10 greatest minor league hockey markets in North America
Four minor league hockey franchises in time-honored markets are in the midst of a milestone season. The sport’s current brands in Cleveland, Fort Wayne, Milwaukee and Providence are each rounding out a year of operation divisible by five.
Per the virtually unbreakable laws of the business, none of those cities have had impeccable track records. They have either lost franchises, brooked attendance bumps or seen a franchise drop a level.
That notwithstanding, the aforementioned quartet has ample company among exemplary minor league hockey fan bases. They are the cities that have bounced back from their setbacks and are now honoring their heritage through healthy support.
With verification from the authoritative Internet Hockey Database, we have filed through the annals and attendance figures of North America’s top minor league hockey cities. Based on a combination of historic longevity and present-day standing — with higher priority for the latter — those cities are ranked as follows.
Honorable mention: Kalamazoo
For 36 years and counting, Kalamazoo hockey fans have enjoyed an annual “Green Ice Game” every St. Patrick’s Day. It is arguably the most tried-and-true custom in the minors, and part of an entity that has stuck in the city for 43 years.
Originally a Detroit Red Wings feeder club for its first 13 years of operation, the Kalamazoo Wings franchise has since survived without any ties to its home state’s NHL club. Its small-market status, along with the impending dissolution of the IHL, ultimately forced it to go down one level in 2000. It has since played under the UHL, new IHL and ECHL heading.
Somewhat troublingly, attendance has receded over the last four years after a long stretch of drawing 3,000-plus viewers to the 5,113-seat Wings Event Center. But it does not look like West Michigan’s version of the Wings is going to take off in the near future. Its uninterrupted 43-year existence in the face of so much change warrants the honorable mention.
Between their IHL inception and their 2001 transfer to the AHL, the Milwaukee Admirals have been in business for 40 years. If nothing else, not unlike the K-Wings, they can claim a tried-and-true certificate that few of their peers have earned.
It is, however, worth noting that the Admirals were a better draw under their old banner. In each of their final 12 seasons as an IHL tenant, they played to a nightly average higher than 7,000 fans. They have finished below that threshold in each of their first 15 years under AHL auspices, and might not even crack 5,000 this season despite a strong win-loss record.
9. Grand Rapids
Michigan’s second-largest city does not have the same minor league hockey history as the other markets on this list. Until 1996, Grand Rapids only had two short-lived IHL franchises, plus the occasional lower-level team.
With that being said, the Griffins have since been a steady hit for their first two decades of existence. Even when they were an independent IHL team, they broke five figures under the attendance heading for three straight seasons.
The subsequent loss of novelty may be at fault for a minor dropoff at the gate. Still, the Griffins have never drawn fewer than 6,500 as their single-season nightly average.
The first-year Thunderbirds franchise is currently boasting Springfield’s first average nightly attendance figure in the 4,000 range since 2002-03.
Will the spike last? Will the locals finally learn not to take their team for granted after losing the Falcons in 2016 and the Indians in 1994?
The one certainty is the AHL’s determination to keep stoking one of its steadiest traditions, namely icing a team in Western Massachusetts. Between the Indians/Kings, Falcons and Thunderbirds franchises, Springfield has been a tenant for each of the circuit’s 81 campaigns.
Not many teams in the Southern Professional Hockey League reach so much as smelling distance of 3,000 nightly fans. The Peoria Rivermen have been a stark exception, drawing over 3,500 in their inaugural season, then hovering around 4,000 since.
Those healthy, golden-by-low-level-standards figures are easy to explain with the Rivermen’s history. Peoria previously fielded a team of that name in three other leagues (IHL, ECHL and AHL) for 29 consecutive seasons. For much of that run, the Forgottonia franchise joined forces with the nearby St. Louis Blues.
The loss of affiliation and the drop from Triple-A or premier Double-A caliber has only yielded a minor drop in fanfare. The Rivermen brand is tried, true and treasured among Peoria puckheads.
A two-decade absence of minor league hockey is the chief knock on Cleveland’s history rubric. Although, in fairness, some of that hiatus was filled by a combined six years of the WHA’s Crusaders and NHL’s Barons.
Otherwise, since 1937, the city has enjoyed 59 nonconsecutive seasons of the AHL’s Barons (two versions), the IHL’s Lumberjacks and now the AHL’s Monsters.
