At some point during Detroit Red Wings training camp, usually as the exhibition season comes to an end, a group of players that includes top prospects are assigned to the farm team in Grand Rapids.
It’s a much-valued and much-used avenue for young players to develop — Anthony Mantha, Tyler Bertuzzi and Filip Zadina honed their skills in the AHL — but it’s under threat this year because of COVID-19’s effect on teams and game attendance. While the NHL is targeting a Dec. 1 start to the 2020-21 season, the AHL is eyeing a Dec. 4 start — and the clock is ticking on deciding whether that is even feasible. The questions created by the pandemic — is there a vaccine on the horizon, is limited-capacity fan attendance possible — has left those guiding the future of the American Hockey League scant of concrete plans.
“The AHL is spread out throughout Canada and the United States, so there’s a whole lot of different health regulations based upon provinces and states,” Edmonton Oilers general manager Ken Holland told the Free Press on Wednesday.
“It’s a massive unknown right now.”
Holland, formerly GM of the Wings, is part of the AHL’s 2020-21 strategic “Return to Play committee.
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The group, headlined by a clan of general managers including the Wings’ Steve Yzerman, convened last week via Zoom. Nonessential travel between the U.S. and Canada is still limited.
Edmonton’s Rogers Place has hosted one of the two bubbles the NHL created in order to stage the 2020 playoffs, and Eastern teams relocated from Toronto’s bubble for the conference finals. The Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning will meet in the Stanley Cup Final. With the playoffs on track to end no later than Sept. 30, the NHL has scheduled the draft for Oct. 6-7 and free agency to begin Oct. 9.
While the NHL can financially sustain itself playing without fans in the stands, that’s not realistic for the ticket-driven AHL.
“It would be very difficult for most of our teams to operate without fans,” Scott Howson, the president of the AHL, told the Free Press. “I think there are some that would want to do it. Most of our teams are sort of able to operate at 50% capacity. That is the feedback we are getting from surveys, but right now, we aren’t close to that in most of our jurisdictions.”
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Van Andel Arena, home to the Grand Rapids Griffins, has a capacity of 11,000 for hockey games, but under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s current orders, 5,500 fans would not be allowed to gather at the rink.
Local restrictions on travel and large gatherings in several locations are among the many issues Howson and the AHL committee have to consider.
“We have four Canadian AHL teams and further to that, we have three NHL Canadian teams that have their players playing in AHL U.S. market, which would make it difficult for them to recall players,” Howson said. “Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver all have their teams in the States, so that’s a big obstacle and consideration as we tackle this issue.”
The AHL has a board meeting scheduled for Sept. 30, at which point the committee is expected to “come up with a recommendation for us to consider,” Howson said. “So it’s all still very much up in the air. We just aren’t able to decide anything on whether Dec. 4 is realistic at this point.”
A decision would have to bee made by the middle of October, leaving roughly a six-week window to stage camps and create a schedule.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has said the NHL is willing to delay the start of next season to January if needed and has been firm on it being a full 82-game schedule. The AHL season, which spans 68-76 games (depending on geographical alliance), is prepared to shorten. If the NHL does not start until January, the AHL is likely to do the same.
“We’re separate from the NHL, but there’s a strong feeling that we should align with the NHL schedule,” Howson said. “Not to exact dates, but because we are so tied together in terms of recalls and development, we’ll certainly be closely aligned to them.”
Hockey leagues have started up in Sweden, Russia and the Czech Republic. The NHL and AHL are trying to figure out the best road ahead in North America.
“We’re all living in the same world,” Holland said. “Who knows. Nobody knows. Is a vaccine coming in six months, or is a vaccine coming in two years and six months? There’s just so much unknown.
“Everyone is taking it month by month.”
Contact Helene St. James at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Her book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments that made the Detroit Red Wings will be published in October by Triumph Books. To preorder, go to Amazon.