Earlier today during a press conference at the Ford Center, the Evansville IceMen officially revealed the worst-kept secret in minor league hockey.
The IceMen are moving to the ECHL.
The announcement came to the surprise of virtually no one, since the league change has been rumored for months. To most fans, the CHL-to-ECHL move was a matter of “when,” not “if.”
And now, after much speculation and discussion, it’s finally official. The IceMen have signed a 10-year contract with the ECHL, officially joining the league as an expansion franchise.
IceMen Owner Ron Geary cited the ECHL’s long-term stability as the primary reason for leaving the rapidly-shrinking Central Hockey League. Also in attendance at the press conference were IceMen Head Coach and General Manager Rich Kromm, ECHL Commissioner Brian McKenna, and Evansville Mayor Lloyd Winnecke.
No affiliations were immediately announced, but the IceMen organization is discussing possible affiliation with a number of National Hockey League teams. An affiliation agreement and the 2012-2013 season schedule could be announced as soon as the end of May.
Later in the day, the Fort Wayne Komets also announced their long-expected relocation from the CHL to the ECHL. Thus, the brewing rivalry in Hoosier hockey will continue to percolate, just in a different league.
For those who aren’t familiar with the ECHL, please allow IceMenManiacs.com to get you up to speed. Our ECHL primer should answer most questions you might have about the new home of the IceMen…
• History: The 2012-2013 season will be the ECHL’s 25th season of operation. The league started with 5 teams as the “East Coast Hockey League” in 1988, and quickly grew to have more than 20 teams by 1995. It officially changed its name to simply “ECHL” (an orphan initialism) in 2003, after the league absorbed several teams from the defunct West Coast Hockey League. Although “ECHL” no longer stands for anything, some fans half-jokingly call the ECHL “the Each Coast Hockey League” due to its national footprint, while many still refer to it as “the East Coast League” in casual conversation.
• Level of Play: Unlike baseball, the North American pro hockey community does not officially use letter classifications to define each league’s level of play. However, most do agree upon “unofficial” classifications for the continent’s most prominent leagues. The National Hockey League is obviously the sport’s “major” league, and the American Hockey League is the sole “Triple-A” minor pro league. Both the ECHL and Central Hockey League are generally considered “Double-A” pro leagues, but many do view the ECHL as being the better of the two. So to borrow terminology from the diamond, you might say that the ECHL is “High-AA” and the CHL is “Low-AA.”
• Schedule: The ECHL regular season is comprised of 72 games per team, with each team hosting 36 home games. (The CHL plays 66 total games, with 33 home games per team.) The season runs from the middle of October through late March. (The 2011-2012 ECHL season began October 14 and ended March 31.) Training camp generally starts about 2 weeks before the regular season begins. (The 2012-2013 season is expected to start on October 12, with training camp getting underway on September 28.) During the 2011-2012 season, over 62% of all games were played on Friday or Saturday, with another 12% played on Sunday. Wednesday was the most active weekday, with about 14% of all games.
• Playoffs: The ECHL’s post-season championship trophy is the Kelly Cup, named after Patrick J. Kelly, the league’s first commissioner. The regular-season champion claims the Brabham Cup, named after Henry Brabham, one of the ECHL’s founding team owners. The playoff format and qualifying procedure for the 2012-2013 season will be announced at a later date. [UPDATE: A total of 16 teams will qualify for the post-season, and all 4 rounds will be Best-of-7. In the Eastern Conference, 8 of the 14 teams will qualify. (The 3 division winners will be seeded 1-2-3, with 5 "wild card" teams seeded by points.) In the Western Conference, 8 of the 9 teams will qualify. (The 2 division winners will be seeded 1-2, with 6 "wild card" teams seeded by points.) Thus, 6 teams will not qualify in the East, while only 1 team will be left out in the West. Teams will NOT be re-seeded after each round, unlike in the NHL. The ECHL will use a static bracket, like the NCAA basketball tournaments.]
• Teams: The ECHL is generally expected to have 23 teams during the 2012-2013 season, with both the IceMen and Komets transferring from the CHL. (The Colorado Eagles also moved from the CHL to the ECHL last summer.) Currently, 19 of the league’s 20 teams from the 2011-2012 season are slated to return, with the Chicago Express having ceased operations last month. Expansion teams have already been announced in Orlando and San Francisco. The league stretches from coast to coast and from the Sun Belt to the “frozen tundra,” from Alaska to Florida and California to New York.
