AHL’s 79th season opens

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … Just 115 days after the Texas Stars were crowned champions of the American Hockey League, the puck is ready to drop again as the league’s 79th season begins with five games on Friday night.

30 FOR 30
With 30 active franchises again in 2014-15, the American Hockey League remains the top development league for all 30 National Hockey League clubs.

The AHL has two new entries this season as the Adirondack Flames (top affiliate of the NHL’s Calgary Flames) and Lehigh Valley Phantoms (Philadelphia Flyers) begin play. Glens Falls, N.Y. (Adirondack) is entering its 26th season hosting AHL hockey after previously being home to the Red Wings (1979-99) and Phantoms (2009-14). Lehigh Valley hits the ice this fall at the brand new, state-of-the-art PPL Center in downtown Allentown, Pa.

The AHL’s alignment underwent a small change also, with Adirondack being placed in the North Division, Lehigh Valley being slotted into the East Division, Syracuse moving from the East to the Northeast Division, Lake Erie going from the North to the Midwest Division, and Iowa shifting from the Midwest to the West Division.

AHL teams play a 76-game schedule, 38 home and 38 away. The regular season is scheduled to end on Sunday, Apr. 19.

In 2013-14, more than 88 percent of all NHL players were graduates of the American Hockey League. Twenty NHL teams were led in scoring by an AHL alumnus, and 28 former AHL goaltenders led their NHL team in victories.

There were 242 former first- and second-round NHL draft picks who skated in the AHL last year, including standout rookies like Filip Forsberg, John Gibson, Alexander Khokhlachev and Ryan Strome. There were also 347 players who saw action in both the AHL and the NHL last season alone, a group that included Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson and Martin Jones of the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings.

As the 2014-15 National Hockey League season began earlier this week, there were 637 AHL graduates on the opening-night rosters of the NHL’s 30 clubs.

The AHL’s 30 teams drew nearly 6.5 million fans to games across North America in 2013-14, with the Hershey Bears leading the way for the eighth season in a row at an average of 9,664 fans per game. The St. John’s IceCaps once again played to full houses every night at Mile One Centre, and the team enters the 2014-15 season having sold out every one of its 133 regular-season and playoff games through its first three years of existence.

Contests in AHL rinks in Milwaukee, Chicago, Cleveland and San Antonio all drew single-game crowds of more than 15,000 last season, as did AHL games played in NHL arenas in Buffalo, Philadelphia, Washington and Toronto. The largest turnout of the year took place in Detroit, as more than 20,000 fans watched Grand Rapids take on Toronto in an outdoor game at Comerica Park.

The marquee event on this year’s regular-season schedule is set for Nov. 22, when the Syracuse Crunch host the Utica Comets at the Carrier Dome on the campus of Syracuse University. The Toyota Frozen Dome Classic will be looking to set a professional hockey indoor attendance record.

There are eight new bosses behind AHL benches as the 2014-15 season gets underway, with Adirondack’s Ryan Huska, Hershey’s Troy Mann, Norfolk’s Jarrod Skalde and Texas’s Derek Laxdal making their AHL head coaching debuts.

Brent Thompson returns to Bridgeport after serving as an assistant coach with the New York Islanders from 2012-14; Mike Stothers, a Calder Cup winner as an assistant coach in Philadelphia in 1998, is the new head coach in Manchester; Jared Bednar takes over in Springfield after two seasons as an assistant with the Falcons; and Gord Dineen will lead the Toronto Marlies following five seasons as an assistant there.

Former AHL head coaches who have moved up to the NHL since last season include Vancouver Canucks head coach Willie Desjardins, promoted after leading the Texas Stars to the 2014 Calder Cup championship; Florida Panthers assistant Mark Morris (Manchester); Anaheim Ducks assistant Trent Yawney (Norfolk); Columbus Blue Jackets assistant Brad Larsen (Springfield); and Toronto Maple Leafs assistant Steve Spott (Toronto).

