Hockey Central
The Modern Minors
Minor Pro Hockey's Surprising Southern Boom

When eight teams banded together in 1936-37 to form the American Hockey League, the professional hockey universe consisted of the eight NHL clubs and just 15 other minor pro teams competing in three leagues across North America. By 2000-01, beyond the 30 NHL franchises, there were seven minor leagues counting 102 clubs as members, and expectations of further growth.

Like the other minor leagues of the day, the American league's primary mandate was, and remains, to develop talent for the National Hockey League. But in today's minor leagues, salesmanship and show business are as highly valued as the ability to skate and shoot. This new emphasis is reflected in the team nicknames.

Where teams once were known rather prosaically as the Bisons, Eagles, Reds or Stars, with the Wichita Skyhawks of the American Hockey Association or the Pittsburgh Yellow Jackets of the Eastern league on the exotic edge, contemporary teams are more likely to be called the Mudbugs, RiverFrogs, Sabercats or Lizard Kings. The minors have spread far beyond their traditional locales in the northeastern and midwestern United States into the deep South and the sunbelt of the southwest. Even the failure of two minor leagues during the 1960s (the Sunshine Hockey League and the Southern Hockey League) hasn't stemmed minor professinal hockey's spread across the North American continent.

As it has been for most of its existence, the American Hockey League is the top development league for the National Hockey League. Each franchise is required to be affiliated with an NHL team, and the league's 18 clubs were linked to 24 of the NHL's 26 teams in 1997-98, with seven clubs owned outright by their NHL parents. In 1998-99 the AHL will added Lowell (Massachusetts) Loch Monsters, owned by the New York Islanders, and the 1999-2000 season marked the debut of a team in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania which are the farm team for the Pittsburgh Penguins, who currently co-sponor the Syracuse Crunch with the Vancouver Canucks.

The Philadelphia Flyers added an interesting wrinkle to the AHL in 1996 when they ended their association with the Hershey Bears and launched the Philadephia Phantoms as a farm club, both for players and fans. With the Flyers having moved into the new CoreStates Center, the Phantoms took over their old arena, the Spectrum, and led the league in attendance with average crowds of 9,182 en route to the AHL championship.

Each AHL team is guaranteed a set number of players from their parent club(s), but they are also free to sign free agents and conduct their own professional tryouts. Players must be at least 18 years old by December 31 in order to be eligible to play in the AHL. As most of the league's players are on NHL contracts, there is no preset salary range. The American Hockey League plays NHL rules, except that a single point is awarded to a team that loses in overtime.

The International Hockey League was formed on December 5, 1945, and has operated continously since the 1945-46 season. It's interesting to note that the names of both the American and International leagues have been something of a misnomer for more than 30 years: the AHL has had at least one Canadian-based team in every season since 1959-60, while the "I" was strictly American following the withdrawal of southwestern Ontario's Chatham Maroons and Windsor Bulldogs after the 1963-64 season. Not until 1996, when franchises were placed in the former NHL cities of Winnipeg and Quebec, did the IHL once again become international.

Between 1987-88 and 1995-96, the IHL expanded from nine teams to 19 and has grown beyind its original base in Michigan, where four of its clubs are still located, into large metropolitan areas such as Houston, Cleveland and Cincinnati. In 1994-95, the IHL made forays into existing NHL cities with the Chicago Wolves and Detroit Vipers. The addition of the Vipers represented a sort of homecoming for the league, which had began its existence in Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, under the guidance of Red Wings general manager Jack Adams. The Vipers have become the IHL's flagship franchise, often attracting capacity crowds of 20,182 to their home arena, the Palace in surburban Auburn Hills, Michigan. Total IHL attendance now regularly tops five millions fans per season. A testament to the league's viability is the fact that the latest expansion team, in New Orleans, paid an $8-million fee to join the circuit.