For six of their nine years, the Lumberjacks exceeded 8,000 nightly spectators. The subsequent five-year run of the latter-day Barons was far less successful, but the Monsters’ 2007 arrival marked a genuine rejuvenation of Cleveland’s passion for pucks.
After barely missing the 6,000 mark in their first two campaigns, the Monsters broke that plateau, and have upped their draw virtually every year since. Most tellingly, they have surpassed 8,000 in each of the past four seasons, the first of which saw them post a losing record.
Coming off their 60th anniversary, the “Amerks” have the rare distinction of being an older Western New York institution than their NHL partner, the Buffalo Sabres.
A three-year hiatus from that partnership from 2008 to 2011 doubtlessly contributed to a bump in ticket sales. More recently, a losing record can be blamed for a similar dip to 5,052 nightly spectators so far this season.
But as far as the Hockey DB records show, yearly averages have only fallen behind 4,000 on three isolated occasions in the last half-century.
Though it endured 15 years without a franchise, the Divine City has long since replenished its standing as a time-honored AHL town. After 51 years of the Reds, it is now celebrating its 25th season as the home of the Providence Bruins.
Besides consistently healthy attendance, the P-Bruins’ staying power shines through in that they are already the third-longest living brand in the league. And while it helps to be based in the same market as the NHL parent club, this team also thrives in the face of direct turnstile competition.
The majority of the P-Bruins’ home games take place on Friday nights, frequently coinciding with a Brown University or Providence College game at one of the nearby campus rinks. Yet there are always plenty of Providence puckheads to go around.
In addition, nightly attendance at the Dunkin Donuts Center tends to increase in March and April, when college hockey activity decreases in frequency. Look for this year’s current average of 7,956 fans to keep climbing, ensuring a number beyond the 8,000 threshold for the fifth year in a row.
The legacy of the IHL’s topsy-turvy twilight years lives on at Allstate Arena in the Windy City suburb of Rosemont. And while Chicago is not as historic a minor league setting, it earns extra points by being a concurrent NHL market.
Granted, this season has witnessed an unprecedented downturn at the gate, where the Wolves are presently attracting 6,613 fans per game. But by minor league hockey standards, let alone in an Original Six NHL community, that is an enviable figure for an all-time low.
While there is always the possibility that a rude reality will emerge, this franchise’s track record suggests it has the means to avert too much fanfare erosion. The Wolves built their base around estranged Blackhawks buffs between the 1994 NHL lockout that coincided with their inception, years of subsequent mediocrity at the United Center and a lack of NHL home-game television coverage until 2008.
So far, even now that the Hawks are arguably The Show’s model franchise, the local AHL team has had nary a hitch. It has retained the same emblem, uniform, traditional pregame pyrotechnics and loyal following through one league change and four NHL affiliations. That last element includes recent partnerships with two of the Blackhawks’ bitter rivals, Vancouver and St. Louis.
2. Fort Wayne
The Fort Wayne Komets brand has played under four different banners, but has never gone dormant in 65 years. The current iteration is in its fifth campaign as an ECHL tenant, and has drawn yearly averages eclipsing 7,000 fans per night in each of those seasons.
The same can be said of its United and Central League editions, dating back to 2002-03. Since going from Triple-A to Double-A in 1999, the Komets have topped their league’s attendance leaderboard 12 times through 17 seasons.
They will make it 13 out of 18 by this spring if the current trends hold up. The rest of the time, they have placed second on four occasions, and third on the other.
That steadiness is a testament to the tradition the local fan base secured through over 47 preceding seasons in the original IHL.
The AHL’s oldest tenant (dating back to 1938) is the league’s attendance champion 10 years running. If the current leaderboard stays the same, the Bears will extend that streak to 11 seasons.
Moreover, in each of the past seven seasons, Hershey has eclipsed 9,000 fans per home date when no other AHL franchise has reached that barrier.
Much like the Komets and the Wolves, the Bears have sculpted and sustained their following without always allying themselves with the closest NHL franchise. They have variously partnered with Boston, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Washington, Quebec/Colorado, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay.
That peerless longevity, in tandem with its protracted ongoing turnstile supremacy, makes Hershey the runaway standard-bearer among minor league hockey markets. Besides Rochester, it has been the only one never to deal with a league demotion, a franchise dissolution or a franchise relocation for more than half a century.