Roy Sommer of the Worcester Sharks, who last season became the AHL’s all-time leader in games by a head coach (1,268), enters 2014-15 just 24 wins shy of 600. The Chicago Wolves’ John Anderson (351) is 11 wins away from fifth place on the all-time victories list, and Hartford’s Ken Gernander (280) is closing in on becoming the 18th member of the exclusive 300-win club.

The AHL Board of Governors has approved the following changes to the league’s Rule Book for 2014-15:

Rule 85.1 (“Overtime”) now says that during the regular season, the sudden-death overtime period will be 7 minutes long and will be preceded by a dry scrape of the entire ice surface. Teams will change ends at the start of the overtime period, and will skate 4-on-4 until the first whistle following three minutes of play (4:00 remaining) and then 3-on-3 for the duration of the period.

Rule 85.4 (“Shootout”) reduces the shootout from a best-of-five to a best-of-three.

Rule 1.8 (“Goalkeeper’s Restricted Area”) has enlarged the area behind the net where the goalkeeper is permitted to play the puck, with the area now laid out beginning eight feet from each goal post.

• Per Rule 1.9 (“Face-Off Spots and Circles”), the hash marks at the end zone face-off circles are now widened from three feet (3’) apart to five feet, seven inches (5’7”) apart.

• Per Rule 9.6 (“Helmets”), a player on the ice whose helmet comes off during play will be assessed a minor penalty unless he immediately (a) exits the playing surface or (b) puts the helmet back on with the chin strap properly fastened.

Rule 20.4 (“Major Penalties”) calls for an automatic game misconduct for any player who has been assessed two major penalties for fighting or three majors for any infraction in the same game.

Rule 24.2 (“Penalty Shot”) no longer permits the spin-o-rama type of move where the player completes a 360-degree turn as he approaches the goal.

Rule 49.2 (“Kicking – Goals”) now allows a goal when a puck enters the goal after deflecting off an attacking player’s skate while he is in the process of stopping.

Rule 57 (“Tripping”) has been revised to provide that a minor penalty will be assessed when a defending player dives and trips an attacking player regardless of whether the defender is able to make initial contact with the puck.

• Under Rule 76.4 (“Face-Offs”), following an icing infraction, a face-off violation will not result in the removal of the offending team’s center; rather, a subsequent face-off violation will result in a bench minor penalty for delay of game.

Rule 86 (“Puck Out of Bounds”) says that when the attacking team is responsible for the puck going out of play in the attacking zone, the ensuing face-off will take place in the attacking zone if the shot deflected off the post/crossbar, broke the glass, went off the side of the net and out of play, went off the dasher or glass and out of play, was tipped or deflected by a teammate out of play, or became wedged in or on the goal net.

In addition, the AHL has adjusted the way statistical records are kept for goaltenders. Individual goalie records will now be kept in a W-L-OT format, with all games lost beyond regulation being counted in the OT column. (Previously, games lost in the overtime period were counted in the L column.)

The entire AHL Rule Book is available for viewing on theahl.com, as is the AHL Guide & Record Book.

The AHL’s presence in social media continues to grow, and the league’s official Twitter feed and Facebook page 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 93,000 “likes” on its Facebook page (fb.com/theahl) and over 52,000 followers of its official Twitter account, @TheAHL. The AHL communications department also maintains a news feed on Twitter (@AHLPR), and the league’s championship trophy tweets at @CalderCup.

The AHL’s digital properties are anchored by the league’s official website, theahl.com. A mobile version of the site is also available for easy use on smartphones, and an official AHL app is available for free for iPhone, Android and BlackBerry devices.

The AHL Internet Network, which also includes all 30 team sites, received more than 138 million page views last season.

Once again in 2014-15, every AHL game will be delivered both live and on-demand through AHL Live. Subscribers can watch high-quality AHL action on their desktops, laptops, iPads, iPhones or Android devices; visit ahllive.com for more information.

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 13th year in a row, more than 6 million fans attended AHL games across North America in 2013-14. Through the years, the AHL has been home to more than 100 future members of the Hockey Hall of Fame.