Before I moved to the Bay Area, I lived in some pretty hockey-crazy places like Toronto, New York, and Boston. And as anyone from the colder parts of North America will tell you, it’s not just a sport – it’s a religion. If that’s the case, California may be the most atheistic state in the union. To put it bluntly, this ain’t exactly hockey country. But that may be changing thanks to a recent decision by the NHL that (predictably) no one in the western United States seemed to notice.
Sure we have three NHL teams in the Golden State, but on some level they feel like they just sort of ended up here. The Kings were a fun novelty when they started playing in the late 1960s, but no one seriously thought that Los Angeles was a real hockey city until Wayne Gretzky came to town. Within a few years San Jose had a team, and Anaheim followed later thanks to a marginal Disney movie starring Charlie Sheen’s older brother.
Despite the recent success of these teams on the ice (the Sharks during the regular season only), they’ve always felt tacked on to California’s abundance of sports options, buried somewhere between college lacrosse and motorcycle racing. And outside of Orange County, Silicon Valley, and LA, the only live on-ice action has been pretty crappy. If you ever had the misfortune of seeing a San Francisco Bulls game, you will know exactly what I’m talking about.
So if this is indeed a wasteland for hockey, why is California poised to become one of the country’s most important hotbeds for the game? The answer is that five American Hockey League (AHL) teams are picking up stakes and moving here next season. This is a massive step that could change the landscape of hockey in the United States – not just in California – for decades to come. These aren’t the rinky-dink franchises that seem to pop up and disappear with depressing regularity (sorry, San Diego Gulls.) The AHL is one level below the National Hockey League, and all of the new Golden State squads are farm teams for NHL teams.
The five teams will be placed in the AHL’s new Pacific Division. San Jose’s affiliate will move from Massachusetts to the Shark Tank, which will certainly shorten the walk of shame for players sent down to the minors. The other four teams will be based outside of markets already served by NHL teams, including Stockton (Calgary Flames), Bakersfield (Edmonton Oilers), Ontario (Los Angeles Kings) and San Diego (Anaheim Ducks).
As with everything in sports, it all comes down to money. By migrating their minor-league teams west, teams will be able to save on everything from plane tickets to cross-country management of ice rinks. But the benefits to hockey in the United States go far beyond the owners’ wallets. Most fans grow up playing the game, which obviously doesn’t happen in a state that rarely sees snow and certainly doesn’t have a culture of youth hockey. The presence of high-level minor-league teams throughout the state will create a new generation of fans who will grow up not only seeing the game live (as opposed to on television), but also interacting with the players, skating in professional arenas, and having a real hometown connection to a sport that often feels like it arrived here from space on an alien ship.
Another advantage for the new California AHL teams is that in many cases they are going to be the only game in town. Stockton has minor-league baseball and San Diego has minor league football, but fans in places like Ontario and Bakersfield don’t have a lot of choices when it comes to seeing live sporting events. This is a great opportunity to build up loyal fan bases quickly, even if the locals don’t know much about hockey.
This is where the teams are going to have to get creative. Hockey is a great game to watch, but it can be confusing for newbies who don’t understand two-line passes, the strategy of a delayed offsides call, or the esoterica of pulling a goalie. Ownership groups are going to have to put a lot of time and effort into educating the fans about the nuances of the game, and it will be interesting to see what they come up with. Everyone in Manchester, New Hampshire (the current home of the Kings AHL affiliate) knows what icing is by the time he or she is three years old. That’s certainly not the case in Ontario (well, not Ontario, California), so it will be interesting to see how local team management tries to entice a new group of fans to become passionate about a sport that isn’t even on the radar.