The ECHL Commissioner Ryan Crelin made his annual visit to Glens Falls on Friday Evening, and there were a number of different topics that were discussed; one of them, which isn’t the biggest topic he touched on, caught my attention was the way they have redone the schedule so that each team in the North Divison now only has to make one trip up to Newfoundland, “So we’ve rechanged the way we schedule, each North team will only go up there once, two teams from each other division will go up there, and when they are traveling, it’s always a flight, so sending them to different locations, it’s no different than any other team, we wanna get them a few out of the division games in their markets and our of their markets as well, switch it up allow fans to see different teams and different jerseys, it’s certainly better for travel costs and for rivalries to play the majority games in your division, but mixing it up is good as well.” said Crelin. ow on to some of the bigger topics he touched on, including expansion, players’ safety, outdoor games, the ECHL All-Star Game, and referees, but it began with the addition of the 29th ECHL team, the Lake Tahoe Knight Monsters, which will be joining the league for the 2024-25 season.
Expansion and ECHL All-Star Game
When the Savannah Ghost Pirates joined the league last year, despite their on-ice struggles, the team did very well as they sold out 33 of the team’s 36 home games, and things seem to be heading in that direction for Tahoe as well, “So from my understanding, they had over 1000 people for the announcement, season tickets have exceeded that number, the building is small and clean similar to this one, a little over 4,000 but certainly things are right on track, obviously still a ways to go, about ten months or so, love the progress there, that market there from an ECHL market is fantastic, we’ve been looking to expand in the West, and that one certainly fits the bill” said Crelin. However, last year, the big expansion name that was discussed was New Mexico, but talks have quieted down on that. “Unfortunately not, I thought we were making some headway, I do think there’s still an opportunity there; it certainly fits the bill from a geography standpoint, but nothing imminent on it,” said Crelin when asked about New Mexico. Most of the recent expansion cities have come either in the South or West. I asked Crelin if anything was being discussed in the East, and he had this to say, “At any given time, I’ve got 10-15 markets in the hopper; these things don’t happen overnight. They take 2-4 years to come together, to be honest, I don’t think anything is imminent in the near future, but we always keep former NHL or AHL markets in our mind along with new arenas as well,” said Crelin when asked about expansion in the East, he also mentioned that Quebec City is too big for the ECHL and is looking to get an NHL team.
Speaking of the Ghost Pirates, they are set to host the 2024 ECHL All-Star game in Savannah on January 15th, “They sold out 33 of 36 games in their inaugural season, and I think they are right on pace again, fantastic market and game presentation, and certainly a new building so that helps heighten some of the technological things we can do there, but it’s a very walkable city so we can do some pretty unique things there and it will be pretty warm there as well, so that’s always a plus” said Crelin. The ECHL has a different All-Star Format than the AHL and ECHL as they are doing the Savannah Ghost Pirates vs ECHL All-Stars, and when asked why the don’t do East vs. West, he mentioned that it’s up to the host cities to decide, “We leave it up the host city on what they want to do and we have found that notably at our level because there isn’t as much star power involved that having the host city involved gets the fans more excited, if they wanted to do an East vs. West we would do it, but they want to showcase their team and have some fun with it, the jerseys look fantastic, the jerseys glow in the dark so that’ll be pretty cool. For me, All-Star games are about the fans having fun and showmanship and giving the home crowd something to cheer for, and this format seems to work for us.
One expansion team that hasn’t been thriving is the Iowa Heartlanders, who finished last season dead last in attendance and currently, again this season, sit in the same position despite having a better team on the ice as the Heartlanders are second in the Central Divison with an 8-6-2-1 record for 19 points, three behind the Toledo Walleye for the top spot in the Divison, “Certainty we need to grow in that market, the building is fantastic not only when you are in it but the location downtime, bars, restaurants, and the brewery’s around the area, we did have an ownership transition in the Summer to invigorate new life in there, but Summer is late to make an impact, and they know they’re in it for the long game so I think they would tell you and I would tell you we need to get more fans in that market” said Crelin.
Players Safety and The Two Referee System
Over the past couple of weeks since the Adam Johnson incident, more and more players across all three levels of the NHL have begun wearing neck guards, and the IIHF this morning just announced that they would be making them mandatory when asked if that was a plan for the league, the Commissioner did mention that it is certainly on the agenda, “In terms of neck guards, it’s something our player safety committee is evaluating, we will be making a recommendation to our board here soon, I would go back to last June, where our committee recommended cut-resistant wrist guards and foot socks, which was passed before the season started, I think the wrist and foot guards were a strong start, and based on a set of factors we will look at neck guards”. The QMJHL has recently banned fighting, but the ECHL has no vision of going that route, “There has been no discussion and I don’t see fighting being banned in our league at least based on the current set of facts, no ones raised it to me and I’m not about to raise it to them” said the Commissoner, he mentioned that their statistics are close to where the NHL and AHL is in that category and mentioned that fighting his part of the game.
The ECHL last season began having 25% of their games with a two-referee system, and the league does plan to get to a two-referee system full-time eventually, but two things stand in the way of that, “It’s budget and pool of referees: the AHL took nine years from their initial year of two refs, I don’t think it will take us that long, it is the second year at 25%, I do think it is important from a budget and pool standpoint to get into it, there’s not that many referees out there, you can’t plug them off trees, and as you guys know if we throw a bad one out there, we’ll hear about it” said Crelin.
Outdoor Game and Growing The Game
The ECHL had its last outdoor game in 2020 as the Toledo Walleye hosted the Indy Fuel at Fifth-Third Field during Toledo Walleye Winterfest, and the Commissioner said that he’d be open to another outdoor game, but it takes a lot of work, “If any team can work with their local venues, notably baseball parks and I guess it can be football parks, we would certainly entertain it, it is a massive undertaking for any team, and our level with our staffs and resources it’s almost like a completely different job on top of our already strenuous job, can it be done, yes, would we embrace it, yes, but I think it has to be a collaboration with the hockey team and whoever operates the city and the entire community” said Crelin. He mentioned that the ice would also have to be used for public skates, youth games, as well as high school and colleges to help with the excessive amount of putting on that kind of event.
The ECHL began the season with the most NHL and AHL contracts in league history to start the season and the Commissioner is happy with how the relationship has gone with the NHL but has mentioned it has taken a lot of work, “That doesn’t happen overnight, we’ve continued to try and grow the relationship, and just like anything else, its mutual in trust, working together over time on different programs, today’s December 1st, and we just completed Hockey Fights Cancer, and it was really cool to see the unity between the NHL, AHL, and ECHL, throughout social and digital channels, we started the year with the most NHL and AHL contracts in our league, I think that’s because of trust and how we’ve been able to develop the on-ice product, we’ll revisit the stat at the midseason meeting as we do, it’s not just on the ice but off the ice as well” said Crelin.
When asked if the low prices of ECHL games help grow the game, Crelin described the topic as Almond Milk, “There was a commercial about Almond Milk, and the guy says I’m not going to drink the almost milk. I don’t like it. Have you ever tried it, no, hockey is the same way; you can walk up the street and ask someone if you like hockey. No, have you ever gone? No, how do you know you don’t like it?”. I personally have not met someone who has not gone to a hockey game and not walked out wanting to get themselves more invested in the sport.