All-Star notebook: AHL ‘all about the people’

Photo: Vitor Munhoz / Arena du Rocket Inc.

📝 by Patrick Williams

LAVAL, Que. … Families, friends and AHL staff milled about on the stage at Théâtre Marcellin-Champagnat in Laval on Monday.

A jazz band played off to the side, one of many new touches the Rocket organization brought to All-Star this year.

The 2023 AHL Hall of Fame Induction and Awards Ceremony had just concluded in a tidy 93 minutes. Short and sweet, just how long-time AHL president and CEO Dave Andrews had always liked them to run, going back to that first 2006 enshrinement in Winnipeg.

But this time Andrews had a much different role. Scott Howson, who assumed the league presidency in 2020 after Andrews’ 26-year run ended, led the show. Charles Auger served as master of ceremonies, bringing a voice to the event in both French and English. And Andrews was one of the celebrated, officially earning his own place in the Hall.

“The most special thing was having my family here, friends from all the way back when I first started in 1987 (with the Nova Scotia Oilers),” Andrews said.

Through these past 35 years both in team and league capacity, Andrews wanted more — and expected more — for the AHL. As an executive leading AHL operations for the Edmonton Oilers from 1987 to 1994, including a Calder Cup championship in Cape Breton in 1993. Taking charge of the league in 1994 and revolutionizing hockey’s player development model, eventually building a 32-team operation that sprawls from Laval to San Diego, from Charlotte to Abbotsford. Growing corporate and broadcast initiatives. Reviving the AHL All-Star Classic in 1995 and creating the AHL Hall of Fame in 2006.

But perhaps it all could be boiled down to one line.

“I have always found that everybody in the league has a certain energy and certain pride in making sure that the American Hockey League is the ‘American Hockey League,’ and it’s not just the ‘minors’ or the ‘bus leagues’ — that it’s something special,” Andrews explained.

“There’s a sense of family here.”

A mission statement, really.

But Andrews also knew how to dig in and fight when needed. The hard-charging, big-market International Hockey League had gained momentum in the mid-1990’s, just as Andrews had started to settle in at the AHL office. National Hockey League affiliations came into play. So did markets and geography; the AHL had always been an East Coast circuit.

The NHL salary cap, another factor that took successful player development from a nice-to-have to a must-have, still was years away.

Where was this entire industry going?

The AHL had a fight on its hands. A serious one, too.

Andrews put it bluntly.

“Only one of those leagues was going to survive. Both leagues were in trouble.

“Most people thought it was going to be the other one that survived.”

Led by Andrews, the AHL ultimately won the long battle in 2001 when the IHL folded. Six stranded clubs entered the AHL, adding franchises in Chicago, Grand Rapids, Houston, Milwaukee, Salt Lake City and Winnipeg — launching a surge into North America’s interior and opening up vast areas for future growth.

With the NHL then at 30 teams, the AHL could begin to deliver a one-to-one affiliate model that would prioritize player development and enable NHL clubs to construct their AHL operations as they saw fit.

Then, in 2015, the AHL reached California, completing another years-long desire from West Coast NHL clubs to bring their top affiliates closer to home. And that opened the door to Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, British Columbia and Alberta.

When Andrews and the AHL needed to fight, they did. And he could count on backing from league owners, executives and other stakeholders for those battles, no matter how uncomfortable or unpleasant they might have looked at the beginning.

“In order to make change,” Andrews said, “there had to be a trust level that there was a likelihood that it was going to work, and you were going to see it through, and a trust level that your motives were the right kind of motives. I think we were able to do that.”

As always, Monday morning’s ceremony was attended by this year’s crop of AHL All-Stars. It came on the heels of a hectic Sunday filled with travel and that evening’s Skills Competition. Current AHL players, rookies and veterans alike, had the opportunity to hear from the figures who have built the foundation of the AHL over the last 87 years.

Photo: Vitor Munhoz / Arena du Rocket Inc.

Inductees Keith Aucoin and Nolan Baumgartner stressed the memories and relationships that they acquired during their lengthy and storied AHL careers. Dave Creighton’s grandson Adam talked about how much playing in the AHL meant to his grandfather. Rich, Will, Pete and Artie Torrey spoke about how important being involved with the AHL was for their Hockey Hall of Fame father, Bill Torrey.

But while a career in hockey in any capacity is a blessing, it does move quickly.

“Even as old as I am,” the 74-year-old Andrews quipped, “it doesn’t seem like it lasted very long. Like, now I’m finished, and it’s kind of… it’s over.

“And you think, ‘Gosh, I hope I made the best of it along the way.’ It was a great ride.”

Now what?

First things first, Andrews had a pickleball date set back home in Tucson after the long trip back from Laval.

But after that?

When he left his role as President and CEO in 2020, Andrews agreed to remain with the AHL chairing the Board of Governors. And as Howson’s own vision for the league continues to take shape, Andrews will continue to be a trusted ear.

“I hope to stay involved in the periphery of the league and help Scott wherever needed,” Andrews said of his future.

He also spoke of his work with the Hockey Canada Foundation as well as consulting with leaders of other leagues, USA Hockey, and elsewhere in the game.

“It’s pretty fun,” Andrews said, “because I’m not completely out of it. I think it would be hard to be trying to [quit] cold turkey. Nobody calls you anymore, nobody to talk to, and that happens to people in retirement.

“I’m hoping to just kind of keep some connection going.”

Be it on or off the ice, Andrews and his fellow inductees on Monday worked for years to build what the AHL is today — the National Hockey League’s premier development circuit and a means of bringing high-level hockey to communities across Canada and the United States.

Said Andrews standing on that stage, “It’s all about the people.”