Behind the making of the AHL schedule

Many hockey personnel and fans begin to shift into offseason mode during the dog days of summer, especially once the early buzz of free agency begins to fade. But for the AHL’s hockey operations staff, the summer is when some of the most important work of the year takes place – specifically the making of next season’s schedule.

It starts as a blank canvas, nearly six feet long and four feet high. It spans time and space, accounting for 192 days and hundreds of thousands of miles. And it will soon become the road map for 30 teams’ journeys to the Calder Cup.

Goals are scored and games are won on sheets of ice across North America, but the centerpiece of the AHL’s hockey operations department is actually a giant magnetic schedule board hanging on a wall in downtown Springfield, Mass.

The making of the 2011-12 AHL schedule is a process that actually began about six months ago, and will culminate when the final product is released to the public in the coming weeks. Stay tuned to or follow us on Facebook and Twitter for updates regarding the release of the schedule.

The AHL’s constitution calls for each member club to submit to the league, in February of the previous season, a list of primary and secondary dates on which it will be available to play at home. Teams also provide blackout dates, when they cannot play at home because of other events in their arena.

Around the end of the Calder Cup Playoffs, the AHL will confirm for each team a list of six guaranteed dates for the upcoming season – dates on which the team is assured of playing a home game, albeit without a specific opponent just yet.
This allows clubs to begin making preparations and drumming up interest in the coming year. Many teams have already announced their guaranteed dates, some including their home openers, for 2011-12.

Once a schedule format (who plays whom, and how often) is designed and approved by the Board of Governors at their Annual Meeting in early July, the schedule can truly begin to take shape.

The schedule board adorns almost one full wall in the office of Rod Pasma, the AHL’s executive vice president of hockey operations. He and his staff, namely director of hockey administration Lauren Peterson and executive assistant to the president Melissa Caruso, take the lead roles in transforming the board from its blank starting point to a collage of markers representing the 2011-12 slate.

Creating the schedule is a tedious manual process, not unlike putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle without a picture on the box to work from.

The league’s teams are identified on the big board by magnets of different shapes and colors: Providence is a black circle. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is a blue square. Chicago, a yellow star. Each team also gets a cup filled with 38 magnets, one for each of its home opponents as prescribed by the schedule format.

The teams are lined up on the board top to bottom by division, with dates stretching left to right. What results is essentially a 192-by-30 framework, creating 5,760 blank spaces in which to fill a total of 1,140 games.

From there, the hockey operations department works – sometimes for 12 or more hours a day – to fill in the holes on the board.

Care must always be given to logistics and travel considerations. You obviously can’t have a team at home and on the road on the same night. Starting this year, you can’t have a team scheduled to play four games in a five-night span. Trips to Abbotsford, Texas, the Midwest or New England usually call for multiple games in one stretch, especially for visitors coming from a great distance. The annual Christmas and All-Star breaks must be kept clear of games. And you want to avoid unwieldy travel situations, especially when winter weather will undoubtedly become a factor.

The league also needs to properly account for special circumstances when creating the schedule, like mid-week “school-day” games or instances where an AHL team is scheduled to play a game in the home arena of its NHL affiliate.

The last pieces of the puzzle cannot be put in place until the National Basketball Association finalizes its own schedule, which typically happens any time between mid-July and early August. That’s because five AHL teams – the Charlotte Checkers, the Houston Aeros, the Milwaukee Admirals, the San Antonio Rampage and the Lake Erie Monsters – share arenas with NBA teams who get first dibs at building dates.

The phones ring steadily, with presidents and general managers from all 30 AHL teams hoping to ensure that their own schedule is ideal. But while there’s no pleasing everybody, procedures are in place to resolve as many issues as possible.

Once all the magnets are in position, the board is transcribed into a computerized spreadsheet – creating one master schedule and 30 individual team schedules – and the proofreading begins. Each club receives a copy of the first draft, and may request changes with the mutual consent of all other teams involved, either swapping opponents on two or more dates or moving dates altogether.

After requested changes are approved by the AHL and incorporated into the schedule, a second draft is created and teams have one last opportunity to request tweaks.

The final set of changes is OK’d by the league, and the master schedule is ready for release. Teams are notified, everyone’s announcements are coordinated, and with the click of the “send” button, e-mails are fired off and the schedule is available to the public.

Before long, training camps open, the puck drops, and the whole process starts all over again. The making of the AHL schedule is a grueling and thankless job, but it’s safe to say the American Hockey League wouldn’t function without it.