AHL leaning on NHL ahead of uncertain season, with questions aplenty

Rogers Place arena in Edmonton, Alta. (Jason Franson/CP)

EDMONTON — It’s all about the money, this whole return-to-play thing. We get it: cash and pro sports go together like Kraft and Dinner, so why would the NHL be any different?

While the NHL tries to put a number on just how much money they are willing to lose while pounding a rounded version of the 2020-21 season through an increasingly square hole, its primary development league is waiting patiently for a turn at Commissioner Gary Bettman’s negotiating table.

And you can probably guess what they need to talk about.

“It’s got to make sense,” began Scott Howson, the AHL’s new president and CEO. “If we’re able to play it’s going to be more about player supply and player development this year than anything else. Without fans in the buildings, it’s certainly not going to be about any meaningful revenue. So yes, we’re going to want to know what the NHL is doing before we finalize what our plan is going to be.”

By “what the NHL is doing,” Howson means any number of things. For one, if the NHL doesn’t play, the AHL will not play either.

But Howson will also have to know how the NHL plans to support the 12 AHL teams (out of 31) that are not owned by an NHL club. What is the NHL is doing about the three Western Canadian teams with farm clubs in the U.S. — Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton in Utica, Stockton and Bakersfield, respectively — and how are they supposed to call players up with a 14-day, cross-border quarantine in place?

And while we’re asking, how can a minor league as ticket-dependent as the AHL weather a season that may pass without a single ticket being sold? Not without a lot of help from the NHL, that’s how.

In a conversation this week Howson, positioned himself as patiently waiting for his turn to cooperate with the NHL’s return to play plan. He has a long queue of questions that will need answers, and it is not surprising to learn that most of them have a dollar sign attached.

At this point, he can not even guarantee that every one of his member clubs is up for a return.

“I can’t say 31 teams will play,” Howson said, “but I am encouraged that there is a strong desire for virtually every one of our teams to play — and to play without any meaningful capacity, too. If you’d have asked me four months ago if we’d be playing without fans I’d have said, ‘That would be really difficult.’ Now, I see there is a pathway to do that.

“It’s going to take a lot of cooperation and some help from our NHL partners, but I see a strong desire from all of our teams to try to find a way to play.”

In fact, the Flames, Canucks and Oilers all toyed with the idea of bringing their AHL affiliates to Canada, so they would have quicker access to players and eliminate the border issue. But the idea died on the comptroller’s desk, while the Oilers and Flames questioned the wisdom of bringing a third team to their respective arenas, in addition to the NHL and WHL clubs already housed there.

But it’s not just the Western Canadian teams that will have call-up issues if the NHL goes ahead. “What if the Rangers want to call a player up from Hartford, but the (AHL) team is in Pennsylvania?” Howson floated. “Is the player cleared (to enter New York)? Is he tested? All that will have to be worked out. It will be a league-wide policy for sure.”

Ah, testing. Players on their way up, crossing state or provincial lines, will have to have a clean bill of health before they travel.

What could possibly impede a rigorous testing protocol at the AHL level?

We’ll let you guess...

“Let’s face it,” Howson said. “Our coaches, our players and a lot of our trainers are NHL employees. Anything we do is going to be done in conjunction with the NHL, in terms of how we proceed.”

This wasn’t a case of Howson negotiating through the media. He doesn’t have to. Take an honest look at the various impediments his feeder league faces, and you can’t deny that most them are financial ones.

Meanwhile his NHL equivalent, Bettman, is trying to convince 31 NHL owners of the need to play out a season that will guarantee millions in losses for every team, not to mention the inherent labour strife.

The 19 NHL clubs that own their farm teams may accept the AHL losses as part of the overall package of their hockey operation. But what about the locally-owned AHL team that has to negotiate a sweeter deal from an NHL club that is looking at a red-ink '20-21?

“It’s not as easy as the NHL-owned teams, because they know all the costs are theirs from the outset,” Howson said. “It will just depend on each relationship, and how important it is that each team is going to want to play this year.

“There is certainly not going to be a league-wide NHL-AHL discussion. It’s going to be held at the various team levels. They’ll all decide on how important it is for each of them to play.”

And what the price tag on a 2020-21 season might be.

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