• Possible Rivals: In addition to the Komets, the IceMen will have a few other “natural” geographic rivals in the ECHL. The Cincinnati Cyclones [220 miles away] are now Evansville’s closest opponent. The Kalamazoo (MI) Wings [385 miles] and Toledo (OH) Walleye [405 miles] are also relatively close. (Both the Cyclones and K-Wings are old rivals of the Komets from the “original” IHL, and should easily settle into that role for the IceMen as well.) Three other ECHL teams – the Gwinnett (GA) Gladiators [410 miles], Wheeling (WV) Nailers [450 miles], and Greenville (SC) Road Warriors [490 miles] – are within 500 driving miles of Evansville.
• Affiliations: Most ECHL teams (18 of 20 in 2011-2012) are affiliated with NHL and/or AHL teams. Only the Bakersfield Condors and Las Vegas Wranglers operated as independent teams this past season. During the 2011-2012 season, 26 of the 30 NHL clubs had an ECHL affiliate and 24 of the 30 AHL clubs had an ECHL affiliate. (Some ECHL teams are affiliated with more than one NHL or AHL team.) For instance, Cincinnati serves as the ECHL “farm team” for the NHL’s Nashville Predators and the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals. Toledo, meanwhile, is a shared affiliate of the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings and the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs and Grand Rapids Griffins. [UPDATE: The IceMen have announced affiliations with the NHL's St. Louis Blues and Columbus Blue Jackets, and the AHL's Peoria Rivermen and Springfield Falcons.]
• Player Development: The ECHL is more of a “developmental” league than the CHL, with more young prospects supplied by and contracted with teams’ NHL and AHL affiliates. (Generally, about 40% of ECHL players are under NHL or AHL contract.) From 2004 to 2011, more than 1600 ECHL players were called up to the AHL. And nearly 500 ECHL players have gone on to play in the NHL since the league’s inception, including 297 during the past 10 seasons. A whopping 81 ECHL alums (essentially 4 complete teams) were on NHL opening-day rosters in 2011, the 9th straight season the “E” has seen 50 or more alums start the season in “the show.” At least one ECHL graduate has won the Stanley Cup in each of the past 11 seasons. The league has been particularly fertile ground for goaltenders; its netminding alumni list includes the likes of Stanley Cup champion and two-time Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas, NHL All-Stars Jonathan Quick and Tomas Vokoun, and 2011-2012 Jennings Trophy winner Jaroslav Halak. The ECHL has also produced 31 current NHL coaches and 22 current NHL officials.
• Salaries: During the 2012-2013 ECHL season, the weekly team salary cap will be $12,400 and the salary floor will be $8,900. (For comparison, the CHL had an $11,000 cap and an $8,400 floor in 2011-2012.) There is no cap for each individual player, but teams are required to pay a minimum weekly salary of $425 for returning players and $380 for rookies. (A “returning player” is any player who appeared on the team’s season-ending or playoff roster during the prior season, or any player who has played in 25 or more professional games. All other players are classified as a “rookie.”)
• Rosters: Each team can maintain an active roster of 20 players, with 18 (16 skaters and 2 goalies) dressing for each game. Teams can place up to 2 players on a short-term Reserve List (which IS considered part of the 20-man active roster), and an unlimited number of players on 21-day Injured Reserve. The “veteran limit” is 4 players who have played 260 or more pro games at the start of the season, not including goaltenders. (By comparison, the CHL allows 6 veterans, and a player is not considered a “veteran” until he has played 301 or more pro games.) The ECHL does have an exemption to the “veteran” rule – any player under NHL or AHL contract who is playing in the ECHL “on assignment” AND who is/was under the age of 24 at the start of the season is not counted as a veteran.
• “Professional” Experience: What leagues count as “pro” when the ECHL is tallying a player’s experience? In North America, the ECHL counts all current/past leagues that are considered “Double-A” or higher. That list is comprised of the NHL, AHL, ECHL and CHL, along with the “original” International Hockey League [IHL], the most recent IHL (formerly known as the Colonial Hockey League [CoHL] and the United Hockey League [UHL]), the West Coast Hockey League [WCHL], and the Western Professional Hockey League [WPHL]. European leagues that count toward “veteran” status are the KHL (formerly the Russian Super League or “Superliga”), the SEL (the Swedish Elite League or “Elitserien”), the FEL (the Finnish Elite League or “SM-Liiga”), the Czech Extraliga (also “Tipsport Extraliga” or ELH), the Slovak Extraliga (also “Tipsport Extraliga” or “T-Com Extraliga” or “Slovnaft Extraliga”), the DEL (the German Ice Hockey League or “Deutsche Eishockey Liga”), and the NLA (Switzerland’s “Nationalliga A”). The ECHL does NOT count North American “Single-A” leagues such as the Southern Professional Hockey League [SPHL] and Federal Hockey League [FHL], or former “Single-A” leagues like the AAHL, ACHL, EPHL, MAHL, MWHL, SEHL, SHL, and WHA2. Also not counted are Quebec’s “Ligue Nord-Américaine de Hockey” [LNAH], the United Kingdom’s “Elite Ice Hockey League” [EIHL], Canada’s Major Junior leagues (OHL/WHL/QMJHL), and the United States’ top Junior-A leagues (USHL and NAHL).
