Monday, October 18, 2010

Happy 75th!

The 2010-11 season marks the 75th anniversary of the American Hockey League (AHL). In 1936 a merger of the International Hockey League and the Canadian-American Hockey League took place. The new venture was named the International-American Hockey League. The 1936 union is considered as being the official start of the American Hockey League.

After 2 years of eyeballing each other, executives decided to bring the entire operation of the International-American Hockey League under one umbrella (in a June 28,1938 meeting). The League adapted a new name - The American Hockey League - in time for the start of the 1940-41 season.

Newspaper report of the June 28, 1938 I-AHL meeting

The importance of the AHL throughout the years can be found in the association it has formed with the NHL. Statistical data from the 2009-10 season showed that 85% of the players who saw action in the NHL were AHL graduates. It demonstrates the AHL's ability to function as a league which develops talent for the NHL. Who can deny the relevance and stature of the AHL when one considers that more than 100 members of the Hockey Hall of Fame spent time in the AHL.

Like most things in life, it wasn't always a smooth ride. With NHL expansion (6 new teams for 1967-68) plans already in motion, the AHL had a dilemma on their hands. Prior to granting the future NHL franchises, their was talk of elevating a number of AHL teams to the NHL. The American Hockey League clubs had a strong presence in the States and a core of talent that could be competitive at the NHL level. When talk of moving in this direction was rejected by the NHL, the AHL planned their next move.

When the NHL announced their intention to place two teams in California as part of their expansion, many considered this as being a move to tap the west coast market which was dominated by the Western Hockey League (WHL). The success of WHL teams in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego didn't go unnoticed by NHL owners. Fearing for their existence, the AHL and WHL held merger talks on November 29th, 1966.

Newspaper clipping on talks of an AHL-WHL merger, November 1966

The hope was (on the part of the AHL-WHL) that the merger would "..eventually lift them to major league status on par with the 12 team NHL next season". At the very least, it appeared that both wanted a share of the NHL expansion fee's, funds from the new CBS TV contract, and discussion on territorial rights.

As history shows, the purposed alliance never took place. What did emerge was a stronger AHL dedicated to showing the hockey world it was a superior minor-pro league. With no markets in direct competition with the new NHL clubs, the AHL maintained its status over the WHL. The AHL only lost the Pittsburgh (Hornets) territory to the NHL. Strong independent ownership within the local communities signalled a sign of stability. Success on the ice and at the box office made the AHL a lucrative investment. In 1969 the Montreal Canadiens became the first NHL club in history to purchase an AHL team. The Montreal Voyageurs became their number one affiliate. Today, most NHL clubs own and operate an AHL franchise.

Down the road, the American Hockey League would stare down future rounds of NHL expansion and the creation of the World Hockey Association. With each bump in the road the AHL survived, much like the path taken by their young guns in an effort to reach the NHL.

Happy 75th! And many more!!