Puck drops on AHL’s 78th season

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … Just 108 days after the Grand Rapids Griffins were crowned champions of the American Hockey League, the puck is ready to drop again.

The league’s 78th season begins with five games on Friday night, including the beginning of the Griffins’ title defense as they visit Rochester, a 2013 playoff rematch between Charlotte and Oklahoma City, and faceoffs in St. John’s, Cleveland and San Antonio.

30 FOR 30
With 30 active franchises again in 2013-14, the American Hockey League remains the top development league for all 30 National Hockey League clubs.

The AHL has two new entries this season as the Iowa Wild (top affiliate of the NHL’s Minnesota Wild) and Utica Comets (Vancouver Canucks) begin play. Des Moines had previously been home to AHL teams from 2005-09, while Utica was an AHL member from 1987-93. There is one other affiliation change this season, as the Chicago Wolves begin the franchise’s 20th season (13th in the AHL) as the new top affiliate of the St. Louis Blues.

The AHL’s alignment underwent a small change also, with Abbotsford moving to the renamed West Division, Iowa being placed in the Midwest Division and Utica being slotted in the North Division.

AHL teams play a 76-game schedule, 38 home and 38 away. The regular season is scheduled to end on Sunday, Apr. 20.

In 2012-13, more than 87 percent of all NHL players were graduates of the American Hockey League. Twenty-one NHL teams were led in scoring by an AHL alumnus, and 27 former AHL goaltenders led their NHL team in victories.

There were 271 former first- and second-round NHL draft picks who skated in the AHL last year, and 346 players saw action in both the AHL and the NHL last season alone, including Edmonton Oilers defenseman Justin Schultz, who was named to the 2012-13 All-Rookie Team in both leagues.

As the 2013-14 National Hockey League season began earlier this week, there were 630 AHL graduates on the opening-night rosters of the NHL’s 30 clubs.

The upcoming season will have some international twists, beginning with the Rochester Americans’ participation in the prestigious Spengler Cup tournament, Dec. 26-31. The Amerks will take a 12-day break from their regular-season schedule to represent the league at the annual event in Davos, Switzerland. This is only the second time that an AHL club has been invited to take part in the Spengler Cup, which began in 1923; the Amerks skated to a third-place finish in 1996.

The 2014 AHL All-Star Classic will also be an international affair, as the American Hockey League marks the 20th anniversary of the event with a two-day competition between a team of AHL All-Stars and Färjestad BK, one of the top franchises in the Swedish Hockey League. The event will take place Feb. 11-12 at Mile One Centre in St. John’s, N.L.

The AHL’s 30 teams will be looking to build on what was an impressive 2012-13 season at the gate. An average of 5,710 fans per game attended AHL contests last year, the third-highest mark in AHL history.

The Hershey Bears were the AHL’s attendance leaders for the seventh season in a row, averaging 10,046 fans per game, while the St. John’s IceCaps played to full houses every night at Mile One Centre and enter the 2013-14 season having sold out every one of their 84 regular-season and playoff games through their first two years of existence.

Five of the 20 largest crowds ever to see an AHL game were achieved last season, thanks to the support of hockey fans in Philadelphia, Buffalo, Toronto, Montreal and Washington. An outdoor game at Hersheypark Stadium drew the largest crowd in Bears franchise history (17,311), and there are two more outdoor games on the AHL schedule for 2013-14: Rochester will host Lake Erie at Frontier Field on Dec. 13, and Grand Rapids and Toronto will face off at Comerica Park in Detroit on Dec. 30.

There are six new bosses behind AHL benches as the 2013-14 season gets underway, but only two – Toronto’s Steve Spott and Utica’s Travis Green – are making their AHL head coaching debuts.

John Anderson, who ranks 13th in AHL history with 306 career wins, returns to Chicago, where he led the Wolves to Calder Cup championships in 2002 and 2008. Kurt Kleinendorst, a Calder Cup champion with Binghamton in 2011, is back to lead the first-year Iowa Wild. Mike Haviland, the Louis A.R. Pieri Award winner as the AHL’s outstanding coach in 2007, is the new head coach of the Hershey Bears. And Peter Horachek takes over the San Antonio Rampage, returning to the AHL after 10 years as an NHL assistant coach in Nashville.

Roy Sommer of the Worcester Sharks is poised to make history this season; as he enters his 16th year as head coach of San Jose’s AHL affiliate, Sommer has coached 1,192 AHL games – 64 shy of Frank Mathers’ all-time league record. Mark Morris begins his eighth season at the helm of the Manchester Monarchs with 290 career AHL victories; only 16 coaches in league history have reached 300.

The AHL Board of Governors has approved the following changes to the league’s Rule Book for 2013-14:

• Approved goal frames have been modified such that the bottom depth of the frame is moved from 44” to 40” and the side radius is reduced from 20” to 18”. The total width of the bottom of the frame is changed from 96” to 88”. There is no change to the opening of the goal frame.

• Rule 11 (“Goalkeeper’s Equipment”) includes a change in the formula used to determine the allowable size of a goalkeeper’s leg pads.

• Rule 46.6 (“Fighting”) says that a player removing his (or his opponent’s) helmet prior to engaging in a fight shall be assessed a minor penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.

• Rule 82.1 (“Icing”) now states that on a potential icing play, at the instant the first player in pursuit of the puck reaches the end-zone faceoff dots, the linesman will determine which player would be the first to reach the puck and either whistle or wave off the icing infraction at that point. In addition, the “attainable pass” language from Rule 82.5 has been deleted; the officials are to wave off icing only if the player touches the puck.

The entire AHL Rule Book is available for viewing on theahl.com.

The AHL’s presence in social media has continued to grow in the past year, and the league’s official Facebook page and Twitter feed remain great sources for breaking AHL news, special offers and behind-the-scenes insights. Heading into opening weekend, the AHL has nearly 60,000 “likes” on its Facebook page (fb.com/theahl) and over 40,000 followers of its official Twitter account, @TheAHL.

The AHL’s digital properties are anchored by the league’s official website, theahl.com. A mobile version of the site is also available for easy use on smartphones, and an official AHL app is available for free for iPhone, Android and BlackBerry devices.

The AHL Internet Network, which also includes all 30 team sites, received more than 138 million page views last season.

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 87 percent of NHL players last season were AHL graduates, and for the 12th year in a row, more than 6 million fans attended AHL games across North America in 2012-13. Through the years, the AHL has been home to more than 100 future members of the Hockey Hall of Fame.