Sunday, December 23, 2007

Hockey: Dying but not Forgotten

It’s a fact that the Big Four Sports in the United States became the Big Three quite a while ago. Hockey appears as more of an underground movement with a cult following than a big time sport. I have a soft spot for hockey after spending a couple of years in Toronto where I was force fed the sport everyday. Proclaiming myself as a Maple Leafs fan I began to realize that I didn’t even know enough about the sport to consider myself fluent in hockey. It took a conversation with Dom about the minor league affiliations of NHL teams to make me realize I was a little behind the times. So for my own benefit as well as every other American reading this I thought I would go over a couple things that help me feel better about myself as a sports fan.

For the most part there is not a tiering system for the leagues as seen in baseball with AAA, AA, A. Instead we have an incredibly confusing system of different leagues with different prestige containing teams that are NHL affiliates and some that aren’t. If you were to rank them with a standardized lettering system like baseball it might appear something like this.

American Hockey League (AAAA)
International Hockey League (AAA)
East Coast Hockey League (AA)
Central Hockey League (A)

Currently there are 30 NHL teams whose primary development league is the American Hockey League (AHL). There are 29 clubs participating every year for the AHL’s top honor: The Calder Cup. Every NHL team has direct affiliation with one of the clubs except for the Buffalo Sabres and the Florida Panthers who have a joint affiliation with the Rochester Americans.

The most confusing league to me comes in the form of the IHL. This particular league is not to be confused with the league existing from 1929-1936 that merged with the Canadian American Hockey League who subsequently changed its name to the International American Hockey League (The League that would be consolidated, expanded and renamed the AHL). This IHL is also not to be confused with the IHL existing from 1945-2001 which disbanded after the 2001 season only to have six of their teams absorbed into the current AHL. From the previous IHL the Chicago Wolves, Grand Rapids Griffins, Houston Aeros, Utah Grizzlies, Milwaukee Admirals and the Manitoba Moose joined the AHL.

This IHL only contains six teams, three of which hold actual affiliation to NHL teams. Founded in 2007 it has jumped to a premier level of talent despite its shortcomings.

Bloomington Prairie Thunder (Unaffiliated)
Flint Generals (Detroit Red Wings)
Port Huron Ice Hawks (Also Detroit Red Wings)
Muskegon Fury (Grand Rapids Griffins :AHL Team)
Fort Wayne Komets (Unaffiliated)
Kalamazoo Wings (Unaffiliated)
So now we are dealing with a league that is supposedly two tiers below the NHL but contains only 3 teams with affiliation. To make matters more confusing two of those are directly affiliated to the NHL (both to the same team) while the third is affiliated with an AHL team, making their affiliation less prominent.

The East Coast Hockey League absorbed the West Coast Hockey League but continues to operate as the ECHL. There are twenty-five teams and has established its position as the primary league from which the AHL pulls (AA to AAA if the simple formula existed). The league was established in 1988 and continues to do well despite the costs associated with such a geographically dispersed league.

The Central Hockey League founded in 1992 currently has 17 teams and is the lowest on the totem pole as far as affiliation to the NHL. Only 7 of those teams have affiliations to higher tiers. Not much excitement to be had down at this level…unless you live in Arizona. In the case you can make a roadie to everyone’s favorite roadside stop Yuma Arizona for the newest CHL expansion team in 08. Of course that is pending on the completion of an Arena so don’t hold your breath.

So with my new found knowledge I found myself at a Lake Erie Monsters game during their inaugural season. With a Record of 8-15-1-5 positioned dead last in the West’s North Division the boys lived up to their hype. Beaten in every aspect of the game on every inch of the ice the Peoria Rivermen chalked a convincing 6-2 victory. The best part of the Monster Experience was the opening player introductions skating out of this beast.

It was all down hill from there….

4Real Out…