The Greatest

10 greatest minor-league hockey franchises in NHL markets

10 greatest minor-league hockey franchises in NHL markets
The Chicago Wolves and Philadelphia Phantoms entered established NHL markets in the mid-'90s. Both teams managed to stay for more than a decade, and one is still in its original place. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Of the current NHL markets, 22 have harbored at least one AHL, IHL or ECHL team in the past. A remarkable 13 have sustained a minor-league team simultaneous with a franchise in The Show.

Granted, many of those franchises fizzled like a snowflake in above-freezing temperatures. The ECHL’s Miami Matadors were in and out after the 1998-99 campaign. Forlorn Oilers fans passed the 2004-05 lockout with the AHL’s Road Runners, but Edmonton’s farm club left Rexall Place before the main attraction returned.

Even so, NHL markets of all sizes and statuses (traditional or nontraditional) have produced enough interest for a minor-league neighbor. Four current AHL franchises share a dateline, an arena or both with a big-league club.

Some bygone Triple-A and Double-A teams from NHL markets eventually lost their sustainability. But even they hung around long enough to create genuine ripples. For others, the ultimate demise or relocation came for reasons other than the this-town’s-not-big-enough variety.

The following 10 franchises have verified minor-league hockey’s viability in NHL territory the best. Rankings are based primarily on longevity and attendance — relative to such other factors as location, on-ice achievement, league level and NHL affiliation. All statistics and records are from the Internet Hockey Database.

10. Los Angeles Ice Dogs, IHL, 1995-96
Had they stayed in their first house longer, the Ice Dogs might have ranked higher here. But their ambitious venture into the Kings’ old haunts, the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, yielded 3,310 fans per night.

That move may have prompted some second-guessing after the franchise had drawn significantly better as the San Diego Gulls. But the Dogs occupied the L.A. metro area for four more IHL seasons in Long Beach. There they crossed the 4,000 threshold in 1997-98 and increased attendance in each of the two years that followed. After the IHL folded in 2001, the brand stayed in place as a Double-A team.

9. Phoenix Mustangs, WCHL, 1997-01
Even with the Coyotes’ inception and the demise of the fifth incarnation of the Roadrunners, minor-league hockey persisted in Phoenix. The historic Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum filled a tenant void with an expansion West Coast League franchise.

The Mustangs finished fifth out of nine, attendance-wise, in their inaugural season. They were second-last in each of the next two, then dead last in their fourth and final year. With that said, they peaked at 3,502 fans per night during a 1999-2000 championship season and stayed above 3,000 in a non-playoff follow-up. Not bad for a Double-A team in an occupied Southwestern major-league market.

8. San Jose Barracuda, AHL, 2015-present
One of two current AHL teams sharing an NHL partner’s arena, the Barracuda have been drawing the sparser audiences. This despite posting a winning record in each of their first two seasons of this arrangement going on three.

Conversely, the Manitoba Moose were a playoff no-show in 2015-16 and 2016-17. Yet they eclipsed the Barracuda in average nightly attendance by scores of 7,285-4,432 and 5,656-4,312.

7. Boston Braves, AHL, 1971-74
The AHL may have seemed especially out of place in the Boston Garden. A fellow Original Six mansion, the Montreal Forum, was a bust of a host to the Voyageurs circa 1969-71. Moreover, throughout the league’s history, New England has born many fertile lower-level cities for the Bruins to place their affiliate.

Come what may, the Braves mustered three seasons in their parents’ digs. Bringing in 11,208 per home date in Year 1, which coincided with the B’s Stanley Cup run, was impressive enough. Ditto following up with 4,392 in 1972-73, when the WHA’s New England Whalers joined the crowded local hockey scene.

6. Manitoba Moose, AHL, 2015-present
Now that the Jets are back, the Moose are in decidedly lower demand. Minus their first year back as Winnipeg’s live-in child club, sales have been substantially lower than their first run from 1996 to 2011.