The IHL's early-1990s growth spurt seemed to have the league on a collision course with the NHL. In addition to the teams in Chicago and Detroit, teams were placed in Long Beach, California, and San Francisco, both near NHL cities. Relations between the IHL and its senior counterpart soured and many National league clubs canceled their IHL affiliations. Only four of 18 teams had an affiliation in 1997-98. Under new chief operating officer Doug Moss (former president of the Buffalo Sabres) the league is working to improve its relationship with the NHL. A sign of renewed cooperation with the major league is the selection of the Milwaukee Admirals as the farm team for the NHL's Nashville Predators. The IHL hopes to establish more working agreements. IHL teams, however will remain under independent ownership.

One major difference between the NHL and the "I" is the use of shootouts to break ties. The shootout was adopted in 1985-86, and is used to determine a winner if a game remains tied after a five-minute overtime period is played. Teams losing in a shootout recieve one point. This rule has been adopted by every minor league below the "I".

Because it is not a developmental league, the IHL has no firm policy regarding the age of its players. It does employ a salary cap which had been as high as $1.4 million per team but will drop to $1.1 million by the end of the current collective bargaining agreement in 2001-02. The average salary for IHL players is estimated at $50,000, with elite players making around $100,000. (The league's highest-paid player in 1997-98 was Hubie McDonough of the Orlando Solar Bears at $243,000.) The minimum wage increased from $25,000 to $27,000 in 1998-99. The IHL is Committed to a policy that at least half its arena's seats (or at least 5,000) are to be sold for $10 or less.

If the "I" and the "A" represent the top rung of minor professional hockey in North America, next on the ladder would be the East Coast Hockey League. The ECHL grew out of the old Atlantic Coast league and was set up in 1988 to provide a place for players who were not drafted by NHL teams to develop their skills. Through the 1997-98 season, the "E" has sent some 80 players on to the NHL. It is hockey's largest minor league, fielding 25 teams in 1997-98, in the 2001-2002 season the ECHL will have 27 teams. Sixteen teams had secondary affiliations with NHL clubs in 1997-98. ECHL teams usually carry no more than four or five of an NHL team's prospects and it is not uncommon for players from several NHL clubs to play together on one ECHL team. The ECHL considers itself a development league and rules prohibit its teams from carrying more than four players on their 18-man rosters who have more than 200 games of professional experience. A salary cap of $8,000 per team per week is in force and players earn a minimum of $300 per week. The minimum age to play in the ECHL is 19 (though a player must also have used up his Junior eligibility). The average age is 23.

The East Coast Hockey League was comprised of just five teams when it began play in 1988-89 (the Johnstown Chiefs and Erie Panthers in Pennsylvania; the Knoxville Cherokees in Tennessee; the Carolina Thunderbirds and the Virginia Lancers). Its rapid growth in what are mainly non-traditional hockey markets, combined with the 1990s' emphasis on marketing, has given rise to some of the strangest team names and logos in all of hockey, including the Louisiana Ice Gators, the Baton Rouge Kingfish, the Louisville RiverFrogs, the Jacksonville Lizard Kings, the Pensacola Ice Pilots, the PeeDee Pride and the Mobile Mysticks. It now comprises 25 teams.

Though expansion is generally limited by the travel expenses league owners are willing to incur, competition between leagues for players and cities has become much stronger in the low minors in recent years. The oldest of the four lower minor leagues is the United Hockey League, which was founded as the Colonial Hockey League in 1991. The original name was chosen to reflect what was planned as a New England-based circuit, but the league actually ended up placing teams on both sides of the border, primarily around the Great Lakes. This international setup led to a name change, to the United Hockey League, in 1997-98, and a new logo was created featuring both the Canadian and American flags.

Robert Myers, a former National Hockey League referee, became the League's first Commissioner. The five teams played a 60 game regular season schedule before entering the Colonial Cup Playoffs. The Michigan Falcons captured the first regular season championship and the Thunder Bay Thunder Hawks captured the coveted Colonial Cup when they defeated St. Thomas in seven game final.

The UHL will celebrate its 10th Anniversary season with a record 17 teams (including the dormant Arctic Xpress) with the addition of the Lehigh Valley Xtreme (Allentown, PA), Elmira (NY) Jackals and New Haven (CT) Knights. The Madison Kodiaks relocated to Kalamazoo, MI and changed the team name to the Kalamazoo Wings. The League realigned into a two conference format with each conference consisting of two four team divisions.

