AHL’s 81st season is underway

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … Just over four months after the Calder Cup was handed out, the American Hockey League is ready to drop the puck on its 81st season with eight games on the Friday night schedule.

With 30 active franchises again in 2016-17 – the seventh consecutive season with 30 active member clubs – the American Hockey League remains the top development league for all 30 National Hockey League clubs.

Two new teams will hit the ice this fall: the Tucson Roadrunners are the AHL’s first-ever Arizona franchise, playing as the top affiliate of the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes; and the Springfield Thunderbirds continue the league’s rich tradition in western Massachusetts as the top affiliate of the Florida Panthers.

With Tucson sliding into the Pacific Division and Springfield skating in the Atlantic Division, the league shows a balanced division set-up within each conference: both Eastern Conference divisions (Atlantic, North) have seven teams, and both Western Conference divisions (Central, Pacific) have eight.

Teams will play a 76-game schedule with the exception of Bakersfield, Ontario, San Diego, San Jose, Stockton and Tucson, who will play 68 games apiece. Standings order will be determined by points percentage, and the top four teams in each division will qualify for the 2017 Calder Cup Playoffs when the regular season ends on Saturday, Apr. 15.

During the 2015-16 season, more than 88 percent of all NHL players were graduates of the American Hockey League. Fifteen NHL teams were led in scoring by an AHL alumnus last year, and 29 former AHL goaltenders led their NHL team in victories.

There were 256 former first- and second-round NHL draft picks who skated in the AHL last season, including standouts like William Nylander, Mikko Rantanen, Anthony Mantha, Sonny Milano and Shea Theodore. There were also 377 players who saw action in both the AHL and the NHL last season alone, a list headlined by 2016 Second Team AHL All-Star and Stanley Cup champion Matt Murray and 2016 NHL All-Rookie Team selections Shayne Gostisbehere and John Gibson.

As the 2016-17 National Hockey League season began earlier this week, there were 627 AHL graduates on the opening-night rosters of the NHL’s 30 clubs, including four members of last year’s champion Lake Erie Monsters: Zach Werenski, Lukas Sedlak, Josh Anderson and 2016 Calder Cup Playoffs MVP Oliver Bjorkstrand. And 23 NHL teams are being led by former AHL head coaches, with Jared Bednar taking the helm of the Colorado Avalanche after winning last year’s AHL title in Cleveland.

More fans attended AHL games in 2015-16 than in any other season in the league’s 80-year history, topping 7.1 million total and over 6,000 average between the regular season and the playoffs combined. Nine teams saw average attendances of more than 7,200 fans per game in the regular season, with the Hershey Bears (9,790) leading the league for the 10th year in a row.

The San Diego Gulls (second: 8,675) and Ontario Reign (fourth: 8,570) both cracked the top five in their first season as members of the AHL, and the Utica Comets sold out every one of their home games at the Utica Memorial Auditorium.

The season ended with 19,665 fans packing Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland for the Monsters’ Calder Cup clinching win – the largest crowd ever for a pro hockey game in Ohio and the second-largest in AHL postseason history.

With 12 total vacancies filled during the summer of 2016, nine head coaches are making their AHL debuts this fall.

Rookie head coaches in 2016-17 include Charlotte’s Ulf Samuelsson, Cleveland’s John Madden, Iowa’s Derek Lalonde, Manitoba’s Pascal Vincent, Providence’s Kevin Dean, Rochester’s Dan Lambert, San Antonio’s Eric Veilleux, Springfield’s Geordie Kinnear and Tucson’s Mark Lamb.

Kurt Kleinendorst returns for his second stint as head coach of the Binghamton Senators; his first time around began with a Calder Cup championship in 2010-11. Craig Berube, a Calder Cup winner as an assistant with the Philadelphia Phantoms in 2005 and later head coach of the Phantoms and Philadelphia Flyers, is the new head coach of the Chicago Wolves. And Benoit Groulx takes over the Syracuse Crunch, six years after his tenure as head coach in Rochester.

Roy Sommer of the San Jose Barracuda finished last season with 648 wins and 1,412 games as an AHL head coach, both career records; he will match one more mark on opening night when he joins Fred “Bun” Cook as the only men ever to serve as a head coach in 19 AHL seasons. And Ken Gernander, entering his 10th season as coach of the Hartford Wolf Pack, is 36 wins shy of becoming just the sixth 400-game winner in league history.

The AHL’s Board of Governors approved some new rules that will take effect with the 2016-17 season:

•   Rule 46 (“Fighting”) now calls for a game misconduct to any player who enters into a fight prior to, at, or immediately following the drop of the puck. In addition, any player who incurs 10 fighting majors during the regular season will automatically be suspended for one game. A player’s 11th, 12th and 13th fighting majors will also result in a one-game suspension, and each fighting major subsequent to that will result in a two-game suspension.

•   Rule 82 (“Icing”) now prohibits the offending team on an icing violation from using its team time-out.

•   Rule 1.10 (“Ice Cleaning”) says that during the regular season, the ice-cleaning crew will shovel snow prior to the start of overtime, replacing the “dry scrape.”

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

The league’s best and brightest will shine on the Lehigh Valley in January when the 2017 Capital BlueCross AHL All-Star Classic comes to the beautiful PPL Center in downtown Allentown, Pa.

The Skills Competition is set for Sunday, Jan. 29, with the AHL All-Star Challenge to follow on Monday, Jan. 30. The weekend will also include a Phan Fest and Tailgate Party on Saturday, Jan. 28, and the AHL Hall of Fame Induction and Awards Ceremony on Jan. 30 will welcome Billy Dea, Bryan Helmer, Rob Murray and Doug Yingst into the AHL Hall of Fame as the Class of 2017.

The ninth outdoor game in AHL history will take place on Saturday, Jan. 7, when the Bakersfield Condors host the Three-Way Chevrolet Condorstown Outdoor Classic at Bakersfield College’s Memorial Stadium.

The game between the Condors and the Ontario Reign will be the marquee event of an 18-day Winterfest that will include public skating, youth and adult hockey tournaments, winter activities, live music, food and beverage vendors and more.

The AHL’s presence in social media 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 122,000 “likes” on its Facebook page (fb.com/theahl), over 82,000 followers of its official Twitter account (@TheAHL), and nearly 70,000 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 relaunched earlier this week with an all-new, easier-to-use design that 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.

Once again in 2016-17, 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 more than 100 honored members of the Hockey Hall of Fame spent time in the AHL in their careers. In 2015-16, over 7.1 million fans attended AHL regular-season and playoff games across North America, the highest total attendance in league history.