AHL’s 82nd season begins

Photo: Vince Rappleyea

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 82nd season with six games on the Friday night schedule.

The AHL hits the ice with 30 active franchises again in 2017-18, while serving as the top development league for all 31 National Hockey League clubs.

Two new markets join the AHL this fall, as the Laval Rocket launch as the top affiliate of the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens and the Belleville Senators begin as the new affiliate of the Ottawa Senators. In addition, the New Jersey Devils have moved their AHL affiliate to Binghamton, where the Binghamton Devils will continue a tradition of AHL hockey in Broome County that dates back to 1977.

With Belleville, Binghamton and Laval all slotted into the seven-team North Division, the only major alignment change sees the Charlotte Checkers move from the Central Division to the Atlantic, creating two 15-team conferences. Standings order will be determined by points percentage, and the top four teams in each division will qualify for the 2018 Calder Cup Playoffs when the regular season ends on Sunday, Apr. 15.

Jake Guentzel (Photo: KDP Studio)

During the 2016-17 season, more than 88 percent of all NHL players were graduates of the American Hockey League. Sixteen NHL teams were led in scoring by an AHL alumnus last year, and 28 former AHL goaltenders led their NHL team in victories.

There were 237 former first- and second-round NHL draft picks who skated in the AHL last season, including standouts like Jesse Puljujarvi, Kyle Connor, Jake DeBrusk, Alex Tuch, Alexander Nylander and Josh Ho-Sang. There were also 353 players who saw action in both the AHL and the NHL last season alone, a list headlined by 2017 AHL All-Rookie forward and Stanley Cup champion Jake Guentzel.

As the 2017-18 National Hockey League season began earlier this week, there were 640 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 Travis Green taking over the Vancouver Canucks after four seasons guiding their AHL affiliate in Utica.

The 2016-17 season drew the third-highest attendance in the AHL’s 81-year history, with more than 6.9 million fans total and over 5,800 per game between the regular season and the Calder Cup Playoffs combined. Eight teams saw average attendances of more than 7,900 fans per game in the regular season, with the Hershey Bears (9,309) leading the league for the 11th year in a row.

The Cleveland Monsters set a franchise record drawing 9,055 fans per game, the San Diego Gulls (8,876) cracked the top three for the second year in a row, and the Utica Comets extended their sellout streak at the historic Aud to 78 consecutive regular-season games dating back to 2015.

The 2016-17 season was capped by a memorable Calder Cup Finals that featured capacity crowds in both Grand Rapids and Syracuse, with 10,834 fans packing Van Andel Arena for the Griffins’ championship-clinching win.

Chris Taylor (Photo: Jamie Germano/Rochester D&C)

Eight AHL head coaching vacancies were filled during the summer of 2017, and three other bench bosses changed addresses as their affiliates have found new homes.

Rookie head coaches in 2017-18 include Charlotte’s Mike Vellucci, Rochester’s Chris Taylor, Rockford’s Jeremy Colliton, Tucson’s Mike Van Ryn, Utica’s Trent Cull and Chicago’s Rocky Thompson, who is coming off a Memorial Cup title coaching OHL Windsor last spring.

Jay Leach, who was an interim coach in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton briefly in 2015-16, begins his first full-time head coaching gig with Providence, and former St. John’s and Manitoba head coach Keith McCambridge takes over the reins in Hartford after one season as an assistant with the Wolf Pack.

Kurt Kleinendorst continues to lead the Ottawa Senators’ AHL club in Belleville; Sylvain Lefebvre begins his sixth season with the Montreal Canadiens’ affiliate as they hit the ice in Laval; and Rick Kowalsky starts his eighth year guiding the New Jersey Devils’ top farmhands as they move to Binghamton.

It will be another record-breaking season for San Jose’s Roy Sommer, who will become the first AHL head coach ever to work in 20 seasons when the Barracuda open their campaign on Saturday. Already the winningest coach in league history, Sommer is closing in on both 700 wins (691) and 1,500 games (1,480) for his career.

The league’s best and brightest will shine in January for the 2018 AHL All-Star Classic presented by Turning Stone Resort Casino, hosted by the Utica Comets.

The AHL All-Star Skills Competition will take place on Sunday, January 28, followed by the AHL Hall of Fame Induction and Awards Ceremony on Monday, January 29 and the 2018 AHL All-Star Challenge that evening. The Skills Competition and the All-Star Challenge will take place at the newly renovated Adirondack Bank Center at the Utica Memorial Auditorium in downtown Utica; all other events during the All-Star Classic will take place at Turning Stone Resort Casino in nearby Verona, N.Y.

The 10th outdoor game in AHL history will take place on Saturday, Jan. 20, when the Hershey Bears host the Lehigh Valley Phantoms in the 2018 Capital BlueCross Outdoor Classic.

The game, at Hersheypark Stadium, will be the highlight event of the Bears’ 80th-anniversary season.

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 128,000 “likes” on its Facebook page (fb.com/theahl), over 97,000 followers of its official Twitter account (@TheAHL), and more than 90,000 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 2017-18 AHL Guide & Record Book and the 2017-18 AHL Rule Book are both available for download from theahl.com.

Once again in 2017-18, 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 serves as the top development league for the players, coaches, managers, executives, broadcasters and staff of all 31 National Hockey League teams. More than 88 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 2016-17, over 6 million fans attended AHL regular-season and playoff games across North America for the 16th year in a row.