Each of the 17 teams in the "U" in 2000-2001 are independently owned, though seven teams have an affiliation with teams in either the National, International or American leagues. The Port Huron Border Cats lead the way, linked to the NHL's Florida Panthers, the Beast of New Haven (Florida's AHL farm club) and the IHL's Las Vegas Thunder. The Quad City Mallards also have multiple agreements, with both the Portland Pirates (the Washington Capitals' AHL team) and the San Antonio Dragons of the IHL. Generally, the higher minor lragues send players to the United league when they require more ice time or need to improve a specific skill. Recently, however, a growing number of players have started in the "U" and moved up, and the NHLhas begun to scout the league more aggressively. The loop held its first All-Star Game in 1997-98.

Rinks in the United Hockey League seat an average 4,000 fans, topped by Quad City's 9,200-seat arena in Moline, Illinois (called "the Mark" after Mark Twain). Attendance in 1997-98 averaged about 3,100 and has increased in every year of the league's operation.

Teams carry a maximum of 21 players and the salary cap of $8,800 per team per week is monitired weekly by the league office. Through 1997-98, teams were required to carry at least three rookies and were allowed no more than nine players with more than 200 games of professional experience. Beginning in the 1998-99 season, teams have had to carry an additional rookie, and "veterans" are now limited to seven per club. UHL teams generally travel by bus, though Thunder Bay, playing in the loop's most remote city, flies to some road games. The Schedule is set up to keep travel expenses to a mimimum, with fewer, but longer, excursions and by sending teams on the road during dates when their home arenas are otherwise occipied.

The "new" Central Hockey League began operations in 1992-93. It's the creation of Ray Miron, a former NHL general manager with the Colorado Rockies and a longtime coach and general manager of the Tulsa Oilers and Oklahoma City Blazers in the original CHL, which operated from 1963 until 1984. Many of the cities that competed in the old CHL, including Tulsa and Oklahoma City, are represented in the new league, but the loop sits further down the hockey development chain than it used to. Still, four former CHL players found their way onto NHL rosters between 1993 and 1998.

The new league is closely tied to the International Hockey League – both the Columbus Cottonmouths and the Wichita Thinder are directly affiliated with IHL teams, and five of the CHL's 10 teams in 1997-98 were owned by Horn Chen, who also owns the IHL's Indianapolis Ice. Despite this cozy arrangement, the "I" placed a team in San Antonio, Texas, displacing the Central league franchise in that city. Topeka (Arkansas) and Chattanooga (Tennessee) are seen as future expansion sites. The league currently operates in Arkansas, Tennessee, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, Kansas and Oklahoma. Teams travel primarily by bus, though they make one or two air trips during the season.

Average attendance in the Central Hockey League has so far managed to remain above that of the other leagues of similar caliber, but the Western Profressional Hockey League, based mainly in Texas, seems to have designs on much of the same territory as the CHL and has already established a rival franchise to the CHL team in Fort Worth, Texas. The WPHL will pose a very real challenge to the Central league.

CHL teams have a salary limit of $6,600 per week to pay a 17-team roster. There is no maximum age restricton, but teams can carry no more than five players with 200 games of professional experience. Among the more unusual team nicknames in the CHL are the Huntsville Channel Cats and the Macon Whoopee.

Hockey's two newest minor lragues are the West Coast Hockey League and the Western Professional Hockey League. The WPHL began in 1996-97 with five teams in Texas and one in New Mexico, the league now has 14 teams. The franchise fee, which was $100,000 in the league's first season, increased to $250,000 for 1997-98 and $400,000 in 1998-99. Despite the league's aggressive approach to franchise growth, the WPHL plans to remain a league that's regional in its scope, so that travel expenses can be kept low.

The WPHL covers territory that has largely been untapped by hockey in the past, a fact driven home during the league's first season, when some fans left games after two periods because they didn't know there was a third still to come. Still, the circuit has drawn more than 4,000 fans per game over its first two campaigns, a result that's been aided by the fact that many cities in the league enjoy rivalries based on geography or on competition in other sports such as college football.

