West Valley City • The American Hockey League has expanded west in the past year, but don't expect to see the Utah Grizzlies in the AHL anytime soon.
"From our standpoint, I don't think there's anything new going on," said CEO Kevin Bruder. "… If the opportunity arose, we would obviously look at it, but with the understanding we would do what's best for our organization and what's best for Utah."
The Grizzlies play in the ECHL — a step below the AHL, which is professional hockey's No. 1 minor league.
Until last year, the AHL was eastern-based. Now, however, the league has five teams located in California. Another franchise has relocated to Tucson, Ariz. The AHL's evolving geographic footprint is compatible for a team in Utah, although the Grizzlies seem content with their current position.
"We would always look at the models and be willing to talk," Bruder said. "But we're very happy with the direction of the ECHL. We owe it to our fans to always be aware of what's happening around us. But, right now, that opportunity is not out there, nor are we actively looking at it."
The AHL moved west because the National Hockey League wanted its top farm teams located closer to parent clubs in California. It makes personnel moves and supervision of player development far more efficient and convenient.
This past season, AHL franchises relocated to San Diego, Ontario, San Jose, Bakersfield and Stockton.
Ontario is affiliated with the Los Angeles Kings. San Diego is affiliated with the Anaheim Ducks. In San Jose, the AHL Barracudas and the NHL Sharks share the same arena.
Next season, Tucson joins the AHL as an affiliate of the Phoenix Coyotes, who play only 90 minutes away up I-10.
Even the ECHL's two California teams without neighboring big-league clubs — Bakersfield/Edmonton and Stockton/Calgary — have relatively simple flight connections available to shuttle players and team officials back-and-forth.
"The goal was to have the ultimate development league … that's really what unfolded here," Edmonton Oiler president Kevin Lowe recently told Yahoo!. "The less travel and more time to train and prepare these young fellas for their NHL lives is the best thing for [our] teams."
The shift to California has been a success, according to San Jose Sharks general manager Doug Wilson.
"We've used the term, 'It's not what we wanted, it's what we needed,'" he told Yahoo!. "On a hockey front, it has been everything we hoped it would be. … The geography of it all, it's worked out as well as we wanted."
Bruder is a little more cautious.
"There are some advantages," he said. "… Everybody seems happy with [AHL] teams being close to home and having better access to the players who are called up and sent down. That's certainly a big plus. But I also think the verdict is still out on the new model."
A major advantage of playing in the ECHL is clear. All six western teams in the AHL are owned by the parent clubs. The NHL teams control everything from employing the staff, having a final say on the roster and supervising game operations. While ECHL teams work closely with their NHL and AHL affiliates, most are owned independently — including the Grizzlies. Such an arrangement allows them to hire the coaches, sign players and run the business in a manner that is best for the local fans and community.
"We've seen continued growth in fan support and community development," Bruder said. "And we like the consistency of our product on the ice. We're looking forward to continued growth in those areas."
The Grizzlies, whose season ended last week with a loss to Fort Wayne in the second round of the playoffs, are 114-78-23 over the past three season under coach Tim Branham.
Utah's average attendance of 5,095 per game in the Maverik Center ranked seventh among 28 teams. In February, the Grizzlies extended their affiliation with Anaheim.
"Tim has done a wonderful job," Bruder said. "We're very pleased with growth the team has shown — year in and year out. We love the quality and style of play. We are proud of our product on the ice and from the business standpoint."