• Playing Rules & Regulations: It is certainly worth noting that the ECHL mirrors the NHL (and differs from the CHL) in how “Delay of Game” penalties are assessed – any player (not just the goaltender) who shoots the puck directly into the stands from the defensive zone is given a minor penalty. And for “stat geeks,” it is also worth mentioning that in the ECHL’s official statistics, a player who scores the game-winner in a shootout is NOT awarded a goal in his individual season stats; a shootout victory results in a “team goal” instead. Otherwise, the ECHL’s playing rules are generally the same as the CHL’s. Of note: Fighting is “just” a major penalty (no automatic ejection), the Instigator and Aggressor rules are identical, Icing is automatic (“no-touch”), and the “trapezoid” is used to outline where goaltenders can play the puck behind the goal line.
• Overtime Format (Regular Season): During the regular season, a game tied at the end of regulation continues with a 5-minute 4-on-4 Overtime period. If still tied at the end of OT, a 5-round Shootout follows. (Additional sudden-death rounds occur as needed, and all players are eligible to shoot except those who were assessed a Game Misconduct or Match Penalty.) The ECHL does NOT use the “minor penalties are only 1 minute long in Overtime” rule that the CHL uses, nor does the ECHL slice in half the remaining time on any penalties that carry over to OT from the end of regulation.
• Overtime Format (Playoffs): During the playoffs, the ECHL’s tie-breaking format is essentially the same as the NHL and most other pro leagues. Teams play repeated 20-minute sudden-death Overtime periods until one team scores. The one difference is that the teams do NOT switch ends for the first OT period; the alignment is the same as in the 1st and 3rd periods of regulation. Should a second OT period be necessary, THEN the teams switch ends and continue alternating for any additional OT periods. In theory at least, this rule quirk minimizes the chance of a “fluke” goal on a “long line change” in the first OT.
• Game Timing & Flow: The ECHL’s timing policies will seem quite familiar for IceMen fans. The pre-game warm-up is a maximum of 16 minutes in length, with a 20-minute intermission between the warm-up and the start of the game. Intermissions between periods are 18 minutes each, and intermissions before/between Overtime periods in the playoffs are 15 minutes long. Media timeouts are not permitted after a goal, after icing, during a power-play for either team, or during OT in the playoffs. The home team can choose to take either one 70-second media timeout per period (at the first stoppage past 10:00) or two 45-second media timeouts per period (at the first stoppages past 14:00 and 7:00 remaining).
• Other Policy Notes: Like the CHL, the ECHL uses a 3-man on-ice officiating crew (1 referee and 2 linesmen) for each game. Also like the CHL, the “E” requires all players to wear protective visors and all teams to switch jersey colors mid-season. (White jerseys are worn at home for the first half of the regular season and the playoffs, and dark jerseys are worn at home during the second half of the regular season.) In the season standings, the first tie-breaker is Regulation/Overtime Wins, the second tie-breaker is Head-to-Head Points, and the third tie-breaker is Goal Differential. (Note that the Head-to-Head Points stat is “adjusted” to count an equal number of home games for each tied team, with the earliest “extra” home games disregarded.)
• Attendance: The IceMen should measure up quite favorably at the ticket window. Evansville averaged 4882 fans per game during the 2011-2012 season, exactly 600 more than the ECHL’s average of 4282. (The 2011-2012 season was the ECHL’s 8th straight season with a league-wide average attendance over 4000.) Just 7 of the ECHL’s 20 teams bested the IceMen average, and Evansville out-drew both Cincinnati (4190) and Kalamazoo (3042), two cities with rich hockey traditions. Gwinnett (seating capacity of 11,355) and Utah (10,207) have the league’s largest home arenas, while Elmira (3784) has the smallest “barn.”
• Multimedia: The ECHL’s real-time stat services are provided by LeagueStat, embedded directly into ECHL.com. Radio streams for all teams are available through the league’s website, and fans can also purchase live pay-per-view video streams through America One. (Similar to CHL TV but likely of better quality, the America One streams will be $8 per game during the 2012-2013 season.) The ECHL also offers a mobile version of its website, an Android App, and an Apple App.
So what should IceMen fans expect as the team transitions to the ECHL? More young players and fewer “grizzled” veterans, a faster (albeit slightly less polished) style of play, more roster turnover but a better chance of seeing players who will end up in the NHL, new rivals (in addition to those EVIIIL Komets), and a few more home games. Plus, maybe (hopefully) a long successful run at the Kelly Cup!