AHL’s 77th season begins Friday

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … Four months after the Norfolk Admirals were crowned champions of the American Hockey League, the puck is ready to drop again.

The league’s 77th season begins with seven games on Friday night, including Norfolk’s home opener against the Worcester Sharks, a 2012 playoff rematch between in-state rivals Connecticut and Bridgeport in Hartford, and the highly anticipated debut of the 2012-13 Oklahoma City Barons in the first of a two-game visit to Lake Erie.

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There are no changes to the AHL’s membership for 2012-13; all 30 teams that competed last season are back on board to vie for the Calder Cup again. There were two affiliation moves during the offseason, with Norfolk hooking up with the Anaheim Ducks and the Syracuse Crunch becoming the top affiliate of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The AHL’s alignment underwent a small change also, with Grand Rapids moving to the Midwest Division, Abbotsford sliding to the North Division and Charlotte joining the renamed South Division.

AHL teams play a 76-game schedule, 38 home and 38 away. The regular season is scheduled to end on Sunday, Apr. 21.

The American Hockey League continues to be the top development league for all 30 National Hockey League clubs, bolstered this fall by several players who spent most or all of last season in the NHL and who will be continuing their professional development in the AHL in 2012-13.

Nearly 250 players on this year’s AHL training camp rosters spent some time in the NHL in 2011-12, but among those there are only seven non-rookies (Oklahoma City’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Adirondack’s Sean Couturier, Albany’s Adam Larsson, Springfield’s Ryan Johansen, St. John’s forward Alex Burmistrov, Syracuse’s Brett Connolly and Rockford’s Marcus Kruger) who have never played in the AHL prior to this season.

In 2011-12, a total of 212 former first- and second-round draft picks developed their skills in the American Hockey League and 329 players skated in both the AHL and NHL during last season, including Brayden Schenn, Zack Kassian, Braden Holtby, Nazem Kadri and 2012 NHL All-Rookie Team members Justin Faulk, Jake Gardiner and Adam Henrique, who began the year in Albany before going on to lead all NHL rookies in assists for New Jersey.

The AHL will shine in the national broadcast spotlight beginning this weekend, thanks to TV deals with Sportsnet and TVA Sports in Canada and a satellite radio partnership with SiriusXM NHL Network Radio. Saturday’s game between Rochester and Toronto will be televised live across Canada on Sportsnet ONE (5 ET/2 PT), and eight games over opening weekend will air on Sirius 207 and XM 92 beginning with a doubleheader on Friday. Visit theahl.com for full broadcast schedules.

In addition, video streaming of all AHL games will once again be available from AHL Live. Visit ahllive.com for single-game and package information.

The AHL’s 30 teams will be looking to build on what was an impressive 2011-12 season at the gate. Average attendance league-wide was 5,637 fans per game last season, up 4.8 percent from the previous year and the highest mark since the 2004-05 campaign.

The Hershey Bears were the AHL’s attendance leaders for the sixth year in a row, averaging 9,872 fans per game at Giant Center, and the St. John’s IceCaps, in their inaugural season, sold out every one of their 46 regular-season and playoff games at Mile One Centre.

Two outdoor games set all-time attendance records last season, as the largest crowd in AHL history (45,653) watched Adirondack take on Hershey at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, and the largest crowd ever for an AHL game in Canada (20,565) saw Hamilton host Toronto at Ivor Wynne Stadium. There are two more outdoor games on the schedule for 2012-13: Grand Rapids and Toronto will face off at Comerica Park in Detroit on Dec. 30, and Hershey will battle Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at Hersheypark Stadium on Jan. 20.

There are 11 new bosses behind AHL benches as the 2012-13 season gets under way, including eight who are making their AHL head coaching debuts: Binghamton’s Luke Richardson, Bridgeport’s Scott Pellerin, Grand Rapids’ Jeff Blashill, Hamilton’s Sylvain Lefebvre, Lake Erie’s Dean Chynoweth, Milwaukee’s Dean Evason, Springfield’s Brad Larsen and Texas’s Willie Desjardins.

Terry Murray is back in the AHL for the first time since 1990, taking over as head coach of the Adirondack Phantoms. Murray’s 1,012 games as head coach for Washington, Philadelphia, Florida and Los Angeles in the NHL are the most on the resume of any coach in AHL history. Scott Arniel, winner of the Louis A.R. Pieri Award as the AHL’s outstanding coach in 2008-09, has been tapped to lead the Chicago Wolves. And Dave Allison, who has previous AHL head coaching stints with Prince Edward Island (1994-96), Milwaukee (2001-02) and Iowa (2005-08), is the new coach of the Peoria Rivermen.

The AHL has implemented a video review system, to be used beginning with the 2012-13 regular season. The league will also be testing a “hybrid icing” rule at the request of the National Hockey League; the rule (Rule 82.1) will be effect until Nov. 19, at which time its continued use will be determined by the AHL’s Board of Governors. The rule states that on a potential icing play, at the instant the first player in pursuit of the puck reaches the end-zone faceoff dots, the linesman will determine which player would be the first to reach the puck and either whistle or wave off the icing infraction at that point.

In order to bring the AHL Rule Book closer in line to the NHL’s, the Board also approved the following changes in June:

• Rule 67.2 (“Handling the Puck”) now calls for a minor penalty “any time a player places his hand over the puck while it is on the ice in order to conceal it from or prevent an opponent from playing the puck.”

• Rule 76.4 (“Face-offs”) states that “both players facing off are prohibited from batting the puck with their hand in an attempt to win the face-off.” Violation of this rule will result in a minor penalty for delay of game.

The AHL’s presence in social media has grown impressively in the past year, and the league’s official Facebook page and Twitter feed continue to be great sources for breaking AHL news, offers and behind-the-scenes insights.

Heading into opening weekend, the AHL has more than 46,000 “likes” on its Facebook page (fb.com/theahl) and nearly 25,000 followers to its official Twitter account, @TheAHL.

The AHL also launched a redesigned website at theahl.com this week, featuring a sharp, clean and user-friendly look that highlights the league’s digital branding efforts in the form of a video player and social media center that are accessible directly on the home page.

The AHL Internet Network, which also includes all 30 team sites, receives more than 250 million page views annually.

In operation since 1936, the American Hockey League continues to serve as the top development league for the players, coaches, managers, trainers, executives and broadcasters of all 30 National Hockey League teams. More than 88 percent of NHL players last season were AHL graduates, and for the 11th year in a row, more than 6 million fans attended AHL games across North America in 2011-12. Through the years, the AHL has been home to more than 100 future members of the Hockey Hall of Fame.