With less than a month remaining in the 2004-2005 AHL regular season, itís time for the folks in the league offices to start thinking about next season.So, without further adieu, here is an open letter to AHL President Dave Andrews with a few suggestions for how to keep the AHL thriving as it enters its 70th season.
With the league expanding, affiliations changing and many of the leagueís top players from this season playing in the NHL - assuming there is an NHL - now, not the summer, is the time for the AHL to plan for next season and figure out how its going to maintain the momentum that it picked up without sitting in the shadow of the NHL.
It was good to see you at the annual All-Star spectacular that you threw in Manchester, N.H. last month. It was a first-class operation by a first-class organization in a first-class league. I can only hope the weather holds up well for you next season in Winnipeg.
(Have you ever considered expanding to say, San Diego and turning the All-Star weekend into an All-Star fortnight? Iím in favor! But I digress.)
I must tell you that the quality of play in the AHL this season has been unparalleled in the history of your league.
You have some of the best young talent you have seen in years. Names like Jason Spezza, Zach Parise, Mike Cammalleri, Eric Staal, Chuck Kobasew, Kari Lehtonen and Thomas Vanek have glittered on the ice and turned the product in your league into the best hockey league in North America for the 2004-05 season.
Yet, all good things must come to an end, and if the owners and players in the NHL come to an agreement before next season, a wealth of your leagueís talent will make the move to their big clubs.
So, where does that leave you? In a quandary of sorts. How do you keep the excitement about the AHL going when many of the marquee players are gone?
Donít fret Dave, youíve got a friend in Southeastern Pennsylvania here who is going to offer you some free advice.
First of all, keep all of the rule changes you put in place this year except one - the no-touch icing.
I was under the impression that the new rules were meant to add excitement to the game and speed it up as well.
Frankly, the automatic icing does just the opposite.
There are so many offensive hustle plays that have been eliminated by this rule. Not to mention all of the stoppages it has created, slowing the game to a snailís pace at times.
The rest of the rule changes have been improvements. The big winners have been the touch-up offsides, the limited goalie puck playing area and moving the nets back a couple feet.
They have allowed for more offensive chances, more excitement and allowed the goalies to make more stellar saves.
Even though I donít like it Dave, and as a hockey purist you probably donít either, I must admit the shootout seems to have been a success.
The fans are sticking around until the end, and it does add a little bit of drama to the end of games. Yet, I think it needs to be tweaked.
Not the shootout itself, per se, although preventing teams from having the same player shoot a second time if thereís still a tie after five rounds could be an interesting dynamic and allow for an unexpected player to provide the heroics, but getting to the shootout.
Too many times this season, teams seem to be playing for the shootout, knowing theyíre getting a point no matter what happens once regulation ends.
So add some incentive for a teams. How about an extra point for a win in regulation or overtime? Therefore it would work like this: game ends in regulation the winner gets three points the loser zero. An overtime win gets the winning team three points and the losing team one. The shootout reduces the winning team to two points while the losing team still gets one point.
This way, the onus isnít on getting to the shootout and adds an extra sense of urgency to win before it gets to that point. As it stands now, the end result of a game that ends in overtime or a shootout is exactly the same.
One thing you shouldnít do Dave is take away the red line at center ice. I know there are a lot of proponents out there who think itís a good idea and will make the game better, but instead itís the equivalent of the And One Mixed Tape Tour in basketball which brings a streetball mentality to the game of basketball.
What youíll have is a bunch of cherry-picking forwards sitting in the neutral zone waiting for long outlet passes and generating an inordinate number of breakaways.
What makes breakaways so exciting now is their infrequency. Imagine how silly it would be if there were 15 per game.
Another thing you need to do is realign and fix the scheduling system, because right now itís nonsensical and unfair.
First of all, let the Avalanche purchase the Utah Grizzlies and move them to Denver where theyíll get more support.
Secondly, let the Capitals change their affiliation from Portland to Hershey so more fans from Maryland can go see their favorite teamís top prospects since it will be closer to home.
Finally, get a team to Worcester and convince the Coyotes to move their affiliation to Portland for the time being.
Calgary needs a home for their affiliation and while the whole season speculation has centered around Omaha, Neb., it shouldnít be.
If thereís one thing you should learn from big brother NHL is that hockey doesnít thrive in non-traditional markets. So, why bother going to Nebraska?
Instead, get Calgary to go to Worcester, a 45-minute drive from Lowell where they have their players already. Plus, it would intensify the rivalry between those two teams in the short term.
As for the schedule, please get some structure. Iíll assume that with 30 teams youíll break it up into six divisions of five team each. Hereís the solution.
Each team will play 40 games in their division -- 10 against each rival. And then, based on the final standings from the previous season, play four games against each of five teams in the other divisions in their conference -- rotating the five teams from one year to the next. That totals 20 more games.
Finally, play 20 games against 10 teams from the opposing conference, rotating the teams from year to year, meaning fans will get to see those teams twice every three seasons.
This plan would also limit travel for most teams, but at the same time provide a bit of variety in the schedule, allowing the fans to go to games and not have to see the same teams over and over again. Trust me, thatís important to fans.
Finally, promote your league. Throw together a couple of fun commercials and buy time during local broadcasts of NHL games. Do something goofy and memorable. Hire the folks who do the "This is Sports Center" spots for ESPN. Show the fans that your league is fun and theyíll give you a shot.
Sounds simple Dave. Even an amateur like myself can figure that out.
Oh, and by the way, just between you and me, if you can figure out a way to close that loophole in the bylaws that allow players to be loaned from one team to another in exchange for nothing, that would be good.
Enjoy the rest of the season and your summer, and Iíll check back with you in the Fall.
To contact Anthony J. SanFilippo, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org