NHL.com: New-look AHL drops puck

by Kinsey Janke || for NHL.com

For the first time in the American Hockey League’s history, Opening Night will include California-based franchises when the league’s 80th season kicks off tonight.

First announced in January, the formation of the Pacific Division was a project with many moving parts, and an initiative with multiple outcomes that will benefit the long term future of hockey in North America. It speaks volumes to the crucial role the AHL plays in professional player development, as well as to the growth and support that the game of hockey has been experiencing on the west coast.

“The importance of the AHL’s new Pacific Division to western-based clubs cannot be overstated,” said San Jose Sharks general manager Doug Wilson. “The moves eliminate cross-country travel for players being recalled and reassigned, and allows our entire hockey staff to monitor and take part in each player’s growth and development.”

In addition to the Sharks – who will actually share the SAP Center in San Jose with their affiliate – the Anaheim Ducks, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, and Los Angeles Kings will all also see their top prospects much closer to home beginning in 2015-16.

Comprised of the Bakersfield Condors (Edmonton), the Ontario Reign (Los Angeles), the San Diego Gulls (Anaheim), the San Jose Barracuda (San Jose), and the Stockton Heat (Calgary), the California contingent will be joined by the San Antonio Rampage (Colorado Avalanche) and the Texas Stars (Dallas Stars) in the AHL’s new Pacific Division.

While the state of California will be heading out to rinks to meet new friends and create new memories, the city of Winnipeg will be welcoming home an old friend. Returning to the AHL after a four-year absence, the Manitoba Moose return to the MTS Centre and rejoin the league’s Western Conference, this time as the top affiliate of the Winnipeg Jets.

Tonight’s schedule features the first five of an eventual 21 games during the AHL’s opening weekend, including the inaugural home openers in Bakersfield and San Jose. San Diego and Stockton open their doors for the first time in the AHL on Saturday night, and Ontario – the de facto defending champions after the Kings’ affiliate won the Calder Cup in Manchester last season – begins its season in Bakersfield on Saturday.

The league’s geographical footprint is expanding, leaving some markets but embracing new ones out west in a state that is rapidly producing more and more professional hockey players as the years go by.

“Now that the time is quickly approaching, everyone is excited to drop the puck in 2015-16 in Ontario and beyond,” said Los Angeles Kings president of business operations and Hockey Hall of Famer Luc Robitaille.

“This is a great win for those involved in hockey – a win for our fans and a win for our hockey team – and this massive move, with five teams in the state of California, has defined what a team effort can really produce.”