly ready to take the next step, in terms of being a hockey market, and Fresno has so many good possibilities, in terms of market size, and possible fan following. Move the San Jose Barracuda to Fresno, and make them Falcons 2.0 or heck, name them the Sharks. Fans in Fresno follow the Sharks, so it would be a great thing, both merchandise wise, and to grow the game in Central California. Bakersfield is one of the top draws in minor hockey, and is located just two hours from Fresno. Why can't Fresno have the same success?
If a big corporation got behind a Boise or Reno franchise, they would succeed. Boise already has built-in fans to draw from, yet Reno does not. If they did it right, brought in good hockey people to run it, Reno would be a good place to put an AHL team.
Hockey already is big on the East Coast, so the American Hockey League should continue to try and grow in western states. It would attract more fans and visibility for their league. If they do that, they got something special.
It's a risk worth taking.