AHL makes the correct call by cancelling remainder of 2019/20 season

While everyone figured that the American Hockey League would ultimately throw in its towel and cancel the 2019/20 season, the league held its cards to their chest for a surprisingly lengthy amount of time – until Monday. Yesterday morning, the AHL confirmed the inevitable and ended its year via a press release from President and CEO David Andrews:

“After a lengthy review process, the American Hockey League has determined that the resumption and completion of the 2019-20 season is not feasible in light of current conditions.

The League’s operational focus has turned toward actively preparing for the 2020-21 season.

We are very grateful to the National Hockey League and its teams for their support and leadership in navigating through the challenges faced over the past two months.

The AHL continues to place paramount importance on the health and safety of our players, officials, staff and fans and all of their families, and we all look forward to returning to our arenas in 2020-21.”

The news comes several weeks after most lower-level leagues have made their announcements, but well ahead of any concrete steps have been announced by the National Hockey League about a resumption at the highest level. Given the immense risks that there still are in having a fully functioning society during this COVID-19 crisis, it was unlikely that the league would be able to come back in it’s full, in-person and in-market form any time soon.

Due to the broadcasting deals, merchandise sales, and other non-gate streams of revenue, combined with the greater average capital of the ownership groups, the NHL can afford to take a hit on the rest of the season to release itself in an altered form that sacrifices tradition and revenue for an attempt at continuity – this likely means an abbreviated season with an expanded playoff. AHL teams typically don’t carry the same value, don’t have as much financial support from their ownership groups, and their revenue is heavily dependant on home crowds on game day.

Simply put, there would be little to no chance that a non-NHL league would be able to finish their season without a notable operating loss, and while some teams could handle that, most can’t. Even the pause could end up doing enough financial damage to cause teams to suspend for the upcoming year or fold entirely – this decision to cancel the season and look forward to 2020/21 isn’t the final step in his battle.

Here in Toronto, the Marlies are one of the few teams who come away relatively unscathed by the news, as the team is officially part of the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment umbrella and, while there isn’t a green light to burn through money, the team does operate with a residual benefit mindset rather than a purely profitable one. The team put out a statement yesterday morning to go with the league’s statement, offering a peek into the franchise’s plans and offering refunds to fans who still had remaining games on their ticket schedule:

As the American Hockey League’s Board of Governors voted to cancel the remainder of the 2019-20 AHL regular season and the 2020 Calder Cup Playoffs due to the ongoing COVID-19 public health crisis, the Toronto Marlies management and coaching staff will now shift their planning and preparation towards a return to play for the 2020-21 season. Select Marlies players will join the Maple Leafs roster if permitted by the National Hockey League’s resumption of play protocol.

Fans who hold tickets to any of the unplayed games remaining on the 2019-20 schedule will be contacted by a representative from the Marlies ticketing team to receive a full refund or the option to move credit to the 2020-21 season. For more information, please visit Marlies.ca or call 416-597-PUCK (7825).

The Marlies likely don’t have much to be stressed about in terms of “what ifs” for the rest of the year, given what has been one of their more disappointing regular seasons in recent history. The pipelining of young talent up to the NHL, along with coaching changes, chemistry issues, and a few disappointing additions to the lineups had led to a season that already looked destined to be Toronto’s first out of the playoff picture since 2010/11 – their 29-27-3-2 record wasn’t all that bad, but good for just 7th place in a deep North Division. A less pandemic-filled parallel universe would have required a dominant, near undefeated run to cap off the final 15 games – something that a 3-7 record in their final ten games indicated to be unlikely.

Besides the teams that are going to have to worry about finances from here, there are a few groups that one can’t help but feel let down for. Teams like the Milwaukee Admirals, Tuscon Roadrunners and Belleville Senators were in the midst of big leaps forward this season. The San Antonio Rampage are moving at the end of this year to the Henderson, Nevada area for 2020-21, and didn’t get to give their fans a proper goodbye after 18 seasons in town. Perhaps most notably around the league, Andrews sees his last season as President and CEO come to an unwelcome ending. Andrews, who has been at the helm since 1994, is one of the most respected league leaders in all of professional sport, and has been vital to the health of the AHL over the past few years. This year was announced early in this season to be his last, and instead of getting a victory lap, we get an abrupt end – hopefully the AHL finds a way to give him a proper send-off next season, even if he’ll have already moved on.

According to Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston, the expectation is that NHL teams that will be participating in the expanded playoffs will carry larger, 30+ player rosters that include many players on their affiliates. It’ll be very interesting to see which players each team chooses to bring with them. For example – will they prefer to call up veterans who could help in the event of injuries, or will they be focusing on giving their kids more time at the rink? Will they take into account travel, and allow some out-of-continent talent to stay home? A lot of this is still fluid and needs to be sorted out.

For now, though, the focus remains on next year, and that’s the right call. Frankly, I think that might be the best at all levels, though I can understand the eagerness for the top-level leagues to return and entertain the masses. As much as I am a passionate supporter of what the AHL does, though, it’s not big enough to carry a morale boost for returning early in an altered form, and the consequences of doing so would have been more harmful to the league’s health than helpful.

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