Making the AHL schedule a critical task
The dog days of summer are usually about rest and relaxation. Rinks are dark, ice is melted. But for the AHL's hockey operations department, the summer months are when some of the most important work of the entire year is done -- specifically the creation of the American Hockey League playing schedule.
The league schedule -- developed carefully, thoughtfully and prudently in order to consider both hockey and business needs of all of the league's member clubs -- is the backbone of the AHL. Without a strong one, there would be no structure or support to the season and the league's health would suffer.
The schedule starts as a blank canvas, a giant magnetic board hanging on a wall in downtown Springfield, Mass. It's multi-dimensional, nearly six feet long and four feet high while also accounting for time (192 days) and space (hundreds of thousands of highway and air miles). And when it's complete, it will become the road map for 30 teams' journeys to the Calder Cup.
The making of the 2014-15 AHL schedule is a process that actually began about six months ago, and will culminate when the final product is released to the public in the coming weeks. (Be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter for the latest updates regarding the release of the schedule.)
The AHL’s constitution calls for each member club to submit to the league, in February of the previous season, a list of "primary" and "secondary" dates on which they would be available to play at home, along with "blackout" dates when they cannot play at home because of other events in their arena.
In the spring, the AHL confirms for each team a list of guaranteed dates for the upcoming season -- dates on which the team is assured of playing a home game, albeit without a specific opponent just yet. This allows clubs to begin making preparations and drumming up interest in the coming year. Many teams have already announced their guaranteed dates, some including their home openers, for 2014-15.
Once a schedule format (who plays whom, and how often) is designed by and approved by the Board of Governors, the schedule can truly begin to take shape.
The schedule board hangs on one full wall in the office of Michael Murray, the AHL's vice president of hockey operations. He and Melissa Caruso, the league's director of hockey administration, are charged with transforming the board from its blank starting point to a collage of markers representing the 2014-15 slate.
Creating the schedule is a tedious process, not unlike putting together a 5,760-piece jigsaw puzzle without a picture on the box to work from. Computerized scheduling programs have been considered, but the manual process continues to produce the best results.
The league’s teams are identified on the big board by magnets of different shapes and colors: green triangle, yellow square, black star, red circle. Each team also gets a cup filled with 38 magnets, one representing each of its home opponents as prescribed by the schedule format.
The teams are lined up on the board from top to bottom by division, with dates stretching from left to right. What results is essentially a 192-by-30 framework, creating those 5,760 blank spaces in which to fill a total of 1,140 games.
From there, the hockey operations department works essentially non-stop to fill in the holes on the board.
Care must always be given to logistics and travel considerations. Obviously, a team can't be scheduled at home and on the road on the same night. The schedule modification plan introduced in 2011, in the interest of player safety and the quality of competition, means teams are not permitted to be scheduled for four games in a five-night span. Trips to St. John's, Texas/San Antonio/Oklahoma City, the Midwest or New England call for multiple games in one stretch for visiting teams coming from outside the region. The annual Christmas and All-Star breaks must be kept clear of games. And all the while, the schedule makers have to factor in travel considerations (long overnight bus trips, day-of-game flights, border crossings, etc.) and other special circumstances, like "school-day" matinees or off-site games like outdoor contests or games played in NHL arenas.
The last pieces of the puzzle cannot be put in place until the National Basketball Association finalizes its own schedule. That’s because four AHL teams -- the Charlotte Checkers, the Milwaukee Admirals, the San Antonio Rampage and the Lake Erie Monsters -- share arenas with NBA teams that generally receive priority on dates in their buildings. Because those four teams are all in the AHL's Western Conference, most of the Eastern schedule can be penciled in earlier, but the NBA's schedule release signals the beginning of the end of the process.
All AHL teams are part of the scheduling process throughout, receiving drafts and providing guidance and feedback to help ensure everyone's schedule is as ideal as possible. But while there’s no pleasing everybody, procedures are in place to resolve potential issues. Once all the magnets are in position, the board is transcribed into an electronic spreadsheet -- creating one master schedule and 30 individual team schedules -- and the proofreading begins.
Each club receives a copy of their draft and may request changes with the mutual consent of all other teams involved, either swapping opponents on two or more dates or moving dates altogether. Teams also determine the start times for all of their home games, although early starts against a visiting opponent that played the previous night must get approval.
After requested changes are approved by the AHL and incorporated into the schedule, the master schedule is ready for approval by the Board of Governors. And once it's been officially OK'd, teams are notified, public relations departments coordinate their announcements, and with the click of a mouse web sites are updated, e-mails are fired off, social media posts are published and the schedule is available to the public.
Before long, training camps open, the puck drops, and the whole process starts all over again. The making of the AHL schedule is a grueling and thankless job, but it's safe to say the American Hockey League and its teams wouldn't function as well as they do without it.
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