In an effort to attract quality players, the WPHL has set a salary cap of $10,000 per team per week, easily the highest of the low minor pro leagues. With 20-man rosters, a player's average payday is $500 per week. By increasing its mandatory rookie quota to five players in 1998-99, the WPHL hopes to showcase younger talent poised to move up through the hockey ranks. Two of the league's teams are currently affiliated with the International Hockey Leage, and negotiations are ongoing to hook up every club with an IHL team. While it will probably be years before a WPHL player makes his way onto an NHL roster, the league has no lack of NHL connections. Former players Lee Norwood (the Central Texas Stampede) and Garry Unger (the New Mexico Scopions) coach in the league, while Blaine Stoughton is general manager of the Austin Ice-Bats. Kevin Lowe of the Edmonton Oilers is a member of the league's board of governors. Current NHL players Joe Murphy and Bernie Nicholls co-own the New Mexico Scorpions, while Andy Moog is a part-owner of the Fort Worth Brahmas. Former Montreal Candaiens backup goaltender Andre Racicot began the 1997-98 season with the WPHL franchise in Monroe, Louisiana before leaving to play hockey in England.

Hockey attained an unprecendented level of popularity after the trade of Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings in August 1988. Gretzky's presence in Southern California helped the NHL expand into markets it has never before considered, and the major league's growth mirrored an increased interest in minor pro hockey throughout the United States. Even so, no professional hockey teams existed west of the Rocky Mountains below the IHL level until the creation of the West Coast Hockey League in 1995-96.

The WCHL opened for business with six teams in three states: the (Fairbanks) Alaska Gold Kings and their in-state rival the Anchorage Aces, the Reno Renegades in Nevada, and the Fresno Fighting Falcons, Bakersfield Fog and San Diego Gulls in California. After the league's second season the Fairbanks club withdrew, but it is slated to resume play in 1998-99 in Colorado Gold Kings. Im 1997-98 the league expended into four new cities and three new states with the admission of the Tacoma (Washington) Sabercats, the (Boise) Idaho Steelheads, and the Phoenix Mustangs and Tuscon Gila Monsters in Arizona. The Reno franchise changed its name to the Rage that season. During each of its first three seasons the league has also hosted a touring Russian squad.

While there are no other immediate expansion plans in the works, several California cities are building new arenas, providing potential new sites for franchises. The WCHL is also eying locations in Washington, Oregon and British Columbia.

The West Coast league's salary cap allows its members a budget of only $7,500 per team per week for a roster of 19 players – an average salary of just $375 per week. Players are, however, permitted to double as coaches or work in the front office, which can mean more money for some players while stretching team budgets. Teams must carry at least three rookies, a quota the league plans to expand to six, but teams are encouraged to carry as many veterans as possible to maintain a high level of competition. The location of many teams in or near large cities and popular vacation spots makes the league more attractive to players and the WCHL is unique in the minors in that teams travel primarily by plane – air fares in the west are often cheaper than buses are in the east.

Former NHLers Walt Poddubny (Anchorage) and Ron Flockhart (Reno), as well as Wayne Gretzky's brother Keith (Bakersfield), all coach in the WCHL, and some NHL teams have begun to scout its players. The league is more closely associated, however, with the IHL. The Tacoma Sabercats are directly affiliated with the Las Vegas Thunder, while the San Diego Gulls are loosly aligned with the Long Beach Ice Dogs. In addition, Cleveland, Quebec and Utah all had players on assignment to WCHL teams in 1997-98, while approximately 50 WCHL players have been called up to various IHL teams during the league's first three seasons. The WCHL fan basr has grown each year, with average attendance climbing from 2,963 in 1995-96, to 3,016 in 1996-97, and 3,663 in 1997-98. The San Diego Gulls have been the league's best draw, with attendance topping 5,000 fans per game, while the Tacoma Sabercats hosted a league-record crowd of more than 14,000 in March 1998.