Saturday, August 25, 2012

Better Know A Minor League: The ECHL

With the impending lockout doom-- DOOOOOOOM-- it's probably for the best that the actual NHL fans actually get acquainted with some other leagues out there. Yes, that's right, folks-- there's other hockey leagues out there besides the NHL. Crazy, I know. So, here we go. 

A crazy thing about the ECHL is that the league is just that-- the ECHL. The letters don't stand for anything anymore, especially with the acquisiton of another league. In any case, this league was started out of the ashes of the All-American Hockey League at the end of the 1987-88 season. The ECHL was known then as the East Coast Hockey League, as the teams were predominately on the East Coast-- oddly enough. The first season, the ECHL had five teams and within five years had 19.

The ECHL soon expanded to more southern locales like Baton Rouge and Lafayette, Louisiana by the 1995-96 season, moving to New Orleans and Peoria in the 1997-98 season, while in the 2001-02 season, the league would see their peak at 29 teams under the East Coast Hockey League name. The name change to just letters would be in the 2003-04 season, when the West Coast Hockey League disbanded and joined up with the ECHL, creating a 31-team league for that season, spread out across the US-- including Alaska. There have been trying times for the ECHL, but for the 2012-13 season-- the league will have 23 teams, two new expansion teams in Orlando and San Francisco, and picked up Fort Wayne and Evansville from the Central Hockey League.

One of the biggest thing you'll see about the ECHL is how much they love when the alumni makes it to the NHL. Calling themselves the "Premier 'AA' Hockey League," the ECHL keeps a running total on the amount of alumni who have made it to at least one game in the NHL, which is at 490 after the 2011-12 season and 234 in the last seven years.

An interesting sidebar to the AA moniker is that not many teams use their ECHL affiliate. I pointed something out in April of this year how very few teams actually put their ECHL teams to good use. However, some teams like the Columbus Blue Jackets did just that with Allen York coming onto their roster and making a splash by coming directly from the ECHL to the NHL, bypassing the AHL entirely. Even though the honing of the player's skill happens in the AHL, the ECHL takes plenty of claim for their development-- rightfully or not is another story all together.

The ECHL is also the league that the Johnstown Chiefs used to play in before the team folded and moved to Greenville and became the Road Warriors. The Chiefs played in the same arena that the infamous movie "Slap Shot" was filmed in and the team was named after the fictional one. The Chiefs were one of the founding members of the ECHL, but the longest tenured team now is the Wheeling Nailers, who started in the 1991-92 season and moved from Winston-Salem, North Carolina where they were called the Thunderbirds.

With five divisions, two sides of the country, and untapped resources in Alaska; the ECHL is a very fun, spread out, and pretty talented league-- even if it does have some lifers in it. With a less corporate atmosphere, the ECHL is allow to have a lot of gimmick games and be able to show personality where other leagues may not want to. In a time were it'd be nice to have personality, the ECHL definitely helps fill some of that void.

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