AHL’s greatest developments under Andrews
One quarter-century ago this month, the AHL began its most recent presidential transition. Dave Andrews was selected to succeed Jack Butterfield, and will now reach 25 years on the job in 2018-19.
He has been at it for the equivalent of three two-term U.S. presidencies, four Senatorial terms or 12 Congressional terms. Take your pick of comparisons, but the scorecard makes a strong case for more. As of last month, he has at least two more years ahead.
While it has not lasted everywhere, the AHL fielded its first teams in 12 states and three provinces under Andrews. It has assumed sole status as the last step before the NHL. It has optimized its optics through various enhancements, reintroductions and added marketing initiatives to its marquee events.
Eight time-honored Triple-A baseball markets got their first-ever or first modern crack at Triple-A hockey via the Andrews-led AHL. Four of them — Charlotte, Iowa (Des Moines), Lehigh Valley and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton — are still members.
At Andrews’ arrival, the league boasted 16 teams in the Northeastern U.S. and the eastern half of Canada. Now it is a fully continental coalition that has nearly doubled in size. An unprecedented 31 teams, one for each NHL affiliate, will take the ice for Andrews’ silver anniversary campaign.
But that is only the surface of the AHL’s transformation in this era. The following is a deeper look at the development league’s top 10 progresses on Andrews’ watch. All statistics are according to the Internet Hockey Database.
10. Super-sized silver
In time for the new millennium, the AHL introduced a new-look Calder Cup in 2001. Featuring a larger second base to go beneath the other, the larger version virtually foreshadowed the next season’s unprecedented wave of expansion.
While the original model went to the Hockey Hall of Fame, the new trophy went to the Saint John Flames. Over each of the next three years, ex-IHL tenants in Chicago, Houston and Milwaukee took turns.
By 2005, the Philadelphia Phantoms, previously champions in 1998, became the first team to hoist both Calder Cups.
9. Hartford beats
Minus Atlanta, the Andrews-led AHL has picked up the NHL’s discards whenever it can.
Granted, the Quebec Citadelles, who replaced the IHL’s Rafales after they replaced the Nordiques, fizzled after three seasons. But the Hartford Wolf Pack are entering their 22nd year of slaking forlorn Whalers fans.
As the Rangers affiliate, Hartford represents the second-longest continuing AHL-NHL partnership, trailing only Providence-Boston. During a brief makeover as the Connecticut Whale, the franchise joined Providence in setting a single-game attendance record with an outdoor game at Rentschler Field. That served as the second Outdoor Classic, helping to cement an annual imitation of the NHL Winter Classic.
Long before that, in their inaugural year, the Wolf Pack gained a little national renown. Their players served as spokespeople for Norelco in a humorous ad campaign.
During Butterfield’s 28-year presidency, two AHL cities broke a single-season nightly average of 7,000 fans. The Boston Braves logged 11,208 at the old Garden in 1971-72 (only to leave two years later). The newfangled Providence Bruins breached 9,000 in 1992-93, 1993-94 and 1994-95.
Under Andrews, the league started raising its attendance bar more consistenly and ambitiously. When the NHL’s Flyers abandoned the Spectrum in 1996, the Phantoms arrived as their new affiliate.
The Phantoms sold 9,182 tickets per night to their hallowed hand-me-down mansion in their inaugural season. With the help of a few deep playoff runs, the numbers increased. In their second, third and fourth year, they averaged five-figure audiences, including 12,002 in 1998-99.
They continued to draw exemplary crowds until the Spectrum was condemned for demolition in 2009. By then, average attendance in the 8,000 range was commonplace among AHL leaders. Medians north of 9,000 are still not unheard of.
7. Pilfered partnerships
In Andrews’ sophomore season, AHL membership grew for the first time in three years, from 16 teams to 18. Tellingly enough, the NHL’s latest expansion class represented that growth via two affiliations.
The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim had started with the IHL’s San Diego Gulls as its first minor-league base. Their fellow 1993 newcomer, the Florida Panthers, made the Cincinnati Cyclones their original partner.
But in 1995, both franchises decided to go east. With the Ducks and Panthers, respectively, the AHL introduced the Baltimore Bandits and Carolina Monarchs. Both teams lasted two years before relocating, but neither Anaheim nor Florida ever reverted to an IHL affiliate. It has been the “A” all the way.
6. Restoration in Cleveland
The Cleveland Lumberjacks were not among the surviving franchises when the IHL merged into the AHL. That did not stop Andrews from seizing the opportunity to renew his league’s partnership with one of its classic cities.