10 greatest minor-league hockey franchises in NHL markets 10 greatest rejected NHL team nicknames of all time Charlotte Checkers Manitoba Moose Eddie Lack Patrice Cormier

(Photo by Amanda Statland/Pucks and Recreation)

Still, they have been healthily above 5,000 per night over last season and this season. Then again, despite having their best year on the ice since returning from St. John’s, they are having their worst at the gate.

5. Phoenix Roadrunners, IHL, 1996-97
Emerging in 1989, the Roadrunners took the name and the digs of three predecessors at the aforementioned Memorial Coliseum. For their first three seasons, they cohabitated with the NBA’s Phoenix Suns.

The Suns eventually moved to America West Arena, where they were joined by the NHL’s Coyotes in 1996. Back at the Coliseum, the Roadrunners fizzled after one year of competing with the Coyotes for fanfare. But in that one year, they sustained support to the tune of 6,886 spectators per night.

Later, an ECHL edition of the Roadrunners mustered four seasons of average crowds exceeding 3,000. This despite missing the playoffs in three of those years and finishing abysmally below .500 in all four.

4. Detroit Vipers, IHL, 1994-2001
When labor disputes stalled the 1994-95 NHL season, Detroiters had a timely solution in the next county. The pristine Palace of Auburn Hills — then home of the NBA’s Pistons — welcomed a second wintertime tenant as part of the IHL’s big-city push.

Between increased necessity through the half-lost NHL season and general novelty, the first-year Vipers averaged 14,263 nightly ticketholders. They continued to eclipse 10,000 for four more seasons with the help of several deep playoff runs, including a 1997 Turner Cup title. But once they lost their competitive caliber on the ice, interest plummeted, and the team folded along with the league.

3. Toronto Marlies, AHL, 2005-present
As of 2017-18, Toronto has tied Philadelphia for the longest single-city AHL-NHL partnership of all time. The Moose and Barracuda may not remain in Winnipeg and San Jose for the long run. But the Maple Leafs’ approach of keeping their development team across town looks tried and true.

With that said, the citizens of the largest city in hockey’s definitive nation have stopped at sustainability in their support. The Marlies can get by with what they bring into the old 7,581-seat Ricoh Coliseum.

But since peaking in 2012-13 with 6,681 fans per night, their figures have not exactly been exemplary. As such, this one of three minor-league teams with than a decade in NHL territory gets bronze here.

2. Philadelphia Phantoms, AHL, 1996-2009
While attendance at the hand-me-down Spectrum exponentially declined over the building’s final five years, the Phantoms remained a healthy draw. They averaged 6,459 fans in 2008-09, after which their arena was condemned for demolition.

Had there been suitable accommodations in the neighborhood, odds are the Flyers would have kept their child club closer. Alas, unlike Winnipeg or San Jose, the Wells Fargo Center has two basketball tenants (76ers, Villanova) to think about. In addition, it has housed the Philadelphia Wings box lacrosse team for most of its winters.

Regardless, local fans made the most of the AHL’s presence next door to the new NHL venue. The Phantoms thrice broke five figures in yearly attendance, and were a league leader even in non-playoff seasons.

1. Chicago Wolves, IHL/AHL, 1994-present
Like their late rivals from Auburn Hills, the Wolves set up shop in the suburbs of an Original Six city in 1994. The way the half-season NHL lockout estranged Blackhawks fans surely gave Rosemont’s IHL team an early boost.

But the Wolves have since survived and thrived for nearly a quarter-century. And unlike the Phantoms and Marlies, they have never benefited from any Blackhawks ties. (That is unless you count the occasional informal alumni match.)

The original IHL edition stormed out for two straight years of five-figure attendance averages. Since transferring to the AHL in 2001, the Wolves have yet to match the draw from any of their first seven seasons. With that said, they also have yet to average anything below 7,000 in a single campaign.

Al Daniel

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