California is the face of the American Hockey League’s western migration. With five new California franchises installed before this season, the AHL has a larger geographic footprint than ever before in it’s 80-year history.
It was a massive overhaul that drew national attention, which isn’t usually reserved for minor league hockey. It also allowed one of the AHL’s highly-succesful “midwestern migrations” to fly under the radar.
Teams didn’t move, but when the Lake Erie Monsters affiliated with the Columbus Blue Jackets last summer it set up the ideal Ohio hockey pipeline.
The prospects are closer to the NHL home base and no longer in Springfield, Massachusetts — not an easy place to fly to — and the team on the ice has performed well in front of one of the AHL’s better fan bases. In fact, the Monsters can clinch a spot in the Calder Cup Final this week after taking a 2-0 series lead against the Ontario Reign in the Western Conference Final.
Sounds like it’s working out pretty well, right?
“Hundred percent, we haven’t ran into any negatives on this move,” Monsters coach Jared Bednar said. “The proximity to Columbus and the ability to play in front of our management staff is a postivie for our players. The interaction for us is greater than it’s ever been before. And our fan base here has been unbelievable.”
So, why did it take so long for the Blue Jackets to get an AHL foothold in Cleveland?
Believe it or not, when the Blue Jackets were just getting started in 2000, Cleveland was labeled as San Jose Sharks territory.
Former Sharks owner George Gund III was a co-owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, while he also owned and operated the then-named Gund Arena. In 2001 the Sharks moved the Kentucky Thoroughblades to Ohio and named them the Cleveland Barons, a nod to the past AHL history along Lake Erie.
The Barons played in Cleveland until the end of the 2005-06 season and where then re-located to the Worcester, Massachusetts and re-named the Worcester Sharks (they are now known as the San Jose Barracuda).
Cleveland spent one season without an AHL team before Dan Gilbert purchased the dormant Utah Grizzlies AHL franchise and introduced the Lake Erie Monsters before the 2007-08 season.
At that time the Blue Jackets were still comfortably aligned with the Syracuse Crunch and the Monsters signed an affiliation deal with the Colorado Avalanche. The Lake Erie-Colorado partnership lasted through the 2014-15 season, then massive AHL turnover helped properly align the Ohio-based franchises.
“It only makes sense to have Columbus and Cleveland together,” Dave Andrews, the AHL President and CEO, said in an interview earlier this season. “While moving other franchises and the California teams grab more attention, it was also important to put together geographic partners like the Monsters and Blue Jackets.”
And the new Ohio partnership has been a tremendous success on multiple levels.
Geographically the teams are separated by 150 miles on Interstate 71.
That means prospects can easily make the two-hour drive south in case of a call-up. At the same time Blue Jackets management can easily keep tabs on the AHL affiliate, just like they have during the current Calder Cup playoff run.
And a Calder Cup playoff run is a rarity in Cleveland.
Lake Erie missed the playoffs seven of the eight seasons it was affiliated with Colorado. Now in their first season as a Blue Jackets affiliate, the Monsters are two games away from playing for the Calder Cup.
And in a league filled with older buildings and smaller cities, Cleveland is one of the better setups in the AHL.
While the Cavaliers are the first tenant, the Monsters aren’t treated like second-class citizens at Quicken Loans Arena, which has been a problem with past AHL-NBA shared buildings (see Houston and Charlotte for examples).
“The organization here in Cleveland is second to none,” Bednar said. “The fan base, the game-night experience. It’s more NHL-like with what they’re doing here, you couldn’t…draw up a better situation for Columbus or our players.”