Merger would give AA more juice

In the summer of 2010, the Central Hockey League and the International Hockey League entered into a two-year “collaboration” agreement. Never officially called a “merger,” the deal resulted in both leagues’ teams playing together under the CHL banner for the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 seasons.

Now in the midst of the second of the two collaborative seasons, fans are naturally turning an eye toward the future and wondering what might happen next. An extension of the agreement is not guaranteed by any means, but also cannot be completely ruled out.

Although not confirmed or announced by any league or team officials, many observers seem to expect that the leagues will choose to go their separate ways after this season, with the IHL reorganizing as a separate entity and perhaps returning to past markets such as Flint and Port Huron.

And that, hockey fans, is precisely the opposite of what needs to happen.

Not only should the CHL and IHL remain together, but the combined league’s leaders should aggressively pursue a full-fledged merger with the ECHL.

Yes, there are some rather large barriers to such a deal, including the issues of player unions and NHL affiliations. But if all of the involved parties wish to remain in business long-term, they must find a way to get on the same page and pull everyone under the same umbrella.

The “Double-A” hockey world has 34 teams this season, down substantially from just a handful of seasons ago. During the 2004-2005 season, there were 59 franchises at this level – the ECHL fielded 28 teams, the CHL was home to 17, and the United Hockey League (before it adopted the IHL name) had 14 teams.

Gone are suburban teams from major markets such as Detroit, Memphis and St. Louis. Many franchises, from Sun Belt cities like Corpus Christi to traditional hockey strongholds like Muskegon, have departed for the supposedly greener pastures of junior hockey. Some short-lived franchises have come and gone in the blink of an eye.

Minor professional hockey leagues are notoriously unstable. They always have been and they likely always will be. Hockey is an expensive sport, and revenue streams in the minors are built around ticket sales and primarily-local corporate sponsorships. There is no lucrative Reebok jersey contract, no multi-million dollar Budweiser “official beer of the league” sponsorship, no national television deal that yields a financial windfall for every team.

It has often been said that the fastest way for a billionaire to become a millionaire is to start a minor-league hockey team.

You see, it’s funny because it’s true.

And in reality, most team owners realize this. They have built their fortunes in other business ventures, and owning a hockey team is largely a fun footnote in their portfolio. They don’t expect to make money; they simply want to field a competitive team and win a championship or two, all while somehow managing to avoid losing TOO much cash.

Turn a profit? Yeah, right. Break even? Often a best-case scenario. Lose a few hundred thousand each year? That’s the most likely outcome, when all things go relatively smoothly. But hey, it’s still a fun play-toy and you can write off a lot of stuff on your taxes!

So how do these deep-pocketed owners give themselves the best shot at minimizing their losses and maybe – just maybe – sniff the break-even point? How can the disturbing “bleed cash until the owner throws his hands up and calls it a day” trend be slowed down? How can the future of “Double-A” hockey be solidified so that fans still have teams to cheer for in 10 or 20 years?

Many expenses are going to be consistent under virtually any circumstances. Ice time, both for home games and team practices, is not cheap by any stretch of the imagination. Equipment can cost a small fortune, as anyone who has ever played hockey or parented a youth hockey player can attest to. Player and staff salaries are essentially uniform across-the-board. Medical expenses are just part of the game, like it or not.

What CAN be controlled? Travel expenses. Those extra overnights and additional hours on the bus, well, they add up in a hurry.

Consider this: The Evansville IceMen recently spent their Thanksgiving weekend in Rapid City, South Dakota. That excursion is about 2200 miles, round-trip. If the team bus averages 6 miles per gallon and diesel fuel is $4 per gallon, that equates to a fuel cost of more than $1400 for a single three-game trip. Add in the cost of a few nights in a hotel for about 20 people, and you’re likely over $3000. You could make 5 or 6 up-and-back trips to Kalamazoo for less.

The ECHL currently consists of 20 teams, with a pair of expansion teams (San Francisco and Orlando) expected to join the fray for the 2012-2013 season. The league’s name has been an orphan initialism since 2003, when the full “East Coast Hockey League” name was officially dropped after the league absorbed the remnants of the West Coast Hockey League.

Now jokingly referred to as the “Each Coast Hockey League” by some fans, the ECHL stretches from Alaska to Florida and from Pennsylvania to California. However, before this season’s addition of the expansion Chicago Express, the league did not possess a single franchise located in the Central Time Zone.

Filling that large gap is the CHL, which now has 14 teams in the Mountain, Central and Eastern Time Zones. Among the league’s franchises is the Arizona Sundogs, whose closest CHL opponent is the Wichita Thunder – 997 miles away, according to Google Maps. Next season, the ECHL will field 8 teams closer to Arizona than Wichita.

Below is a map with all 36 of the expected 2012-2013 “Double-A” cities plotted on it. The blue dots represent CHL cities, and the red dots represent ECHL cities…

Makes loads of sense, doesn’t it?

Now let’s take those same 36 cities and merge the leagues together. They fit nicely into two 18-team conferences, further split into four 9-team divisions. Included are the metropolitan areas for each team…

And just for grins and giggles, let’s tweak the dotted map’s colors to show the proposed realignment. Fuchsia represents the Pacific Division, green dots are for the Central Division, blue represents the Midwest Division, and the Atlantic Division is red…

Obviously, the Alaska Aces will experience and create travel troubles as long as they remain in a league that is otherwise comprised of teams in the Continental United States.

But with the exception of Alaska, every other team in the merged league would have at least one opponent within 350 driving miles. (The most-distant “closest opponent” scenarios would involve Rapid City with Colorado and Idaho with Utah, each a separation of about 345 miles.)

The league could play a balanced 68-game schedule, with each team having 34 home dates. Every team would play each divisional opponent 4 times (2 home and 2 road) and each in-conference out-of-division opponent 2 times (1 home and 1 road). Each team would also play every out-of-conference team 1 time – all 9 teams in one division on the road, and all 9 teams from the other division at home.

The amount of travel would be as fair and comparable as possible, while keeping costs as low as is logically feasible. Fans would also get to enjoy a nice variety of visiting teams on home ice, with 26 of the 35 possible opponents appearing each season.

The playoff format would be a simple 16-team tournament. The Top 4 teams from each division would qualify, with the division champions slotted as the 1st and 2nd seeds in each conference.

Is this the perfect scenario for the guaranteed health of pro hockey at this level? Probably not. The ideal solution would see 2 or 3 separate leagues defined entirely by geography, but that simply is not going to happen. Not yet, at least.

So in the immediate future, the best possible path is a full merger. Get everyone under one proverbial roof, and then perhaps a few years later, discuss splitting into smaller geographically-logical leagues if one nationwide league isn’t working.

Because right now, the status quo CLEARLY isn’t working. We’ve had a net loss of 25 teams in the past 8 seasons, and we certainly can’t afford to lose another 25.

It’s time for a change. The book of “Double-A” hockey currently has two volumes, and both are falling apart. Ripping out a bunch of pages from one, while idly watching pages occasionally fall out of both, is NOT the solution. Binding all of the pages together with a new cover might not be the ultimate solution either, but it would definitely be a step in the right direction.

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