Go West, young men, go West!


It was in the early 1980s when the late Ed Chynoweth, then the WHL’s leader, admitted that his greatest fear had to do with NHL teams moving affiliate teams into Western Canada and setting up a new league.

At the time, he said he could see the day when pro teams were in Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Regina and AHLSaskatoon, just for starters.

The Saskatoon Blades are near the end of lease negotiations with the SaskTel Centre. When the papers are signed, the Blades will again have hockey exclusivity in the building. That is something that Chynoweth, all those years ago, felt was of the utmost importance and something that most, if not all, WHL teams insist upon in their leases.

Now here we are more than 30 years later and NHL teams are moving affiliates west, just not into Canada.

The AHL made it official on Thursday — it will have a five-team Pacific Division next season, with all teams located in California.

The Anaheim Ducks will move the Norfolk, Va., Admirals to San Diego; the Calgary Flames will move the Adirondack Flames from Glens Falls, N.Y., to Stockton; the Edmonton Oilers will move the Oklahoma City Barons to Bakersfield; the Los Angeles Kings are moving the Manchester, N.H., Monarchs to Ontario; and the San Jose Sharks are taking the Worcester, Mass., Sharks and relocating them to, yes, San Jose.

The Adirondack Flames are in their first season in Glens Falls, after relocating from Abbotsford, B.C. Adirondack head coach Ryan Huska left the Kelowna Rockets after last season to sign with the Flames.

Mike Stothers, who left the Moose Jaw Warriors after last season, is the first-year head coach of the Monarchs.

San Jose will play its AHL affiliate out of its home building — the SAP Center. Interestingly, San Jose is planning on scheduling Saturday doubleheaders, with the AHL team playing matinees and the NHL team playing at night.

The primary reason for the moves is to get affiliate players closer to the parent clubs to make it that much easier for recalls. Scheduling details are scarce but the five Pacific Division teams will play fewer games than other AHL teams. That and less travel should result in more practice time, all of which should make for happy coaches and better development.

There also is speculation that more NHL teams will get involved in moving their AHL teams in the near future.

The Vancouver Canucks are in their second season with the AHL’s Utica, N.Y., Comets. Pat Conacher, a former head coach of the Regina Pats, is the Comets’ director of hockey operations, with Travis Green, the former assistant GM and assistant coach with the Portland Winterhawks, the head coach.

There is speculation that the Canucks will move the franchise to Abbotsford or Langley, B.C. The Abbotsford Centre seats 7,046 and no longer is home to a hockey team. The 5,276-seat Langley Events Centre is home to, among other things, the BCHL’s Langley Rivermen and the National Lacrosse League’s Vancouver Stealth.

Jim Benning, the Canucks’ general manager, told TSN Radio Vancouver on Thursday that his organization will continue to monitor the situation.

“We’re really happy in Utica — players love it there,” Benning said. “We’ll continue to monitor it.”

The Winnipeg Jets’ AHL affiliate is in St. John’s, Nfld. There have been rumours since the Atlanta Thrashers relocated to Winnipeg that the Jets would like to have that franchise in Thunder Bay, Ont. That’s hardly close to the Pacific Northwest or California, but it’s closer than Newfoundland.

The Arizona Coyotes, who are hooked up with the AHL’s Portland, Me., Pirates, also are said to be interested in having a team closer to Phoenix.

Some of the communities being vacated by AHL teams are expected to end up being home to ECHL franchises. There also is speculation that the QMJHL would like to expand by two teams and is looking at the vacant arenas.

What impact, if any, will this have as far as the WHL is concerned?

I doubt that there will be any immediate impact, but it certainly could have repercussions down the road.

When these AHL teams get relocated and organized, you can bet that they will be pouring resources into minor hockey programs as they attempt to attract fans. Eventually, that will mean more and better hockey players coming out of those areas.

It all could lead to a WHL team with a completely American roster. Don’t scoff. The Portland Winterhawks have 12 players on their 23-man roster right now.