The first version of the Cleveland Barons ran from 1937 to 1973. In those 36 years, the franchise won nine Calder Cups, a record that stood for 42 years.
While the modern Barons mustered five seasons before folding in 2006, Andrews kept looking for Lake Erie rebounds. He and his allies scored more convincingly with the Monsters in 2007.
In 2016, that team delivered Cleveland’s first pro hockey championship since the 1964 Barons. The Monsters effectively broke the city’s sports curse eight days before the Cavaliers triumphed.
5. Shiny returns
Originally an exhibition between the Calder Cup champions and the best of the rest, the AHL All-Star Classic went dormant in 1960. But as one of his first acts, Andrews revived the midseason bonanza.
Weeks before his inaugural season, he chose two-time reigning attendance leader Providence as the host site. The new format had top players from the league’s nine U.S.-based teams facing their counterparts from seven Canadian franchises.
The game has since taken on several other formats. First it set a precedent for the NHL’s short-lived North America-World card with Canada facing PlanetUSA. Then it went to an old-fashioned clash of the conferences. Now it takes after the big league with a tournament of divisional mini-games.
Come what may, after only seven editions in the league’s first 58 seasons, the All-Star Classic has returned for each of Andrews’ first 24 campaigns.
4. Sustaining Springfield
Andrews assumed office the same year the Springfield Falcons replaced the Springfield Indians, who had just shuffled to Worcester.
But after 22 years, Springfield’s affiliate in Arizona wanted to bring its farm base to Tucson. This marked Andrews’ first test in ensuring the AHL’s headquarter city did not go without a team.
Like Butterfield, he would do his part to assuage his closest fan base. While it pained Portland fans, he made it happen by approving the Pirates’ relocation and rebranding as the Springfield Thunderbirds. As a result, Western Massachusetts has sustained its peerless record of fielding an AHL team every year since the league’s inception.
3. Dotting the “I”
Like the WHA, the IHL could not keep up its competition with the senior circuit of its level. Established nine years after the AHL in 1945, it would fold after 56 seasons in 2001.
Ironically, Andrews’ seven years of overseeing the AHL’s clash with a fellow Triple-A league matched the entire run of the renegade WHA. But his leadership ensured his league remained the superior NHL development entity.
With Chicago, Grand Rapids, Houston, Manitoba, Milwaukee and Utah, Andrews was rewarded with six previously uncharted markets for his league.
Four of those franchises have combined for six Calder Cups. Three have stayed in place without any interruptions. The Manitoba Moose gave way to the restored Winnipeg Jets before returning as a live-in child club.
2. Tuned in
Amidst his first year and the concomitant NHL lockout, Andrews leaped for open lanes at the sport’s then-U.S. cable abode. Besides the All-Star Classic, a host of regular-season contests reached national audiences on ESPN2 throughout the autumn of 1994. The network’s Canadian equivalent, TSN, also carried a generous slate of action.
When the NHL halted again in 2004, Andrews pursued the same pick-ups. In a testament to ESPN’s souring relationship with the sport, the American branch only carried the All-Star festitivities.
But up north, the AHL was back on TSN’s air, as well as that of Rogers Sportsnet. That was no small feat considering the league’s intervening exit from the Maritime Provinces and perennial competition for attention with major-junior hockey.
1. An all-American hockey league
By salvaging the Utah Grizzlies in 2001, the AHL brought live action to the Mountain Time Zone for the first time. The NHL’s Alberta franchises later had short-lived affiliates in Edmonton and Abbotsford, B.C.
But the bygone IHL had also catered to Arizona, California and Nevada in its dying decade. After the Long Beach Ice Dogs folded, American markets in the Pacific Time Zone went without high-end minor-league hockey for a decade-and-a-half.
Finally, in 2015, Andrews approved a slew of cross-country transfers, allowing NHL Western Conference teams to bring their farm clubs close to home. Among other exciting implications, this meant bringing back the San Diego Gulls and elevating such ECHL brands as the Bakersfield Condors and Ontario Reign.
And for the first time, the AHL was a coast-to-coast league in America.
Beginning in 2018-19, Andrews’ silver anniversary, the AHL will also have its first Colorado-based team. After nudging the IHL’s Grizzlies out of Denver in 1995, the Avalanche will make the Colorado Eagles their new partner.
That brings the development league’s presence to 18 states/provinces at once. And to think the AHL did not even have 18 teams until a year into Andrews’ presidency.