AHL’s 83rd season underway

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … Less than four months after the Calder Cup was handed out, the American Hockey League is ready to drop the puck on its 83rd season with nine games on the Friday night schedule.

The AHL hits the ice with an all-time high of 31 active franchises in 2018-19, serving as the top development league for all 31 National Hockey League clubs.

The Colorado Eagles join the AHL this fall as the top affiliate of the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche, playing in the Pacific Division. Alignment changes for 2018-19 see the Texas Stars and San Antonio Rampage moving to the Central Division, and the Cleveland Monsters shifting to the Eastern Conference and the North Division.

The top four teams in each division will qualify for the 2019 Calder Cup Playoffs when the 1,150-game regular season ends on Sunday, Apr. 14.

Dylan Strome (Photo: Kate Dibildox)

During the 2017-18 season, 87 percent of all NHL players were graduates of the American Hockey League. Twenty-two AHL alumni led their NHL teams in rookie scoring last year, and 29 former AHL goaltenders paced their NHL team in victories.

There were 229 former first- and second-round NHL draft picks who skated in the AHL last season, including standouts like Dylan Strome, Filip Chytil, Colin White, Luke Kunin, Jack Roslovic and Daniel Sprong. There were also 328 players who saw action in both the AHL and the NHL last season alone, a list that includes Vegas’s Shea Theodore, Calgary’s Mark Jankowski and Nashville’s Juuse Saros.

As the 2018-19 National Hockey League season began on Wednesday, there were 660 AHL graduates on the opening-night rosters of the NHL’s 31 clubs, and 23 NHL teams are being led by former AHL head coaches, including first-year bench bosses Todd Reirden of the Washington Capitals and David Quinn of the New York Rangers.

The AHL also serves as the top development league for the National Hockey League’s on-ice officials. For the first time in 2018-19, every regular-season and postseason game in the AHL will utilize the two-referee system.

The only change to the AHL’s on-ice playing rules for 2018-19 was adopted by the Board of Governors in September. Per Rule 76.2, a team being awarded a power play will now have the choice of which offensive-zone location the ensuing faceoff will take place at, and will also have the privilege of placing its lineup on the ice last.

The 2017-18 season drew the third-highest attendance in the AHL’s 82-year history, with more than 6.9 million fans total and over 5,900 per game between the regular season and the Calder Cup Playoffs combined. Eight teams saw average attendances of more than 7,600 fans per game in the regular season, led by the San Diego Gulls (9,305).

A year after setting a franchise record for attendance, the Cleveland Monsters bettered that mark in 2017-18 by drawing 9,197 fans per game to Quicken Loans Arena. The Hershey Bears saw an end to their streak of 11 consecutive seasons leading the AHL, but still welcomed 9,099 fans per game last year. And the Utica Comets extended their sellout streak at the historic Adirondack Bank Center to 116 consecutive regular-season games – four shy of the all-time AHL record.

The 2017-18 season was capped by a memorable Calder Cup Finals between the Toronto Marlies and the Texas Stars that featured capacity crowds for all seven games; the crowd of 8,818 fans for Game 7 was the largest ever for a Marlies game at Coca-Cola Coliseum.

Joel Bouchard (Photo: Sébastien St-Jean / Agence QMI)

Twelve AHL head coaching vacancies were filled during the summer of 2018, with Bakersfield’s Jay Woodcroft, Binghamton’s Mark Dennehy, Grand Rapids’ Ben Simon, Hershey’s Spencer Carbery, Laval’s Joel Bouchard, Milwaukee’s Karl Taylor, San Antonio’s Drew Bannister, Stockton’s Cail MacLean and Tucson’s Jay Varady all set to run an AHL bench for the first time.

Troy Mann takes over the Belleville Senators following a four-year stint in Hershey that featured two division titles and a trip to the 2016 Calder Cup Finals. Tim Army brings more than 30 years of coaching experience to the Iowa Wild, including time as an assistant in the NHL with Anaheim, Washington and Colorado. And Greg Cronin is the Colorado Eagles’ first AHL head coach after spending the last seven years on the coaching staffs of the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Islanders.

For the first time in 60 years, the AHL’s All-Stars will shine in Springfield when the Thunderbirds host the 2019 Lexus AHL All-Star Classic presented by MGM Springfield.

The AHL All-Star Skills Competition will take place on Sunday, January 27, followed by the AHL Hall of Fame Induction and Awards Ceremony on Monday, January 28 and the three-on-three, round-robin 2019 AHL All-Star Challenge that evening.

The AHL’s All-Star Game was last held in western Massachusetts on Dec. 10, 1959, when the Springfield Indians defeated a team of league All-Stars, 8-3, at the Eastern States Coliseum in West Springfield.

The AHL’s digital media presence is being bolstered this season with the introduction of AHLTV, the league’s new streaming platform launched in conjunction with HockeyTech.

Available at theahl.com/AHLTV, AHLTV will feature live streaming of every AHL game in high definition on desktop, laptop, tablet and mobile devices as well as over-the-top (OTT) platforms such as Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Android TV, Chromecast and (coming soon) Roku. AHLTV will also integrate game data with video to provide live scoring updates for fans as they watch, and viewers will be able to capture and save their own highlight clips to share with other users within the platform. Subscription packages range from $6.99 for a single day’s worth of games to just $79.99 for the entire 2018-19 regular season.

AHLTV officially kicks off with an Opening Weekend Freeview; all games from Oct. 5-8 are free to anyone with an AHLTV account (no purchase or subscription necessary).

The AHL’s positioning in social media also continues to grow, and the league’s feeds remain great sources for breaking AHL news, special offers, behind-the-scenes insights and fan interaction. Heading into opening weekend, the AHL has more than 132,000 “likes” on its Facebook page (fb.com/theahl), over 106,000 followers of its official Twitter account (@TheAHL), and more than 110,000 Instagram followers (theahl). The AHL communications department also maintains a news feed on Twitter (@AHLPR).

The AHL’s digital properties are anchored by the league’s official website, theahl.com, which is fully compatible with desktop, mobile and tablet devices alike. In addition, the official AHL mobile app is available for free for iPhone and Android devices.

The 2018-19 AHL Guide & Record Book is available for viewing and download at theahl.com/publications.

In operation since 1936, the American Hockey League serves as the top development league for the players, coaches, managers, executives, broadcasters and staff of all 31 National Hockey League teams. More than 87 percent of today’s NHL players are American Hockey League graduates, and more than 100 honored members of the Hockey Hall of Fame spent time in the AHL in their careers. In 2017-18, over 6 million fans attended AHL regular-season and playoff games across North America for the 17th year in a row.